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Reflections on Convergence in Economic Development

Reflections on Convergence in Economic Development

This week our #WednesdayswithMDBInsight post features Paul Blais, EVP, exploring the opportunities that arise from focusing on intersecting strengths in economic development.

Recently, I was reviewing projects from 2019 and organizing some of my files and I got to thinking about the really valuable, maybe even unique, vantage point we consultants have in relation to economic development across Canada. Over the past dozen years or so I have worked on hundreds of projects. I have travelled coast to coast to coast and met with thousands of people to talk about economic development issues. And I have been fortunate to build relationships with organizations who have turned to us for multiple projects over that time. This, especially, has given me a welcome perspective about everything from regional trends and success stories to the challenges that face economic developers in all parts of Canada.

Yet the most striking takeaway from all that review and reflection was a very simple one: the communities doing really well are the ones who are focusing their economic development investments around intersecting strengths.

Many will know about cluster theory and the examination of convergence in economic development. It’s where sectors overlap or converge to reveal a ripe opportunity for targeted development. For example: taking from some work I did about 10 years ago, a community with clear strengths in Life Sciences + Energy and Environment + Chemicals has the potential to focus on Industrial Biotech as a cluster.

Applying this to our economic development work can identify a different kind of convergence opportunity. It’s the point of convergence where things are humming and investments in community prosperity are paying off. It’s the space where the cumulative ROI from a varied repertoire of economic development activities and initiatives is revealed. The following graphic offers an example.

Our firm does projects with communities of all sizes including big urban centres, smaller communities and rural areas across Canada and in parts of the U.S. In the smaller places, it’s often the case that the economic development function is shared with tasks that might be discreetly assigned to a specific department or division in a larger city. Few smaller places have dedicated communications or marketing departments, for example, or teams working exclusively on investment attraction or placemaking initiatives. For leaders in these rural regions or smaller towns and cities, wearing many hats as it were, finding convergence opportunities can be especially crucial to focused investment. If there’s a Community Improvement Plan (CIP), how is it integrated with the areas of convergence that exist in that community? Are all initiatives thoughtfully grounded in the Corporate Strategic Plan? And have residents and businesses been engaged in meaningful ways to ensure plans and strategies are aimed not only at highest potential but also reflective of community aspirations?

The annual budget process informs and guides much of the activity that represents a community’s economic development landscape. And it’s vital that the realities of local tax base pressures be factored into those activities. But often the metrics that support and encourage worthwhile initiatives are only found when evaluation is integrated across all pursuits – measuring results from a discreet exercise can be limiting. Performance metrics and KPI can be turbo-charged when filtered with an eye to those points of convergence with evaluation that’s integrated across all endeavours.

The region of West Prince, located in the westerly portion of Prince Edward Island, came to mind as I was thinking about this post. Home to around 10,000 residents, it has traditionally been characterized as agriculture and aquaculture-dominated with over 50% of all industry in these sectors. Community leaders there aspired to have more economic diversification and to build its economy from within when we worked with them on four sector-specific opportunities that resulted in an Economic Opportunities Study. It’s an action-oriented document that aligns the community’s aspirations and assets with trends in the larger economy that it can leverage. 

More recently, my work in Peterborough, Ontario offers another example where themes from a project converged into an inspiring focus - community spirit, pride of place, need for good jobs, natural beauty, Indigenous culture, innovation, life-long learning, empowerment, locally sourced goods, and sustainable development were among these important principles. Their Strategic Action Plan has captured these aspirations and assembled them into a series of strategic objectives and framework for action. While the strategy was commissioned by Peterborough and the Kawarthas Economic Development and will be its leading policy and plenary document for the next five years, there are also roles for partners to lead aspects that make strategic sense.  The strategy intentionally acknowledges that economic development in Peterborough and the Kawarthas cannot be productive unless it ensures other values are acknowledged and integrated, such as social mobility, empowerment of disenfranchised or marginalized groups, equality, and environmental integrity. Among many innovations, the strategy was the first in Canada to align objectives and performance metrics with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

A similar approach by the Taber Regional Joint Economic Development Committee in Alberta also balanced regional economic development with specific local planning to result in Growing Our Economic Future. It’s another innovative strategy that integrated regional aspirations. Of particular interest, it included concrete actions to reverse population declines (programs like a "welcome home incentive") and community-developed solutions to broadband connectivity.

These projects are examples of integrated approaches that weigh objectives and ROI more broadly and, figuratively speaking, aim for the convergence of aspirations, finite resources, collective effort and vision-driven strategy. There are countless other examples, of course, and many community leaders whose commitment to bigger picture thinking and integrated economic development is top of mind despite wearing many hats. This post is a shoutout to them, and an enthusiastic vote of confidence for others who are working to help their communities thrive. Having the fundamentals in place is paramount but keeping your eye on those convergence opportunities and what they offer as a target can boost the success of your efforts considerably.

Paul 2018-2To learn more about Paul and the other members of our team, go to https://mdbinsight.com/team-bios/

Our Wednesdays with MDB Insight posts feature the thinkers and doers on our team sharing ideas and talking about what’s important to us as professionals. We have very diverse backgrounds and a range of interests to share with you. We hope you’re enjoying these posts and that you will join the conversation with us and let us know what’s on your mind mid-week.

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