How Economic Development Programs Can Change Perceptions of Places

Cities and countries stuck with an image problem or seeking an economic makeover try various methods to improve their image and attractiveness. It is not easy to convince businesses to make large investments in new and unfamiliar territory. Some economic development offices go the extra mile when trying to transform the perception of their location.

We wanted to know examples of such initiatives undertaken anywhere in the world, where the city or country positively benefited from a renewed place perception. Below are the answers of our panel of place branding specialists (in alphabetical order –  highlighted respondents are available for consulting, research, or as speakers).

Robert Govers panelRobert Govers

Advisor / Speaker / Researcher

Belgium | Estonia, where a lot of the e-state stuff originally came out of the economic development/investment promo pipeline.

And also, Oslo.

Arguably, the economic development policy (diversification from oil) is what has made Dubai famous; through its mega projects.

Austin as well with SXSW (creative economy development).

Caio Esteves

BrazilA good example of a positive but temporary impact was the Boulevard Olímpico in Rio de Janeiro. A port strip was requalified for the Olympic Games, bringing great vitality to a previously degraded region.

The problem lies in the exclusive concern with the hardware, ignoring the software. The streets were lit, a modern surface train connected the airport and the city centre, and several urban art panels were installed.

But what happened when the most-watched event on the planet ended, when attractions like the NBA house, among others left? We are back to a desolate place, beautiful and still cared for but lifeless for most of its extension.

On the other hand, some projects arise from the desire of the community, for the improvement of the place where they live or/and love. One of these projects is called Viva São Pelegrino in Brazil, where people were invited to rethink and rediscover the neighbourhood where they live.

Perception change can also start from the inside out, pride and a strong sense of belonging are certainly a big boost for external perception change.

Similarly, we have the Galería Ballindamm project from Dérive Lab in Mexico. This micro-scale project requalifies abandoned spaces with artistic and cultural activities, open and free, making them safe and attractive for the community.

The important thing is to understand that acting to transform perception necessarily involves action and not just speech but more than that. It can be done on tiny scales and by the community itself.

Natasha Grand

UK | I wonder what they mean by economic development programmes because place branding often comes on the back of them, so it is rather typical. Singapore, Hanoi, Danang (Vietnam), Manila and lots of smaller cities are developing from a smart city blueprint to get on the map in Southeast Asia. Medellin in Colombia is using a transformation story – from drugs to IT very successfully.

Jaume Marín

SpainThe only example that I know well is Lloret de Mar. They did a strategic plan, and then an interesting plan which is called Pla de millora (improvement plan), to attract private and public investment to improve the destination and its perception.

Lloret got financing from the Catalan government, the Girona Government and the city council. Private investment was sought to invest in reforming hotels and other services. And they did invest more than 30 million.

In the Costa Brava, Girona, and the Pyrenees, we created marketing clubs (the first one in 2000), and we now have nine marketing clubs, with more than 800 companies involved. A similar system is being developed in Catalonia now.

This implies that private companies build up the action plan every year together, and they finance part of it. It is a simple model that has benefits at midterm. I am extremely happy with how it has developed, as it pulled together all the different stakeholders for the first time.

Marcus Andersson

SwedenCopenhagen’s effort to become the first carbon-neutral capital in the world by 2025 has most probably helped change perceptions of the city. The strategy permeates a range of economic development initiatives, such as support for different innovation hubs, smart city development initiatives and investment promotion.

Another good example is Brighton, whose efforts to develop the city into an entrepreneurial, digital and creative hub over the last decade have transformed the perceptions of the place.

Per Ekman

SwedenIn my view, there is no strong correlation between large economic investments and improved place perceptions. Authentic values can be overlooked and local identity can be jeopardised. However, when places identify opportunities for well-coordinated ”soft investments” directly targeted to the people’s place experience, we sometimes see great results.

For example, Visit Scotland has over the years invested heavily in a culture of welcoming and involving local businesses in extensive quality programs and training. The Scottish Welcome Schemes are designed to boost the visitor experience based on lifestyle and interests. For many countries searching for destination excellence, Scotland paves the way.

Buck Song Koh

Singapore | After 1961, with the establishment of the Economic Development Board (EDB), Singapore’s lead government agency to attract foreign investment, their main effort was investment promotion.

But essentially it all hinged on nation branding, because Singapore’s sole aim was to attract foreign investment, and the country had practically nothing else to go on. There were no natural resources to speak of, the workforce was mostly untrained, the domestic market was negligible, and the hinterland was politically unstable.

In the EDB’s 40th anniversary book Heart Work (2002), Chan Chin Bock, former EDB chairman, recalled a conversation he had with a potential investor in the 1970s. It was a sales pitch about Singapore’s value propositions. He was acting like a salesman “selling” Singapore as a place to relocate manufacturing activity. Unknowingly, he was also doing nation branding.

He had been instructed by Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee to organise a plant-opening ceremony every day, if possible. To make headlines to build investor confidence and create a critical mass in each industry sector. What Chan did was to have two ceremonies for each company – one when a project was committed and a second when production actually started. In those days, it was as if almost any investment would do.

Among the companies that received pioneer certificates – granting them access to tax and other incentives – were those making mosquito coils and household locks. From the earliest days, the EDB approach was focused on nation branding. It attracted investments mostly from the developed economies in North America, Western Europe and Japan. From the 21st century onwards, the catchment regions expanded to new geographies like the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Asia-Pacific.

The range of target industries has also widened from the previous focus on manufacturing and manufacturing-related services to include a wider range of services and other industry sectors, from digital animation to lifestyle products. A secondary effort was to attract selected individuals as well, those who would bring with them high-value economic activity.

While the “infantry” of EDB officers knocked on doors every day around the world, “air cover” was provided by strategic advertising in leading business media, with taglines like this: “Singapore is pro-business; that’s why business is pro-Singapore”. Over the years, like any commercial branding outfit, adaptability to customer needs was key. 

The kind of branding proposition that would convince an electronics company like Hewlett-Packard to build factories and regional offices in a place like Singapore in the 20th century such as fulfilling precise specifications. It is qualitatively different from what would clinch the deal in the 21st century for a digital animation company like George Lucas’ Star Wars movie franchise fame – such as improvising to enhance the product even further.

But one thing has not changed: At the heart of every EDB officer’s work has always been nation branding, pure and simple. This spirit has been successfully transferred and embedded in other public service officers in other agencies, such as International Enterprise Singapore, the trade promotion body helping Singapore-based companies to regionalise and globalise their operations. It was renamed Enterprise Singapore in 2018 after merging with another agency Spring Singapore looking after startups and smaller companies.

Even other government bodies have imbibed and applied this nation branding focus, including, for instance, the Ministry of Health when it promotes Singapore to attract doctors to relocate to the Lion City to help boost its healthcare capabilities.

Previous questions answered by the panel here.

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