M ost economic development organizations rely on a standard pack of traditional economic development strategies: real estate and infrastructure development, regional marketing; business retention and expansion; support for entrepreneurs; workforce development. Yet, these traditional approaches face limitations in terms of impact. Because these activities tend to be organized functionally – or vertically – within the economic development organization, they miss out on synergies that can emerge if these activities are organized and conducted to form new linkages across organizational and political boundaries.
Brainpower and innovation drive regional economies…We have known this for some time.
Increasingly, high performance regions are developing interconnected ecosystems to support productive patterns of investment across a region. In the most successful regions, these ecosystems are tightly aligned with engaged higher education institutions. The reason is simple: in a global economy regions face intensified competition. In the face of this global competition, high-quality brainpower and productive innovation become critically important to sustaining high performance in terms of jobs and income.
We have know that these factors are critical for some time. In addition, we have learned that regions with a dense network of interconnections generally perform better than regions with a weaker set of connections. These regions spot opportunities faster, align resources faster, and absorb shocks more effectively.
Translating insights into practice
Economic development professionals face the challenge of putting these insights into practice. How can economic development organizations develop stronger regional ecosystems that promote high performance education and innovation? Traditional approaches to strategic planning have proved inadequate to the task.
Many regions have invested heavily in strategic plans, only to find them largely useless. Traditional strategic planning process confronts limits. It is relatively slow and can be costly. More important, strategic planning was designed for hierarchical organizations functioning in relatively stable markets. It is not well suited to promote collaborations in which no one can tell anyone else what to do.
Our experience teaches that traditional strategic planning is not the right approach to designing and guiding regional innovation ecosystems. It is simply too slow and unresponsive to keep up with the opportunities that quickly develop in a dynamic regional economy. In short, it is the wrong tool for the job. Economic development organizations need agility to spot rapidly emerging opportunities and move on them. Equally important, as economic development organizations now have the potential to multiply their impact. In other words, they can be far more productive with their investments. How? By intentionally designing and guiding new collaborations.
Making the Jump to What’s Next in Economic Development
In sum, economic development organizations need to “jump the curve” with a new approach to strategy. To fill the gap in strategy practice, we have developed a unique approach that can accelerate the evolution of these ecosystems. Called Strategic Doing, this approach is fast, agile and low-cost. With the discipline in place, economic development organizations can design and guide complex collaborations toward measurable outcomes and make quick adjustments as they learn by doing. Building complex collaborations — the collaborations that compose a dynamic innovation ecosystem — becomes easier and faster.
As an example, two years ago the University of North Alabama partnered with Purdue University to introduce Strategic Doing to their region. With this discipline as a foundation, the multiple partners within the region have accelerated the formation of and innovation ecosystem to support entrepreneurs and high-growth companies. The region is now attracting major new investments to support its transformation away from a coal economy and towards an innovation economy with its Shoals Shift strategy. In two years, it has developed a reputation within Alabama of being an entrepreneurial hot spot.
Greg Carnes, dean of the College of Business at the University of North Alabama captures the essence of Strategic Doing in a recent news article, “We’ve really done it by bringing all these different organizations together to the table and discussing how we can do these things and started working as a team. We didn’t need to have a lot of capital to start. We did not have to find $250,000 in capital before we could do anything. We just got together and started working and figuring out how the community can take the resources that they already have and combine them in unique ways.”
We have multiple other examples where we have introduced this new strategy practice to design and guide new clusters and build stronger regional innovation ecosystems. These examples include the launch of the water cluster in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; the development of the aerospace cluster in Rockford, Illinois; the development of the innovation ecosystem and Charleston, South Carolina; and the launch of a clean energy cluster in the wake of the NASA shuttle shut down.
In addition to working with economic and workforce development organizations, we have introduced this new approach to strategy to universities. So for example, we taught teams at 50 universities to transform their undergraduate engineering curriculum by introducing innovation and entrepreneurship. These 50 universities have now launched over 400 collaborations to create new courses, new maker spaces, new innovation competitions, and other initiatives.
We have used this discipline to enable Lockheed to uncover and innovation ecosystem to support complex project: developing a technology roadmap for the deployment of condition based maintenance within the Navy. In short, this discipline — some call it a protocol for complex collaboration — enables economic development organizations to form sophisticated collaborations that accelerate productive investment. Strategic Doing is a collective discipline of simple rules that takes practice to master. The key to understanding this new approach involves developing the courage to try something new…to jump the curve.