The challenge with economic development today is an overreliance on the notion of what “worked yesterday will work today.” A quick-on-their-feet economic developer would say, “I’m good because I follow trends and keep up with what’s happening.”  If one quickly thinks about what one sees on social media, read in the news or whatever source of information one relies on today, the commentators, bloggers and writers are telling us about the latest trends. The internet is filled with them. A recent phenomenon is websites that tell us the “top ten” of something or the “top five life hacks” or the “top places to live” lists, you get the idea. In fact, what I just identified as a trend.

The problem with trends is they are “so yesterday.” In other words, a trend once identified happened in the past, or are happening the moment you recognize it. If one Googles the word “trends” or “lifecycle of a trend,” there is much to read about products trends, fashion, tech trends, innovation models and creativity. The Futurists at Kedge have come up with a great paradigm on the lifecycle of a trend. They say, “Attempting to capitalize on trends once they are already in the public eye is a futile effort. To profit from an ever-changing world, our senses must be trained to identify trends much earlier in the lifecycle.”

I’m afraid economic developers have fallen into the trap of viewing trends and best practices as something that should be capitalized on. In other words, if we see something at a conference or borrow a tool or strategy that someone else is using we try to adopt it as our own albeit with modifications that fit our needs. I suppose doing this might mean that an evolutionary process is taking place and ultimately the strategy or idea becomes better. But does it? And does it move the needle of progress?

I would argue that we as economic developers do ourselves a disservice and by attribution our communities a disservice when we latch onto or adopt the latest trends that come out of a conference. We need to learn how to take a trend, view it through different lenses, mash it up with other trends, tear it apart, peel back the onion and deliver new ideas and thoughts on how we serve our communities.

Economic development is often initiated or energized by a negative event.  A major employer has shut its doors, or a gradual shift (trend) has gone unrecognized causing a change in the industries and businesses that once served the community and employed people. The townsfolk react to these events by funding and developing an economic development plan.  All of this is good, but what happens next? Rather than exploiting what these trends may foretell, the community relies on what got them there in the first place. The entire last national election was based on this notion.

 

What does the future look like for our local, regional, state, or national economies? What can we as economic developers do to impact it in a positive way? The only way to do this is to peer into the future.  Our communities and states will be better served by using some “foresight” discipline or practice that recognizes the past yet sheds its shackles and peers into the future.

Let’s go on that journey together.

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