Reinventing Economic Development: Less Action, More Talk

If someone tells you that I am all talk and no action now, they would be right.  After 30 years, personally on the hook for planning and executing job creation strategies, my job now is to talk about it.

One would think that talking about economic development would be lot easier, much less pressure and less productive than actually doing it. This would be a fair conclusion, in a field with the worst talk to action ratio, where talking is the primary excuse for inaction. But, I’m actually finding this talking gig to be much more difficult, and higher pressure than running a program ever was.

Designing and managing a program with the staff, budget and cohort corporate alliance of architects, builders, financiers, lawyers and training institutions was definitely demanding, high pressure work, but I usually had 7 to 12 years to change the economic trajectory of a place, by adding value daily, building capacity, generating leads, persuading prospects and closing deals.

Now, I have 20 minutes to say something that compels the audience to change their community’s economic trajectory – something they wouldn’t otherwise do. It is a lot more pressure and much harder, given that less and less of what I have learned over the last 30 years about economic development actually applies in today’s environment. So many of the fundamentals of economic development have changed, that it begs a new paradigm. A paradigm in which many of the strategies and insights we developed to grow local economies in the past won’t apply in the future.

Sage advice from decades of experience is not as valuable as it might have been ten years ago.  Copying other communities won’t work right now, so there is great value in talking to people who can give you contrasting insights, to help your community talk through what it might do now.

In many places, talking may be more important than action right now. Human beings are unique, in that we are capable of contemplating and designing our future. We do it by iteration – by thinking ahead, assessing our choices and expressing our ambitions. It is by talking that we improve our understanding, innovation, collaboration, and develop a consensus.

If you think about it, language is the architecture of our thinking. If we don’t have the vocabulary and sentence structure to say something – we can’t think it. Furthermore, if we if we lack a common theoretical construct for something complex, like how the community economy works, we will find it difficult to frame and manage deliberations to a productive end.

To some, talking about talking or talking about theory may seem to postpone the actual action. With so many underlying fundamentals of the game in flux, productive talk will be difficult if we don’t reassert a common intellectual construct, and recalibrate the nomenclature.

Talk is crucial, if a community is to understand its predicament and the dimensions of the new paradigm, and to act strategically to manage their economic future.

So this talking gig might look like easier, lower pressure and less impactful than actually doing it was – but for now at least, it feels like the reverse.


So, keep talking.