Mapping the Inclusive Growth Landscape

Ten years ago, I conducted a study of what different regions were doing to grow their economies, and what they were doing to expand opportunity as part of that process.  At that time, all of the economic development leaders I talked to were consumed with growing jobs.  Only a few were focused on expanding opportunity.

However, that seems to be changing.  A 2016 survey by the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) found that 81 percent of their members consider expanding economic opportunity to be “very important” or “moderately important” to their organizations.  And IEDC is making “inclusive economic development” the main focus of its annual conference this fall.

Yet, there’s still a lot of confusion within economic development organizations about where to focus their “inclusion” efforts.  The natural tendency is to copy what seems to be working for others, but that can be hit or miss.  Experience has shown that what works in one region rarely gets the same results in other regions, since each region has its own unique history, culture, relationships, organizational assets, collaborative capacity, and political dynamics.

Consequently, there is not one right or best way to practice inclusive economic development.  Nor is there one right or best set of metrics to drive inclusive economic development.  Metrics need to be tailored to a particular strategy, and that strategy needs to be tailored to the unique challenges and opportunities of a particular region.  In other words, the strategy drives the metrics, not the other way around.

That’s why it’s vital that each region map its own inclusive growth landscape.  Using somebody else’s map can be deceptive.  Even when the road signs look the same, they could be pointing in the wrong direction.

In my experience, the mapping process involves answering a series of questions:

  • Who is being left behind?
  • What systemic and structural barriers are they facing?
  • What assets are already in place that we can leverage to address those barriers?
  • What other efforts are planned or under way that we can build on, and how do we add value to those efforts?
  • Who else needs to be involved, how do we get them involved, and how do we keep them involved long enough to make a lasting difference?
  • How will we know whether we are making a difference?

It’s important not to shortchange this mapping process.  For example, it can be tempting to take a template that someone else has developed, overlay it on the local landscape, and put programs in place to address whatever is missing or coming up short.  But that kind of mechanical approach is bound to fail.

One reason is because templates can never capture all the complexity and dynamics of inclusive growth. At best, templates can offer guidance to practitioners on where to start looking for possible problems, but practitioners need to dig deeper to find out what’s actually getting in the way of inclusive growth in a particular region at a particular point in time.

Another reason is because templates are inherently linear, while the inclusive growth process is decidedly nonlinear.  With so many factors interacting with each other in unpredictable ways, the problem is rarely where practitioners expect to find it, and the solution is often counterintuitive.  Understanding the interactions among so many factors requires a deeper conversation and a different tool, such as a systems map or a computer simulation.

Finally, the mechanical approach outlined above is bound to fail because most programs just scratch the surface of the problem.  Organizations that have been at this for a while have found that even when their programs are wildly successful, they do little to move the needle on key indicators of inclusive growth.  One response would be to launch more programs.  But the key isn’t to go wide – it’s to go deep.

W. Edwards Deming is often quoted as saying, “Every system is perfectly designed to deliver the results it’s currently getting.” If practitioners don’t like the results they’re currently getting, they need to change the system. But before they can change the system, they need to understand how that system actually works, which usually requires dispelling myths about how that system is supposed to work.

Changing complex and dynamic systems can be tough work, in part because it’s so hard to figure out where to intervene.  After three decades of research, the renowned systems expert Donella Meadows concluded that the greatest leverage lies in establishing a new narrative, new goals and new rules for those systems.  That requires a collective conversation among key stakeholders, which is another reason why it’s so important not to shortchange the mapping process.

Moreover, the shared vision, trust and mutual respect that are built in the course of that conversation are essential to building the collaborative capacity needed to sustain change efforts long enough to make a lasting difference.

Pete Carlson is president of Regional Growth Strategies