Tis the season for annual conferences – that chance each year for trade groups to tout their accomplishments and relevancy. The Fourth Economy team attended our fair share. What we find scary is that while the workshops and keynotes are conveying the seismic changes occurring in our economy, change on the street, in our communities and programs, appear to keep on keeping on as if it were, oh say, 1999. Many of the metrics for growth we heard remain focused on absolute land development, job creation (regardless of type and cost) and more office space.
Meanwhile businesses are getting smaller, employment more virtual and people more mobile. According to the Freelancers Union independent workers now account for more than 53 million workers in the U.S. It’s membership now tops 276,000 and is growing rapidly. These folks are working for themselves, out of their homes or in coffee shops, forming nimble collaboratives (or “hives” in their parlance) to get the job done. Last summer, Fast Company magazine ran a story entitled “Why Working Remotely is Better for Business.” Beyond the romantic idea of coffee shop business deals and Pottery Barn inspired home offices, this article is important, especially for economic developers in smaller towns and more rural locations facing perpetual talent shortages. “It’s inevitable that more and more skilled workers will adapt to a remote working lifestyle, and it’s the companies that can accommodate the lifestyles of these talents that will become the market leaders in the future,” the research points out. “The good news is it’s now easier than ever to coordinate the work of individuals from around the world. As long as we have access to a lab top and the internet, there are hundreds of tools that have been created to make the process seamless.”
So while many economic development boards continue to link economic success with traditional employment constructs, land development and office space absorption rates, a larger and larger part of the economy is getting along without them. If they have not already, these organizations need to become more engaged in place-based development activities like ensuring quality housing, mix-use developments, co-working spaces, broadband deployment, recreation and active-transportation programs. There will still be the need for office space and land development for sure, but the portfolio of economic development programs and measures must expand in order to stay relevant and impactful. And that must be communicated to boards of directors and the community at-large.
When we hear those inspiring Ted Talk like speeches and the message of change they often convey, believe them. And then act. There is more market opportunity and optimism now than over before. You just need to know what to look for and how to measure it. For more information on related topics, please read “Reshaping the Coast Line of Economic Development” or “Build Relationships not Lists: 6 Key Points for Business Attraction.”