by Della Rucker, AICP, CEcD
Editor's Note: To get a better feel for the principles underlying The Local Economy Revolution, read through Della Rucker's, "The Wise Economy Manifesto" (version 2), set out below.
In 2010, I left a Big Engineering Firm to start my own practice. I knew there was stuff that was rolling around in the back of my head that increasingly conflicted with what staff in Big Engineering Firms usually get to do, and I'd reached a point where that conflict wasn't sustainable if I wanted my brain to stay in one piece.
By that point, I had worked with communities in the U.S. doing assorted kinds of planning for a lot of years. I'd stood in the midst of places that were thriving, and I'd walked with staff and residents through places that were collapsing. From what I saw and what I knew about economies, planning, organizations and psychology, I found myself in a small but growing army of folks advocating for a deep-seated reset to how we who deal with communities do the important work we do -- convinced that the needs are bigger than a new program or a new method.
And because my experience had covered so many different kinds of situations, I was inclined to seek a holistic approach – a sort of universal theory that made sense of the fundamentals that seemed to underlie what was going on.
So I wrote a thing called the Wise Economy Manifesto, and in it I tried to encapsulate everything I was thinking. Which is usually a really bad idea. And while I thought at the time that the Manifesto part had a cool ring to it, now it strikes me as a little pompous. But like most of what we put on the internet, it’s out there, and it’s my own baby, goofy as it may look.
So it’s not perfect, but I think it gives a decent framework for the big issues we'll be discussing.
● Communities are human ecosystems. Everything we do, whether a land use plan or an economic development incentive, or any other public policy, isn't going to stay in the silo where we put it. What we do will have wide and deep, and often unintended, repercussions, and we need to change how we work and think to anticipate those as best we can.
The great challenge of planning and economic development is to uncover ... those characteristics that make a place deeply, meaningfully unique.
● That which makes you unique makes you valuable. Communities cannot offer everything to everyone, and they shouldn't try to. The great challenge of planning and economic development is to uncover, brush off, and illuminate those characteristics that make a place deeply, meaningfully unique. There is little value in being a commodity, but much opportunity in a well-defined niche.
● We have to focus on cultivating our native economic species. The thing that grows naturally where you are can, with a little help and protection, provide more long-term benefit (and fewer of those unintended repercussions), than the exotics that we try to transplant at great cost. In this era, the chase after the flashy, the big, the long shot, is too costly and too risky to deserve the lion’s share of our attention.
We all want easy answers; we all want there to be a simple solution.
There isn't one.
● Beware the magic pill. We all want easy answers; we all want there to be a simple solution. There isn't one. WE have to get used to it, and commit ourselves to incremental, complex, messy change.
● Crowdsourced wisdom is the best way to find a real solution. We have tough challenges in front of us, and we need all the bright ideas that we can get. Our communities are full of those bright idea sources, and they know things that we don’t. But just like water needs to be guided into a channel before it can drive a turbine, we have to take the lead in guiding our community’s wisdom into fruitful efforts. An open mic in the middle of the room ain't gonna cut it.
● We who have the job of helping communities work better have to be brave. We have to reconnect to the reasons why we got into this, before the rules and bureaucracy and politics tried to beat it out of us. Whether we want to or not, we are going to be on the front line of the fight for new solutions, and we are going to be useless if we are just punching the clock or wandering from election to election.
We have to critically re-assess our professions and organizations and communities, and find the fortitude to break through the walls that are keeping our communities from being successful. We cannot be foolhardy, and we must admit that we don't have all the answers.
But we have to be brave enough to do our job, and to lead the expedition.
For more on Della's point about the need for each community to establish its own unique identity, see "What's the Market Telling Us?" (the Economics of Uniqueness).