Disruptive Economic Development

We saw during the great recession just how bad things can get so quickly. The world is moving faster than ever, and economic change is happening faster as well.

As a result, people are generally fearful about their local economies. They aren’t sure day-to-day what will happen to their jobs, their families, and their communities. They know that things can turn upside-down at any moment, and when they do, that it will be swift.

The bad news is that while politicians always promise things will get better, government can have only a marginal effect on the tsunami waves of change that makeup the larger economy we find ourselves swimming in.

In truth, we can’t change much about macroeconomics and the big-picture trends which will define this decade and the next.

We can’t change the fact that automation and artificial intelligence will replace millions of jobs in the coming years.

We can’t change the fact that ecommerce is replacing physical retail and that the downtowns and shopping centers in our communities will continue to look vastly different.

We can’t change much about the big sandbox we’re playing in.

But as communities, we can change our response to that environment. We can adapt, create, and innovate our way to having and feeling more certainty about our economic future.

Notice I say “more certainty.” The world we live in today doesn’t allow for total certainty. (Yet many community leaders and economic developers spend everyday grasping for it in the form of major project wins.)

The only thing we can be certain about is that nothing is certain anymore.

If there is one word which could describe the new economy, it would be “Disruption.

Startup companies talk all the time about “disrupting” their industries. They want to come-out with a product or service which is so unique and powerful, that it makes the competition irrelevant overnight. (Think Uber’s impact on the taxi industry.)

Our economies are equally as affected by disruption. Only instead of companies making their competition irrelevant, economic trends like automation are making jobs and in some cases entire industries irrelevant.

And sadly, there are many communities teetering on the edge of irrelevance because they are largely dependent-upon a few core industries facing irrelevance themselves.

Given we can’t change the environment, only our reaction to it, how then do we respond as communities?

We respond by learning to innovate and adapt faster.

In the new economy, it’s not the largest or strongest communities which will survive, but those which are most adaptive to change.

As citizens, community leaders, economic developers, and people who care about the health and growth of our local economies, what can we do to make our cities more adaptive?

We start by changing how we think. We adopt a new mindset — a new set of values and beliefs about what success looks like for our local economies (hint: it’s no longer about factory jobs and focusing only on major employers).

Then we allow those new values and beliefs to change what we do. We create systems, in alignment with that new mindset, which allow us to innovate by helping innovators thrive in our communities.

Finally, we iterate. We assess the systems we’ve implemented, allow their results to change how we think, and create again.

Economic Developers must be brave-enough to try new things, smart-enough to tell if those things are working, and humble-enough to call failed experiments for what they are… before trying again.

We’ve got to get out-there and break things in order to make things.

Depending on your current thinking, the above process may sound either oversimplified, overly complex, or both. It may also sound like wishful thinking.

But the important thing to realize is that what I’m describing here is the complete opposite of how many communities function today, which is…

We think the way we’ve always thought.

We do what we’ve always done.

We get the same result we’ve been getting. (The result most communities are currently getting, by the way, is precisely nothing — economic developers have just gotten good at making it look like something in most cases.)

My mission in speaking and writing on this topic is to get communities to think differently, do things differently, and adapt an iterative design process when it comes to economic development strategies.

Because if a community can do these things, the people who live there have absolutely nothing to fear. They’re in control of their own destinies.

But if a community remains stuck in its thinking and ways of doing things, it’s only a matter of time before the invisible hand of the new economy wipes them off the map.

This is all an urgent matter of life-or-death for communities, and in-turn, the well-being of their people.

We have to change. We have to change now. And as someone reading this, you can be a part of changing it.

I don’t promise to have all of the answers on how we fix our local economies. But I do promise to have some new ideas for you to consider and start conversations around.

Things are changing. And I can tell you for a fact there is a better way for communities to respond to change than not responding at all.

Ryan Lilly is an innovator, speaker, and writer. He speaks at local, state, and national conferences on his ideas in entrepreneurship support, business incubation, and economic development. For more info on Ryan, to hear his latest talks, or to make a speaking inquiry visit www.RyanLilly.com