Collaboration Strategies for Economic Competitiveness

Political divisions appear stark at the national level following the November elections and fiscal cliff debates. Moving forward the need for finding common ground takes on increased urgency if we are to overcome the challenges and seize the opportunities facing our country.  Succeeding on this may be within our reach if national policy makers can model a trend many metropolitan regions are already using to create authentic partnerships between public and private sector leaders.

Photo Credit: Greater MSP

Photo Credit: Greater MSP

In the Twin Cities for example, where I have been working over the past few months , civic leaders from government, business, education, and philanthropy are coming together to recreate and strengthen the regional  economy to be more resilient, to specifically advance social equity, and to incorporate quality of life indicators within investment decisions. 

Minnesota is not alone.  Memphis, Chicagoland, Boston, and Denver regions, among others are using this approach to heal local political divides, bridge growing disparities and ensure their region’s long-term economic competitiveness.  Similar objectives are needed nationally and accelerating this kind of partnership should be a priority for the second Obama administration. 

Here are three specific strategies that should inform this work, be it at the regional or national scale:

1.) Private Sector Leadership & Public Sector Coordination Require Shared Value.  The private and public sectors each possess unique assets in advancing regional economic competitiveness and problem solving. Perhaps one of the most important implications to come from the November election is that we need not demonize government or industry. Rather, we focus on the strengths of each and find collaboration opportunities to ensure that public sector investments are smart, transparent, and focused; and that the private sector’s capital and community leadership assets are aligned with social and economic goals.  As one Twin Cities business leader commented to me,

“Civic leadership has limits. We can promote regional assets, research and set priorities for regional excellence, and advocate with regional partners for better policies. But ultimately we need public agencies to implement policies and set the table for regional investment.”

This type of “impact investing” can have profound implications for a community. To quote Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris, “collaboration is the new competition.” For the Twin Cities this is emerging as the local chambers of commerce and corporate leaders partner across traditional silos to forge a stronger regional identity valuing the strength of its many corporate, citizen and environmental assets.

Greater MSP and the Itasca Project  are providing civic leadership and actively working to ensure the Twin Cities’s standing in the global marketplace. This includes  working to address critical community challenges in infrastructure, education, workforce training and health care. The public sector is also asking important questions about its role and seeking far greater collaboration. 

2.) Re-frame Social Inclusion as a Key Economic Driver. The 2012 election demonstrated the political manifestations of America’s changing demographics. As noted in an earlier blog, we are a fundamentally different country today. Over the next 20 years the changes will be even more profound. With this come a new set of equity challenges ranging from unequal economic opportunity in many rural areas, to the greying of America, and the suburbanization and growing rates of poverty especially among the emerging Latino population.  More Americans experience poverty today than at any time in the 50+ years the Census Bureau has published such figures.At the same time, a growing percentage of new entrepreneurs and business growth is coming from minority-owned firms.

The tools we have historically used to address equity challenges have had limited success, and the fundamental changes in the global market place and technological revolution have made them further obsolete. Rather than addressing social equity as a niche issue, a resilient regional economy realizes that social cohesion must be central to future economic growth. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Low Income Investment Fund, together with a number of leading thinkers offer their suggestions for “Investing in What Works for America’s Communities.”  This free publication is a must read for insights on how to infuse equity into sustainable investment models and community development. 

3.) Use Infrastructure Investment as Catalyst for Economic Partnership. For me, the great disappointment of Obama’s first term was the failure to pass a long-term, comprehensive transportation bill – not due to a lack of policy ideas, but rather from an extreme reticence to discuss how it could be funded.  Let’s face it, roads and subways don’t build themselves.  They require investment which can either come from taking on more debt or raising revenues. Neither of which is very popular these days.

Yet for an increasing number of regions, the fiscal necessity of infrastructure investment to economic resiliency, is the ingredient for strong and deep public and private partnerships especially to fund transportation. In 2012, voters across the political and geographic spectrum approved almost 80% of transit ballot initiatives.

For the Twin Cities this is also true.  The region hopes to build 14 transit corridors to connect suburban workers and job opportunities with central cities neighborhoods and businesses, restoring some of the regional connectivity that existed 50 years ago and ensuring that the Twin Cities will be an engine for statewide economic growth.

Just a few years ago labor, transit advocates, business leaders, environmentalists, and other key community voices came together to create the Counties Transit Improvement Board. Today, the business community is helping to make the economic case for more regional transit. Among the options on the table is a business-funded land trust to support TOD within the southwestern suburbs.  

As Minnesota, and many other similar states and Congress itself try to address growing  deficits, strong public and private sector leadership and partnership will be essential to set priorities and fuse a political backbone strong enough to support the infrastructure investment critical to successfully compete in a global economy, to attract and retain workers, to advance social cohesion and … to thrive.