A Time to Transform Economic Development

By: Karl Seidman - Nov 20, 2013
Source: CoLab Radio

The economic development field faces a telling paradox. With an anemic economic recovery and high unemployment, economic development practitioners should be central to finding solutions to revitalize our economy. But our capacity to lead change is threatened by conventional goals and approaches that do not look at our communities holistically and often ignore the critical challenges of growing inequality and diminishing environmental resources.

A new wave of innovation is needed to transform the mission of economic development beyond business growth, jobs and investment to creating places that sustain and steward environmental resources while generating broadly shared income and wealth. In a new report, Transforming Economic Development: Integrating Environmental Sustainability and Equity into Practice, practitioners pioneering this work came together to propose a three-stage process to move the field toward a Triple Bottom Line (TBL) practice that simultaneously improves the economy, environment and equity:
  • First, work to change our economic development organizations to incorporate environmental and equity values into their mission. This begins with adopting these goals as part our mission and then reassessing our strategies and work to find ways to advance TBL outcomes and revising the metrics by which we measure and evaluate our work.
  • Second, implement and adapt programs, and policies, to put triple-bottom-line goals into practice. All the core economic development activities are platforms for integrating environmental and equity goals. We can set high environmental and job quality standards for the projects we develop and finance, strengthen partnerships with education and workforce organizations to train workers with the knowledge and skills to operate more efficient and sustainable businesses and overcome employment barriers faced by low-income workers, and promote the development of industry clusters and value chains that supply “clean tech” goods and services.
  • Third, create policy and structural changes that advance a more sustainable and equitable economy. Progress is often impeded by larger structural conditions and systems that affect economic development. These barriers include ineffective institutions and systems; entrenched policies that incentivize poor environmental and economic results; and “siloed” work that fails to link the investments and resources needed to achieve the desired or most beneficial results. Promoting systems change is quite challenging, but through strong coalitions and strategic choices, it can succeed and accelerate efforts to transform our communities and regions. 
Several exciting initiatives demonstrate how these ideas work in practice.
  • Shanna Rattner describes how WealthWorks uses market-based value chains to restructure rural economies to benefit low-income workers and create multiple forms of wealth in Arkansas.
  • Craft3, the focus of Desiree Sideroff’s post, has created innovative financing products to advance environmental and equity goals while creating new metrics and expanding its relationships to effectively implement and track outcomes from these new initiatives in Oregon and Washington.
  • Additional case from Arizona, Maine, and Minneapolis are highlighted in Transforming Economic Development with case studies.
CoLab encourages others to share successes and lessons from their work, and to use these cases to inform and inspire transformative change in your communities.