Friday, November 06, 2009

Economic development. Learning from action steps

I am really looking forward to a presentation I get to share with the Wisconsin Economic Development Association (WEDA) this coming Monday evening, Nov. 9. They have asked me to discuss opening a new economic development organization.

I am coming up on my first anniversary as an economic developer in rural Wisconsin.

On my first day on the job, Dec. 1, 2008, I was sitting in a vacant conference room in Dodgeville, WI. I had been shoveling info into a newly cloned database as fast as I could all day. I turned on the radio that evening as I set up to leave. I learned that a recession was officially declared to be underway. That day the Dow Jones fell almost 700 points, the 4th biggest drop in its history. To welcome me to my new gig, there was a whopper snowstorm clogging up all of the upper Midwest. Welcome to economic development.

For my talk on Monday I have limited expertise to share about economic development theory but I certainly can share what its like to take on this kind of opportunity as a working entrepreneur.

In short, there are deep and profound opportunities available in our rural and urban economies right now. What's needed now are small, measurable action steps. If we're to create a new and better economy we need to launch as many intelligent experiments as possible, learn from them, and repeat.

I'm convinced our Iowa County initiative is a valuable experiment in this mix. All around us there are big, amorphous, meta discussions underway about improving economic development. But that's all they typically are. Discussions.

Mark Olson and I had a wonderful meeting this week with a gentleman who helps lead USDA Rural Development in Wisconsin. He shared with us a really compelling story about his early work in community development that involved red lining in poor neighborhoods. Their team was most successful when they restricted their organizing and development efforts to a geographically limited footprint. When they did that, their efforts succeeded. They could impose timelines, measurement metrics and then get on with it. When problems arose, they had a manageable scope to deal with. When their peers and managers tried to design 'more efficient' experiments in larger geographic areas, valuable data was lost and the efforts to make things better inevitably failed.

That's why I'm so pumped up about this county scale experiment Mark and I are working on. If it leaks into neighboring counties as we roll it out, all the better. Regions should be knit together by this kind of work.

What's valuable is that we will have a geography in which real experiments can be run and real meaning can be extracted. I want something that works and that's reproducible.

If something like this can't be made to work in one county, it can't be made to work in 5 or 20 or 72 counties. We're preparing a small, smart action step to help take those first steps.

Let the studies follow (informed) action. I want to make well-reasoned, inexpensive mistakes and learn. One foot in front of the other stuff, but for goodness sake, let's do something. Let's put economic development in service to the people who need it, not those who just want to talk about it.

I am very impressed by the potential for USDA Rural Development in Wisconsin to make a national impact. Their interest in our experiment is exciting.

USDA Rural Development, Wisconsin

I made new friends this week who work with Forward Community Investments. This is a wonderful organization that works with nonprofits in Wisconsin to help them make strategic financial decisions and build their financial capacity for greater success. They are holding a cool looking community investing conference on November 19th, in Madison.

I've also made new friends in the Austin, TX area bootstrapping group. I am delighted to be included in their doings. If you are in the Austin area there is a good looking gathering on Monday evening 11/9.

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