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The Local Economy Revolution

Welcome to the Sea Change

Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to welcome you to the first section of Della Rucker’s book, The Local Economy Revolution

I’m sure many of you have already read Della’s past Planning Commissioners Journal and PlannersWeb columns. As you know, she brings a wealth of knowledge and insights on planning and local economic development. What’s more, Della is attuned to the critical importance of citizen involvement in local planning and decision-making.

It’s a great pleasure for us to offer you The Local Economy Revolution here on PlannersWeb.

There are two ways to get started. You can continue immediately to Della’s first chapter, set out below, or (as we suggest) start by reading Della’s introduction to the book.

One final note: you can buy Della’s book online. Our serialization includes the first two parts of Della’s three-part book.

What’s changed? Yes, I know, a lot.


If you’re reading this book, I suspect that’s not breaking news to you. Things, lots of things, have definitely changed — we know that, and we can sense that. But what? And what are those changes going to mean for us?

The question is, how do we set our communities up to thrive in a world of Macro Uncertainty.

The world is full of macro economic talk — debates over policies and trends that, we are told, will have Major Impacts. There are 500 books out there about Big Economic Stuff — if you want to read about that, you certainly can. And since the goal of the media outlets that yell about the potential for the sky to fall is to panic us into believing that the sky really is falling (and that we’d better keep buying their publication so that we know when it’s going to happen and where the bomb shelters are), what we end up with in a lot of popular media about macro economics is a lot of sound and fury, often signifying very little.

I’m not interested in whether one industry is rising or falling at this moment, in whether some new national law will or will not result in The End of The World As We Know It. Although those issues have definite and direct impacts, they can also fool us. We can turn them into red herrings, distracting us and siphoning away the energy that we need to invest in solving our problems.

Because the real question isn’t whether Policy X or Trend Y will happen. Stuff will happen. The question is, how do we set our communities up to thrive in a world of Macro Uncertainty.

What I am most interested in are the long-term trends, the overlooked impacts that are playing out in communities in the U.S. and across the world. Impacts that are part of the fundamental reshaping of how our economies and communities work. Impacts that no one, no government, no organization, controls. Impacts that will fundamentally shape our communities’ futures, regardless of whether the value of the dollar or the stock market rises or falls.

And since my objective here is to write something that you can use as a thinking tool, I’m going to pull down my focus to three core issues — let’s call them Undercurrents:

  • The fact that economic success depends on a lot of factors that were never “economic development” before – and that those factors are all tangled up with each other,
  • The fact that we have a long, unaddressed history of creating unintended consequences – often nasty ones – as a result of overly simplistic approaches to community economic challenges, and
  • The fact that Talent is our new economy’s raw material, and Talent is… a real pain in the butt.

In the introduction to the book, I told a little story before about my family’s factory in the 1970s and 1980s Rust Belt, and that wasn’t just an exercise in pulling off old scabs.

What I care about, and what I hope you care about, is how we can most effectively equip our communities for the unpredictable future coming down the road.

The lesson of the 1980s in Cleveland and many other places was that economic sea changes will impact us, and like the sea they are huge, complex and beyond our direct control. There wasn’t one thing that put my family’s factory, or a thousand others, out of business. It was a combination of factors, ranging from short-sighted management decisions to the automation of the steel industry. Cascading errors, the organization theory people call it. Welcome to chaos theory at work in your life.

Changes in the larger world of economy, generations, technology and all that interrelated welter of stuff are happening and will continue to happen, and I think it’s a fool’s game to try to make big predictions about how those will play out over coming years and decades.

What I care about, and what I hope you care about, is how we can most effectively equip our communities for the unpredictable future coming down the road.

That sea change idea that I threw out probably needs some unpacking, especially if you’re a Midwestern landlubber, like I was until I married a guy who lives to sail. Because I think it’s a central metaphor for what we’re trying to do.

When you are captain of a sailboat, whether it’s the Sunfish that my kids were sailing last week or an America’s Cup catamaran, what you can do and where you can go is constrained by the wind and the water. And the first lesson of sailing is:

If the wind is coming straight from the direction you want to go, you can wish all you want, but you can’t go directly there.

Sailboats with a breeze, by Marc Hughers
all illustrations by Marc Hughes unless otherwise noted.

You might say “damn it, I am going to go straight there!” You could try as hard as you wanted, but it ain’t gonna work. Your only choices are to beat upwind, or go somewhere else. And if the wind direction changes, as happens about every 30 seconds on the lake where we often sail, you have no choice but to change either your trajectory, or change your destination.

A sailboat cannot sail into the direction that the wind is coming from — it always has to move at an angle to the direction of the wind. If you point the bow of the boat into the wind, you stop moving. So if the place you want to get to is in the same direction where the wind is coming from, you cannot just go there. You have to “beat,” which means to go back and forth at an angle to the wind, zigzag-style.

So there’s wind. Water changes, too. If you’re on the southeast shore of Lake Michigan, and a storm is coming from the northwest out of Canada, the wind will pile up the waves across the whole lake. By the time it gets to your harbor where you’re trying to get your little piece of flotsam in the water, those waves look like mountains. You can have a lovely sunny day with a perfect wind, but those waves mean you’re stuck … unless you change your boat or change your destination.

Not so many people learn how to sail anymore. If we did, maybe we would learn to rely less on command and control approaches to managing our communities, and pay more attention to how we can shift to work with the sea changes in the world around us.

The rest of this section will outline some of those sea changes. After that, we’ll look at some basic principles for how we might better navigate these waters.

Coming Next: Economic Ecosystems & Resilience