June 3, 2012

Economic development requires creativity

About a year or so ago, I wrote a column about the seven attributes of a community with a competitive advantage. One of those attributes is a strong and diversified economy. Recently, I had occasion to think more about what economic development means.

I’ve always preferred Moseley’s definition. He defines economic development as “a sustained and sustainable process of economic, social, cultural and environmental change designed to enhance the long-term well-being of the whole community.”

Nationally, many rural communities viewed economic development narrowly and marketed abundant land and inexpensive labor as the catalyst to jump-start their economies. It wasn’t a bad strategy until many rural areas found they couldn’t compete with other parts of the world offering lower-cost labor. It took a while, but many rural areas finally learned that the “old ways” of economic development no longer worked.

Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case locally. Our economic-development strategies have worked. They’ve helped to create new jobs, raise income levels, diversify the economy, sustain local businesses and help them grow, and create new businesses.

Have they been successful 100 percent of the time? No, but many areas of the country would happily trade their success rate for ours.

The challenge now is to sustain that success.

I believe that to sustain a strong and diversified economy in the 21st century, a region needs to focus on doing three things well. They need to focus on innovation, capital investment and preservation.

Innovation is the hallmark of today’s knowledge-based, global economy. I think Eva Klein, a global knowledge economy expert, articulated it best. She said, “Since the dawn of civilization, there have been three waves of economic drivers or wealth creation. For the first 10,000 years of civilization, most jobs and wealth creation was tied to the Agrarian Age and related agricultural outputs. Over the last 200 years, the Industrial Age was the dominant economic driver. Today, we are in the Creative Age where knowledge, innovation, information and creativity drive today’s wealth creation and job growth.”

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