Why Economic Development Profession Needs to Reinvent Its Role to Stay Relevant

For many years, economic development has been the key motivation behind place branding and marketing initiatives at a city, regional or even country level, aimed at attracting investment and talent – business. In recent years, however, the economic development profession has been subject to growing criticism.

In our interview with Ed Burghard of Strengthening Brand America last week we asked his thoughts on the economic development profession, and whether he believes it can survive in times where more and more citizens are aware of and angered by unsustainable business and development practices. Here are his answers.

Ed, what is the objective of economic development?

In a nutshell, I believe the primary objective of economic development is to help residents achieve their dreams.

In the USA, I talk about the objective as better enabling residents to achieve their American Dream. But every country has a national ethos and the dimensions of that ethos can be quantified.

Practically, the way to accomplish the objective is through advocating/influencing strategic choices in both infrastructure and asset creation investment, as well as public policies. Think of these choices as brand development, and they are articulated in a location’s strategic plan.

Consequently, the economic development profession needs to play a key role in the facilitation of a location’s strategic plan design and deployment process, to ensure the outcome is supportive of the location’s brand promise. To be clear, the process is actually (and must be) led by public and private sector leaders.

The role of the economic development professional is to ensure the place brand development process is robust and resultant action plans are both funded and executed. This is where I see most locations fall short and the primary reason most strategic plans fail.

With more and more business moving online, is economic development as profession still relevant?

This is a real problem. If the profession doesn’t reinvent its role, I believe it will quickly become irrelevant.

It requires being accountable for the role of facilitating strategic plan design and deployment. Economic Development Organizations (EDOs) need to provide their communities with a few important capabilities. These are not necessarily new capabilities, but the degree of mastery required to be successful may be higher than in the past.

For example, EDOs will need to help local leaders better understand the opportunities their community faces and establish a clear direction.

EDOs will need to be accountable for

1) enrolling the right community leaders and ensuring a robust process is followed to design a competitive strategic plan,

2) for ensuring all supporting organizations understand the strategic plan and have action plans with clearly defined deliverables, and

3) for monitoring progress in achieving the strategic plan outcomes.

And, of course in any major strategy design and deployment process, conflicts arise when objectives are not aligned. EDOs will also need to be able to facilitate negotiation of win:win agreements that ensure the choices made in the strategic plan can be successfully executed.

Economic Development Professionals will have to leverage the communication skills learned by negotiating with companies in the site selection process to make certain local organizations agree and know how to support the strategic direction that are made.

Read the whole interview with Ed Burghard on place branding, economic development and Strengthening Brand America.

Discussion Point:

Do you agree with Ed Burghard on the need for Economic Development Organizations to (re)align their purpose with a changed environment and expectations?

How can economic development professionals help citizens and residents achieve their dreams?


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