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The Local Economy Revolution

The Paper Machine and the Gardener

See the previous section of The Local Economy Revolution: Some Animals Are More Equal than Others & Does the Talent Want What We're Offering

Interlude

That last section was kind of depressing stuff. The basic assumptions underlying much of what we are doing are wrong? Don’t fit anymore? We can't just wait for happy days to come again?

This is a lot harder than I thought.

Yes, it is. But it’s not un-doable. It’s going to take a while, though. So we might as well get started now.

This section will play out four basic implications of the sea changes we talked about in Part 1. We'll start broad again with each one and go more narrow -- starting with an element of the paradigm shift that the facts necessitate, and working through to some general principles of practice. And you'll find some examples in the online materials on my web site. That’s not to say that those places are doing Everything Right. But it is to say that there’s something to learn from there.

If someone tells you they do have an easy answer, rest assured that what they're offering is a magic pill.

Because here’s the truly radical part (shhh ... ) I don't know all the answers. At this point, no one does. Have you noticed yet that we're all camping on the frontier?

If someone tells you they do have an easy answer, rest assured that what they're offering is a magic pill. And you won't find any list of potential side effects on that bottle. Take it at your peril.

The Paper Machine and the Gardener

My husband ran a paper machine in the 1990s. I've often said it’s the only job he ever had where I actually could say what the heck he did all day. He made paper.

A paper machine is a huge hunk of equipment. The whole machine usually extends about a thousand feet from one end to the other, so it’s about the length of an urban city block. It has lots of parts that whizz and hiss and rumble and make noises so loud you need ear protection, and sometimes the paper coming off the end of it breaks and sends clouds of fuzzy confetti flying everywhere. It looks like controlled chaos, managed power, in action. It’s really kind of cool.

Illustration by Marc Hughes for PlannersWeb - paper press machine

Despite looking so impressive, paper machines do something that’s basically pretty simple: they take a slurry of water and paper pulp, and they suck out the water and squash the pulp together to turn it into paper. There are several steps to the process, and sometimes there’s lotion or scent or something that gets introduced into it along the way, but fundamentally, that’s what the paper machine does. Evaporate and squash.

As you might imagine, a machine this size has tons of controls -- levers and inputs and electronic doodads, and the technicians who run the thing have to be pretty well trained to keep it all working. But fundamentally, all the pieces that they can manipulate do one of two things: they take water out, or they squash paper fibers together.

We tend too often to think of our local economies as paper machines. We have a handful of lever and dials that we know that we can push or pull, and we assume (or tell ourselves) that we can get the outcomes we want for our local economies by twiddling those controls. Sometimes we call those controls incentives, sometimes they're sewer lines or land that we can sell at a deep discount, sometimes they're slick marketing materials designed to show potential businesses that “Hey!!! We are awesome!!!”

The problem is, our communities aren't much like paper machines at all. They're more like forests or farms or gardens.

For a plant to grow requires a wide range of conditions -- the right soils, the right amount of rain, the right amount of sun or shade, the right pollinating insects and the absence of the right kind of pests. Some plants have higher ranges of tolerances than others -- some of the flowers in my yard, for example, wilt when the temperature gets above 90, while the weeds could apparently survive a nuclear blast.

The main thing that makes a garden different from a paper machine, though, is the degree to which we lack direct control over many of those factors.

I can't change the number of hours in a day that the sun shines, and I can’t ensure enough of a supply of the pollinators that my fruit trees want if something in the next yard over keeps eating them.

Not only do we lack direct control, we have to accept the fact that we lack direct control. Berating the sun to stay in the sky longer, or trying to pollinate each apple blossom by hand, don't sound like helpful solutions.


If we shift away from thinking of communities as machines to manipulate, and we shift toward thinking of them as gardens to manage, that creates a number of implications, some of which we'll explore in the next sections. But here’s a few to get started:

  • If the work of economic development is tending the garden, rather than trying to manhandle the machinery, then our role can fit what Brad Feld described in his book about StartUp Communities: we can readily be feeders, rather than trying to force leadership. You can’t lead a plant to grow -- the most effective thing you can do is create the conditions in which it can grow best. If our role is as economic development feeders, then we can concentrate on the things that our existing businesses consistently tell us have the biggest impact on their operations.

Our role is not to "make deals happen." Our role, instead, is to enable an environment where good economic stuff can happen.

  • If the work of economic development is managing the forest, rather than manipulating the machinery, then our role is not to "make deals happen." Our role, instead, is to enable an environment where good economic stuff can happen. That means that we have to sink less of our energy and resources into the small number of projects that we can actually hands-on manage -- and take the blows that will fall on us when some of those fall apart -- and we can spread our impact across the community.

If we're doing gardening, rather than trying to directly manipulate the system, then we lose the pressure to sink our limited resources into cultivating pretty but delicate exotics.

  • If the work of economic development is tending the garden, rather than trying to push something through the machinery, then the proliferating number of smaller deals that currently demand more and more and more of our increasingly squeezed time ... aren't demanding so much of our time. We know in our guts that we don’t have the time or the human-power to give all those smaller businesses the same level of attention. If we shift our focus to strengthening the garden as a whole, rather than trying to meet the demands of each individual business individually, then we can reach more broadly and overcome our staffing and budget limits.
  • If the work of economic development is managing the forest, rather than whacking at the buttons on the machine in the hoped-for but unproven belief that somehow pushing the right combination will make everything better, then we no longer face the pressure to grab anything that comes along, at any cost. Everyone knows that you can't grow a cypress tree in Fairbanks, Alaska, or keep a birch tree alive very long in the Amazon. If we're doing gardening, rather than trying to directly manipulate the system, then we lose the pressure to sink our limited resources into cultivating pretty but delicate exotics.

That all might sound a little idealistic, and it is -- but to make a point. We have generally poor results to show for the Machine Management Model of economic development -- and as average business size gets smaller and smaller, and the number of Big Win opportunities shrinks even faster, we're finding that we can pound on the control panel all we want, the machine isn't making our communities better. And it’s wearing us out, on top of it.

Reframing, re-orienting our economic development efforts in this manner doesn't just make abstract metaphor sense. It makes practical, how-you-run-your-department-or-organization sense. How much more impact could you ultimately have if you shifted from pushing “deals” through the machine, to enabling businesses to function better?

Coming Next: Native Species