A recent op-ed written by a local economic developer about the rural economy in Maine generated a lot of comments showing clearly the live wire he touched. Leaving aside the usual name-calling and insults that unfortunately inhabit most comment sections, several points of view emerged. One was the idea that if people don’t find opportunity where they live, they should move elsewhere. Another was that we should revive the traditional ways of making a living (i.e., forest products, fishing, agriculture) and embrace them. A third was that reliable cell service and high-speed internet offer people a way to make a living where they are. Perhaps all of these things are valid to some extent.
What many of the comment writers, and indeed, the author of the piece all have in common is nostalgia for the “old days” when the rural economy was strong, when young people didn’t leave to move to the “big city” and when you didn’t need a college education to make enough money to raise a family. A great narrative to be sure, but there’s a problem. These “old days” never existed. Whether you go back a generation to the 1950s or to the start of the last century, rural communities have always been characterized by hard work and marginal living. Young people have always heard the lure of anywhere but where they grew up. And more education has always been correlated with higher incomes.
Like it or not, shift happens. Economies change. Places change. People (sometimes) change. For rural economies today, this means that new technologies are changing and potentially reviving traditional ways of making a living. Whether this is the advent of aquaculture or bio-based products made from wood pulp, or the use of sensors and drones in agriculture, nothing stays the same for long. The race is won when people, and their leaders, see the opportunities ahead and seize them.
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Amazing! The Portland Press Herald, our local newspaper, actually had an editorial this week that said that innovation and entrepreneurship was the key to economic growth in Maine! Now this isn’t a radical statement at all. What’s amazing is to hear this nuanced statement from the media! The PPH was writing about a local company, Howe and Howe, this is being bought by a large conglomerate, Textron. Howe and Howe is a defense contractor that has developed several innovative projects, like a remote controlled tank, based on government-funded R&D. The company is 13 years old, and has grown organically to 50 employees, a success story by any standards.
Two things surprised me about the editorial. One, the paper didn’t call this a small business. Rather, they did distinguish between Main Street businesses and an innovation-based business like Howe and Howe. Second, they didn’t cry about this exit taking money out of Maine. Many local companies get acquired by large companies from “away;” (there aren’t very many large companies that aren’t from “away.”) And, when local entrepreneurs have their success validated and monetized, they and their workers have the opportunity to reinvest in the local economy, whether the company stays local or not. In most cases, the companies do stay local because the quality of Maine workers and the cost of doing business here are both very competitive.
All of this points to the great value of local success stories. They inspire local entrepreneurs, and also put a place on the map in the broader context. So congrats to Howe and Howe and the many other Maine entrepreneurs who have had exits this year.
You can tell from the nearly constant attack ads on television during the evening news that we’re in the middle of at least two contentious campaigns this fall here in Maine: one for Governor and one for the 2nd Congressional District, where a Republican Congressman is trying to keep his seat. Both races are very close. However, in all the noise, one thing is startlingly missing: a clean and compelling vision for how to improve Maine’s economic prospects. This is because the choices continue to be framed as less taxes and regulation for business against more rights and benefits for workers.
I recently reread Rob Atkinson and Stephen Ezell’s 2012 book, Innovation Economics, which reminded me that the answer is something completely different from this false paradigm. There are only three ways to get an economy to grow: increase productivity, create new firms or add activities that create new value. You increase productivity by increasing the revenue of each employee: improve processes, add technology to increase output, or add new products and services. Similarly, new firms or activities that create new value boost economic activity overall. Atkinson and Ezell say there are three things that build vibrant, healthy business establishments in globally traded sectors in order to improve economies: business leaders who will take risks, do research and development or create new products, and add new plant and equipment; workforce that supports these changes instead of being afraid of new technology; and government that supports investing in the future.
There are bright lights in many of the communities where I work, where entrepreneurs are taking risks, where business leaders recognize the need to invest in creativity and where civic leaders are adopting innovation and entrepreneurship as guiding principles for their cities, towns and states. Here’s hoping that grassroots change will save the day.
When discussing economic growth, many politicians talk about the importance of small businesses and their importance to the local region. This is particularly true in rural areas, especially ones that have lost major, large manufacturing employers over the last fifteen years. While this sounds right, and reflects the federal focus through the Small Business Administration and programs like the Small Business Development Centers and small business set-asides, it’s not actually true.
According to a forthcoming book by Robert D. Atkinson and Michael Lind
titled “Big is Beautiful: Rebutting the Mythology of Small Business” (MIT Press,
2018), on virtually every economic indicator, including wages, innovation, exports, and even job creation, large firms in the United States outperform small ones. Moreover, states with larger average firm sizes outperform states with smaller firms.
Furthermore, many small firms stay small, and that’s what their founders intend. They have no desire to grow; they just want to work for themselves. So small business lending and other preferences aimed at businesses just because of their size are not contributing to economic growth.
What matters is intent and execution. Does a new business want to grow? Does it bring outside money into an economy, rather than just from local clients? Does the business have a demonstrable and meaningfully unique advantage that will add value, increase productivity or solve a critical societal problem? These are the businesses to invest in and accelerate, regardless of their age or size.
Empirically, regions with universities grow faster than those without, and in smaller places, the university’s role is even more important. Universities “heavily influence the ability of regions to attract and retain technology-intensive firms, to provide the regional labor force with modern knowledge skills, and to respond flexibly to…. economic circumstances.”
University research spurs the creation of new firms and thus affects regional employment. Research partnerships with universities expand and complement the absorptive capacity of the firms, increasing their innovation and competitiveness.
For regions to be competitive,
“The key event is the creation of an entrepreneurial university, whether from an existing academic base or a new foundation, which takes initiatives together with government and industry to create a support structure for firm formation and regional growth.”
The entrepreneurial university is characterized by a focus on industry-partnerships, technology transfer of research discoveries to interested and capable industry partners, including startups, support for entrepreneurs, whether students, faculty, or community-based, and support for the ecosystem, often in the form of research parks, incubators, and other capital-intensive infrastructure.
University spin-offs are an important part of the picture since they provide innovative products, new jobs, induce corporate investment in university R&D and have highly localized impacts. Eighty percent of spin-offs operate in the same state as their host institution. However, technology transfer efforts such as these are most effective if they are located within a strong innovation ecosystem and when university reward systems are aligned with desired outcomes.
There is also rising interest in entrepreneurship among students. Increasingly, campuses are involved with supporting entrepreneurs, including student-led companies as well as those from the community. Universities that support entrepreneurs and new businesses, including those generated both on and off campus, also support a flexible and creative workforce, and can significantly leverage economic revitalization. Indeed, students with entrepreneurial skills and knowledge are themselves a valuable output of any university.
The role of a university in its community seems to have changed along with many other institutions in our society. The ivory tower image of a university with a sole focus on teaching and research has given way to an understanding that universities are important place-based assets that can help a region be competitive in a knowledge-based economy. The linear science-push model has given way to a more nuanced and complex understanding of entwined interests among universities, industry and government, and a new contract has arisen, one that suggests than in return for public funds, universities must address their “users” – society and the economy – and be more accountable.
For a recent project, we looked at how high performing regions organize themselves to support innovation and entrepreneurship, especially the interactions between the anchor innovation assets like universities and the surrounding business community.
• The places studied that are doing better seem to have accomplished an integrated approach to economic development that embraces traditional business attraction as well as innovation and entrepreneurship support, workforce development, and place-making. Transportation, excellence in K-12, arts and culture all play a part in the approach.
• For many universities, moving from a model of teaching, research and service to one that more explicitly includes economic development is a long-term evolution. Each of the universities highlighted was in some stage of this evolution, with most having significant research, technology transfer, entrepreneurial support, and research commercialization activities.
• The places studied vary in the tightness of the connection between the university and local/regional economic development, with most having a greater relationship in the university’s home community and diminishing impact in rural communities farther away.
• The areas vary considerably in their attention to the issue of inclusion, with two explicitly and prominently seeking to extend economic prosperity to all of its citizens, regardless of their location (urban and rural), and actively seeking ways to connect the poorest to better jobs, higher skills and more supportive neighborhoods.
• Two of the places studied have made significant investments in broadband, and two have focused on air service, both essential infrastructure for a knowledge-based or creative economy.
We’re all familiar with strategic plans that gather dust on a shelf (or these days, never even get printed out). What’s the difference between plans that get implemented and those that don’t? Plans that get implemented are designed to be executed. Here are five steps to successful implementation:
1. Get the do-ers involved in the planning. While many of us think we know the answer before we start the planning process, both the process and the execution will be stronger with broader involvement throughout. This is because diversity of thoughts and experiences held by the various stakeholders will improve the ideas themselves, but also because of the “Ikea Effect” – people are attached to things they help build.
2. Test the ideas during the planning process. Just because a strategy works somewhere else or just sounds good doesn’t mean it will be a good fit for your community. Test the ideas – hold a public hearing on proposed strategies; conduct a survey on social media; run a pilot program. All of these are designed to learn about concerns, unintended consequences, and alternative approaches. Don’t take forever to test, and learn from the results, by improving the strategies and tactics based on the input received.
3. Measure, measure, measure. Include metrics along with your plans, so you will be able to demonstrate progress and identify problems towards implementation. Commit to and provide resources for regular measurement of key metrics, and report to your stakeholders on progress. Use this process to surface issues, concerns, or opportunities for improvement.
4. Have a System! Good planning should be a process, not an event. It should be part and parcel of how you operate your organization. Make annual reviews of the environment you are in a part of your work and implement annual planning retreats with your Board. Collect data and review progress on the plan and prioritize next steps at least quarterly. Encourage staff and stakeholders to stay alert to and share changes in your competitive landscape, best practices and emerging opportunities.
5. Treat the plan as a living document. Make improvements to the tactics along the way. Take advantage of new opportunities that arise. Adjust to changing circumstances, technologies, and challenges. Build into the plan a way to get approval and buy-in to major shifts and retain the flexibility to do what seems right.
In the past week, we’ve seen the awesome potential of nature with a solar eclipse and now a historic flooding event. Here in Brunswick, we also had the Blue Angels flying overhead at the Air Show on the weekend. The former two events were predicted by science; the latter is enabled by technology (and some incredibly skilled pilots). So, it’s cool to believe in science and technology right now, after a period where many felt under siege.
One of my cousins (a Texan, by the way), informed me earlier this month that climate change was real, but there was no evidence that humans caused it. For the sake of peace in the family, I didn’t quote him chapter and verse of the evidence that has lead 98% of scientists to disagree with him. “Scientists can be wrong,” he said. But guess what. They’re much more often right. That’s the whole point of the scientific method and peer review – to keep getting better at our understanding of what’s going on around us.
While we support our fellow citizens in Texas in their time of need (and try to forget that Texans legislators voted against support for the victims of Hurricane Sandy), let’s also hope for renewed belief in the importance of science and technology.
It so happens that I’m in Charlottesville, VA today, just a few days after the horrific violence here, and the same day as the memorial service for Heather Heyers, the woman who was run down by an alt-right protester. The mood down here on the Downtown Mall is somber. Lots of people are wearing purple, Heather’s favorite color. There are flowers in profusion at the spot where she died; and signs in most every store window: “heart” Heather and “heart” Chville.
The good news seems to be that this event has once again brought people together in a common vision of what’s morally right and wrong. It’s too bad, however, that we can’t seem to remember these lessons collectively for very long, as we also seem incapable of addressing the issues that lead people to the conclusion that hate is the only solution to their problems.
I used to think that innovation was a non-partisan issue. After all, who can argue with economic growth? Turns out, lots of people. Recently, I’ve seen a spate of articles that are saying that it’s innovation that has left so many Americans behind; that productivity gains have been at the expense of the workers. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around this.
True, a manufacturing plant with a lot of robots needs less manual laborers, and has replaced workers who performed repetitive, predictable jobs with machines. However, new jobs have been created for folks who can program the robots, maintain them, and create new products that weren’t possible before. And, the new jobs pay better, are less hazardous, and are less likely to be mechanized or outsourced.
However, some individuals cannot or have chosen not to make the transition from one job to another. We’re hearing a lot of frustration from this camp in this election cycle, with anger directed outward.
It’s true that all change creates winners and losers. As a country, we’ve sometimes helped individuals and communities affected by change, such as assistance for places affected by military base closures or by foreign competition (e.g. Pittsburgh steel industry). At other times, we invoke Horatio Alger and say, “It’s your problem.”
I don’t think that we’re going to put the genie back in the bottle. Innovation is here to stay. So the challenge in front of us is to provide the opportunity for everyone to participate in the upside, even if that means a lot of retraining and investment.
I recently had the good fortune to achieve recognition in one of my hobbies, and I shared the news with a few friends and family, starting with the statement, “Sorry to brag…” My brother-in-law, Thomas, wrote back, “Never be afraid to state the truth!” Out loud I thanked him, but inside I was thinking, “Well, more proof he wasn’t brought up in New England!” I was taught that it is rude to talk about your accomplishments, because they are only evidence of the gifts and opportunities you have that others don’t, rather than of any work on your part.
I suspect that I’m not the only one who “hides their light under a bushel.” It seems that a lot of us don’t want folks to know that we’re doing well. We also don’t want folks to know when we’re not doing well, when we have failed.
I encountered this feeling recently helping a client with a strategic planning exercise. We were using Innovation EngineeringTM tools and techniques, including those often summarized as “Fail Fast, Fail Cheap.” The senior manager said, “I don’t want to fail at all.” I totally got it. He’s new in his position, and doesn’t want to stumble.
I explained what “Fail Fast, Fail Cheap” really means. It means working through issues and challenges one piece at a time, by trying one approach, measuring the results, and using that knowledge to try another approach. Each cycle is a learning cycle. Learning cycles are usually not in public, but done with your team. So, if you have an idea for a new product, the first learning cycle might be to find out if the technology you need is already available, and could be licensed. If the answer is yes, then the next cycle is to call the person who owns the technology and learn more. If the answer is no, that’s not a failure, it’s just new information.
On the other hand, a friend of mine is in the process of closing down a promising entrepreneurial enterprise that he’s been working on for several years. I know he thinks this is a failure, because he’s been blogging about it. But I’m also impressed by how he’s taking the experience as an opportunity for growth and learning…it’s not an indictment of his worth as a human being at all.
Long story short, both accomplishment and failure are part of an ongoing learning exercise called life. Time to get rid of the bushel.