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Lessons Learned from Regional Inclusive Economic Growth

We spoke with Living Cities members, partners and practitioners in the field to gather the critical lessons from past regional efforts in the US.

We’ve shared why Living Cities is looking at a regional approach on inclusive economic growth in this reflection by Demetric Duckett, Associate Director of Capital Innovation at Living Cities.

In order to learn from past regional efforts in the US, we talked to a number of Living Cities members, partners and practitioners in the field, and we also looked at a report on the 5-year, growth-focused Brookings-Rockefeller Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation (PSMI), formal and informal notes on efforts led and evaluated by other Living Cities member organizations, and case studies from the federally sponsored Sustainable Communities Initiative. The lessons learned below reflect the analysis of Living Cities’ Inclusive Economic Growth Task Force, which was chaired by Xav Briggs of the Ford Foundation.

Lessons Learned—Often the Hard Way

Building a more inclusive regional economic growth model requires shifting multiple systems and engaging diverse associated partners.

Regional efforts that seek to drive inclusive growth primarily through job creation and business formation have had mixed success at best, in part because the “attraction game” still dominates much of the economic development world. Sites cannot ultimately drive the change they want by pursuing this narrow focus, but tackling all of the key areas that need to change can be daunting. The PSMI program concluded that “the right approach to undertaking complex change initiatives across multiple fronts is to focus on a portfolio of mutually reinforcing initiatives guided by overarching strategies and metrics.” This certainly has parallels to well-established collective impact efforts—but on a big jurisdictional stage with multiple systems and outcomes of interest, potentially from business development to education and workforce development, affordable housing, community development, transportation, and more. Sites in the Brookings PSMI initiative also noted that change happens “iteratively with expanding circles of leadership and collaboration necessary.”

Dedicated support platforms are needed to overcome typically weak – or nonexistent – regional systems of governance.

Past efforts have been complex to staff, especially given the long-term nature of the work, and require dedicated institutional capacity. Observers pointed to the importance of a “galvanizing leader,” or the right institutional owners, to help overcome this challenge. According to the evaluation of PSMI, regions need “somebody who wakes up every morning focused on these issues, rather than somebody trying to do this work on the side or in their spare time.” Moreover, the leadership for these efforts needs a refresh at key points along the way, whether to bring new energy and ideas to the group, adjust to changes in the phase of work, or to address turnover.

Education and workforce development systems need to more intentionally align with regional economic development tied to growing industries with living wages.

A quality education pipeline and the availability of a skilled workforce drives economic growth and shapes who will fill future jobs. Nevertheless, education and workforce systems have remained hyperlocal and disconnected from economic development systems in most regions. Although most students in America, especially low-income or returning students, attend a local college, there are few truly regional systems to channel students into the right institutions for the credentials required by regional employers. As one source noted: “Absent a regional framework, human resource needs will not be met for employers – at least not with local talent – and the notion of inclusive economic growth will remain elusive.”

Regions need to shift corporate narratives about inclusive growth and reimagine how to engage business champions in the new economy.

Historically, some of the most ambitious and sustained regional growth efforts, such as those in the Pittsburgh region, originated with firms that saw themselves as anchors and valued long-run engagement by key corporate leaders in the civic life of the region. Fewer leaders of global firms – particularly for those who have gone through corporate mergers and acquisitions – see themselves as rooted in place now, and career mobility and industry change contribute to turnover of those leaders who do see this connection. While regions are finding their own patterns of business leadership in the “new economy”, for now, such as the work of the ITASCA business collaborative in conjunction with the Center for Economic Inclusion in Minneapolis/Saint Paul, but nationwide there are few templates. This is an area ripe for experimentation because when corporate leaders see inclusive growth as a business and economic imperative and lean into the challenge, they can play a compelling role in driving sustained change.

Efforts that have assumed a “rising tide will lift all boats” have failed…

Inclusive economic growth will require that racial equity is centered in the work.

In the past, efforts that have assumed a “rising tide will lift all boats” have failed because they have not addressed systemic racism head on. This avoidance of tackling race plays out in employment sectors, across jurisdictional space, in electoral contests, in education and training, and in civic leadership with debates about whether and how to center race, relate it to gender, or sequence discussions with hands-on pilots and other interventions. Regional inclusive growth efforts need to understand the region’s history around race, build up – and follow – younger and more racially diverse leaders, engage the community in co-creating solutions, and address the systems that continue to reinforce racial gaps in opportunity, income and wealth.

Regions should focus on long-term work aimed at the economy of the future, and build equity into evolving and emergent systems.

Regional collaborations to promote inclusive economic growth need to be long-term efforts focused on the economy of the future.

Sites report a tension between wanting to demonstrate early, programmatic wins to maintain momentum from partners and support from funders, while recognizing that building inclusive economies is a long term, systemic undertaking. “Short-termism” — the disconnect between time horizons driving much decision making and the time required for systemic changes — appears in both the electoral arena and also some forms of private and nonprofit engagement. Regions should focus on long-term work aimed at the economy of the future, and build equity into evolving and emergent systems. Clear, quantitative and qualitative measures and targets can help demonstrate progress along the way, but regions shouldn’t confuse short-term projects or quick wins with the systems-level change they need to be driving.

Sites need more support – and more varied and responsive support – than has typically been provided in past initiatives.

Investment and support – including coaching, access to peer networks and hands-on assistance – is needed at all stages: convening, learning, strategy development, implementation and measurement. Regions note that active support to tailor promising strategies and practices to the specific dynamics and windows of opportunity in their region is critical when they are in the “thick” of implementation. The “value add” of those providing support should also be commensurate with the expectations of local stakeholders.

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