Lauren Millier on Economic Development and Urban Planning

Lauren Millier, Vice President of MDB Insight in Toronto, Canada, in this interview shares her thoughts on the economic development of cities, with a special focus on frequent challenges and how to measure impact.

This interview is part of a special series with economic development professionals, in collaboration with the International Economic Development Council. Previous interviews of this series include Carlos Delgado and Gene DePrez.

Learn about:

  • Economic development: what it is all about;
  • Which challenges the city of London (Canada) faces regarding its economic development;
  • How economic development links to place branding;
  • 3 tips for ‘ordinary’ small towns on how to reinforce their image;
  • How to measure economic development success.

Lauren, with your background in urban planning, what led you to become an economic development consultant?

Wanting to draw a better connection between the long-range planning that was occurring and the economic growth potential of a community. I felt that the current approach of “if we build it, it will come” was problematic for some communities and was exposing them to a level of risk that needed to be rethought.

I also saw a gap in the consultation and engagement that was occurring with the broader business community, and the lack of attention to growth and technology trends that impact a community over the long term.

How has your experience in urban planning shaped your view of economic development, and how would you define it (ED) in your own words? 

I take a much more integrated approach to economic development strategic planning – I aim to understand the need to address labour demand and supply, quality of life considerations, implications for the built environment and the need to have the priorities of Council clearly articulated and reflected in a project.

Economic development is the process by which a level of government can increase the standard of living of its residents. This is accomplished by improving the economic, social and political well-being of a community (e.g. better jobs, better pay, better community).

What would you say are the common problems that make collaboration between urban planners and economic developers difficult?

Not sure I would agree that collaboration is difficult. Perhaps it’s just that many communities don’t think to engage their economic development professionals, or perhaps don’t understand the value they can offer. There certainly needs to be a greater level of discussion between the departments as municipalities that do benefit from a stronger community – such as how to plan for downtown revitalization, how to approach built form and street animation in a way that attracts investors, businesses and consumers. And to ensure that the competitiveness of a community is informed by supportive land use policies and incentives.

You recently helped the city of London (Canada) to develop an economic road map. What kind of challenges does a city like London face, considering that it already has one of the strongest city brands?

The primary challenge for the city of London is being able to capitalize on its opportunities for growth and investment in a timely fashion – providing a quality of life experience that will attract and retain the workers that local business needs to sustain growth over the long term. The challenge is to leverage the significant investment that has been made in London’s health industry sector, embracing the growing diversity in the city’s population.

As to the strong city brand, this needs to resonate with an audience external to the city itself particularly, as it relates to business and investors. London’s business economy and location support a strong argument for including the city in the economic development narrative for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Region.

From your experience, how is economic development connected to place branding?

There is an obvious direct connection, as place branding is designed to attract business, investors, visitors and new residents to a community.

Economic development professionals are well positioned to support the development of the value proposition and define the characteristics that inform the place branding work.

In addition to working with the governments of Ontario and Alberta, your work also includes the economic development of communities that struggle with the shifting global economy. In your view, what is the main difference between working with small communities and big governments?

This depends on the community, but it really is just about scale. Rural communities like Prince Edward County (ON) understand the economic shift that is underway in their economy and are implementing strategies that will support local business and the community to adapt to these changes.

In general, senior levels of government are attempting to respond to or address the macro trends that are impacting the economy. Local municipalities don’t see this effort as occurring fast enough and often believe that decisions are being made without an appreciation for the impact they will have. Local municipalities are more likely to be focused on a narrower range of issues that require a more immediate response; whether that’s funding, programming etc.

What are your suggestions for ‘ordinary’ small towns that wish to reinforce their image to improve their economy?

  • Find your local stories, gather your partners and boosters;
  • Be authentic, talk about the successes that the community is having;
  • Current data is essential and it informs your storytelling!

In your view, what is the best way to measure the success of economic development initiatives?

This is the toughest aspect of economic development, as it is often difficult to equate metrics to the work of an economic development department.

Metrics need to relate to the economic outcomes that a community might be seeking – some may say the number of jobs, but are these high value jobs? Do they relate to the workforce skills of your community? Perhaps better metrics would be the increase in average or median income, or the absorption of graduates into the local workforce.

Others would say an increase in tax assessment, but if this does not result in any significant job creation (e.g. warehouse/logistics) then perhaps this is not a good indicator.

Communities need to decide on a reasonable number of relevant indicators based on the change they want to see, built around a framework for what needs to get done.

Thank you, Lauren.

Connect with Lauren Millier on LinkedIn. or learn more about MDB Insight.

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Lauren Millier was a speaker at the International Economic Development Council annual conference in Toronto, Canada, 17-20 September 2017, supported by The Place Brand Observer as media partner.

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