Redesigning Economic Development, starting in Wisconsin

Few people embody kinetic energy like Nick O’Brien.  Perhaps its his sports journalism background, perhaps its his determination, perhaps its the sheer joy and thrill of possiblity that he brings to his work.  A conversation with Nick can’t help but make you see whole new ways to address our old problems, and I think his great gift is in leading others to see that same potential in places where tired conventional wisdom says that’s not possible.

You can watch our conversation above, or listen to it on Soundcloud here.  You can also pick up this and other AccelerateUs interviews on Stitcher or Spotify as part of the Building a Wise Local Economy podcast.  This interview does make use of screen sharing, so the video might make it a little easier to follow along.

One thing that surprised me a little in this discussion was that Nick is landing more and more soundly on the idea that effective economy development — the kind that creates real, lasting vitality — has to be rooted in a grassroots, community-driven process that leverages the creativity and inventiveness of local people as creators of economic value.  That is, that effective value generation comes from what’s already in the community, not something that’s brought in from outslde.  As he says,

“the more a community knows of itself and its needs, the better the community is able to design its own solutions.”

I’ve been hearing this more and more from the kind of young change-makers who are leading the most effective efforts in this uncertain time period, and we’r still grasping to articulate it, but it’s a very powerful change that most existing economic development organizations still aren’t dealing with.  Between information technology, more small businesses and gig economy workers, the decline of “safe” jobs and the loss of local control of big businesses, we’re seeing a very profound, deeply rooted redefining — of community, of growth, of economy, of where innovation comes from and what kinds of innovation are valuable.  Work like Nick is doing is a key part of that sea change — nothing less than a reconfiguring of the relationship between people, their communities, their economy and the government and organizations that claim to be helping them.

As Nick describes, the most profound (and for many of you, probably troubling) shift is from community professional as person who does stuff on behalf of the community, to person who does things with the community.  That with part implies a fundamental reset of what is means to work for the good of the community — and it means giving up the supposed superiority of professionalism and training to use those as tools, alongside the tools of experience and outsider perspective and creativity and insight that are brought forward by even the poorest or least polished residents. It means putting away the technocrat and its elitism, and working in a very profoundly different manner.  One that a lot of economic developers have not been trained to, at all.

So Nick, in this great interview, gives us not only a great conversation, but a model of how the work of economic development has to change.  And I’m going to be glad to watch him work his talents in Sheboygan.








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