Calling NEO: Read Ed Morrison if you want to prosper

Yesterday, I wrote a post pointing to an Ed Morrison (a Brewed Fresh Daily contributor) article at New Geography that chronicled Cleveland’s timeline of recent economic history.  Today, I wish to point you to his followup article, in which Ed Morrison has identified 5 components of economic development that Cleveland’s been taking the wrong approach to, along with his suggestions for a better approach.  Please read this if you live in Northeast Ohio, even if you don’t live in Cuyahoga County.  Chances are, these wrong approaches are being pursued in towns like Lorain, Elyria, Sandusky, Ashtabula, Painesville, Warren, Canton, and Akron, too.

First, Cleveland takes “the wrong approach to achieving scale.”  You need a critical mass of participants in order to do something big enough to have a permeating effect through an entire region, but building a bigger hierarchical monolith is not the way you get more players to buy into the process.  Morrison points out that a network, with links and nodes, is so much more effective construct for participation than a monolith.  I’m sure Morrison wanted to keep things brief and to the point, but I think more elaboration on this point would be useful.

Second, Cleveland misunderstands public-private partnerships.  Cleveland’s understanding of how these partnerships are supposed to work effectively is so inside-the-box, so thirty-years-ago.  Cleveland needs to take off the blinders and survey far afield, observe what’s working in the regions that are achieving success, and adopt the best practices.  I think elaboration on this point would be useful, too.  I’ve lived in 9 states and a foreign country at some point during my adult life.  I’ve traveled to 42 states and 7 foreign countries during my adult life.  When I criticize NEO’s misguided attempts at economic development, I have a catalog inside my head of what works based on what I’ve witnessed in other places.  If Cleveland doesn’t look much farther than the end of its nose, it just won’t see very much.

Third, Cleveland has “no strategic framework, no theory of change.”  Morrison hits a home run on this point, so let me quote him directly and add my own emphasis in bold print:

Cleveland’s leadership has no apparent theory of change. Overwhelmingly, the strategy is now driven by individual projects. These projects, pushed by the real estate interests that dominate the board of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, confuse real estate development with economic development. This leads to the “Big Thing Theory” of economic development: Prosperity results from building one more big thing.

The economy has shifted under the leadership’s feet. We are rapidly moving toward an economy of networks embedded in other networks. With an economy driven by knowledge and networks, economic development is more than land development, real estate projects, and recruiting firms that move from Michigan to Mexico.

Today, economic development begins with brainpower in 21st-century skills, and Cleveland’s leadership largely ignores the role of developing brainpower.

I have been harping on this and harping on this with anyone who cares to listen.  NEO communities, across the board, are making this same mistake.  They have confused economic development with real estate development.

I’ve grown very fond of the WoMbats, the current and past contributors to Word of Mouth blog, who have relentlessly exposed folly after folly in Lorain and Lorain County relating to misguided economic development.  Sandy Prudoff, Ron Twining, Anthony Giardini, and Ted Kalo are among The Powers That Be that have earned our collective derision.  Scott Bakalar posted a piece on WoM just today that illustrates just what I’m talking about, but many more such examples can be culled from WoM and WoM offshoots like That Woman’s Weblog, Muley’s Cafe, Developments Along the Black River, and Lorain County Photographer’s Blog.

Fourth, Cleveland has “the wrong mindset for making decisions.”  Part of the reason for this proceeds from the hierarchical monolith structure mentioned before, in which communications occur vertically either from the top down or from the bottom up.  Again, Morrison hits a home run, so let me offer a direct quote and let me add some of my own emphasis in bold print:

If you live in a world of hierarchies, you live in a world of two directions: top-down or bottom-up, with top-down the preferred direction. It’s the direction of command-and-control; of predictability and stability. Bottom up is the opposite. It implies disorganization and chaos, inefficiency and fragmentation, confusion and uncertainty. If you approach economic development from a top-down perspective, you want to limit and control public comment. Civic engagement is a carefully circumscribed event, not a process; a meeting, not a collaboration. Anyone who has attended a school board meeting understands this point.

There’s only one problem. The top-down world does not exist in economic development. Complex public/private strategies are developed in a “civic space” outside the four walls of any one organization. Within the civic space, no one can tell anyone else what to do. Strategies born in a top-down mindset are doomed to fail.

It’s not just school board meetings that illustrate this failing, nor just meetings at the local government level.  Ohio’s General Assembly and our nation’s Congress in DC have demonstrated the same failings, and economic downturn with no effective remedy is the result.  They’ve been tuning out the voices of the public that have decried pay-to-play politics, and even as they plunge into the abyss, the people aren’t being heard.

One more quote from Morrison on this point:

Cleveland’s leadership has a long way to travel down this road. There’s a naive ineptitude in the civic deliberations on complex issues. For over ten years, the Greater Cleveland Partnership has been fiddling with a convention center decision. In the long run, the upside for the city is minimal, while the downside grows each day. By following traditional top down management models, the city’s leadership, if it’s lucky, will build a 30-year-old idea 10 years late.

Fifth, Cleveland doesn’t measure its progress.  Nobody at the top of the monolith wants to hear that their decisions failed to transform, so, naturally, there is an aversion to quantifying the aftermath.  Without such metrics, we fail to mark the path we are headed down.  If there are any lessons to be learned along the way, the lack of metrics assures that we won’t learn them.

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