Interview with Della Rucker – CEO, Wise Economy

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My first impression of Della Rucker was that I had met a force to be reckoned with.  Della is a tornado of ideas and advice.  She is also an experienced economic development professional with a passion for community development.  Della is CEO of Wise Economy.

She has over 20-years experience in economic development planning, downtown revitalization strategies, fiscal impact analysis, public engagement, and other services.  Della is an active speaker and consults with communities both large and small.  Della also has earned both an AICP and CEcD certification.  Net, Della is one smart lady.  I have known Della for a few years now and am always impressed with her perspectives on economic development.

Della is now an author.  She has taken the time to put her thoughts on paper.  I’ve read the book and can honestly recommend it.   I thought it was well past time to reconnect with Della and get her most recent thoughts on the direction of the economic development profession.

 

INTERVIEW:

In your book you make a point of indicating it is not a how-to-manual, but rather something economic development professionals would want to read. As you said ” Something that taps that place in your guts where the reason why you got in to this still lives.” I am always curious about how writers are motivated to put their thought down for others to read. What were some of the drivers that compelled you to write the book?

I’ve been working with local government planners, administrators, economic developers etc., as well as volunteers and folks playing those kinds of roles in nonprofits, for a lot of years.  I’ve often served as a kind of mother confessor–in a lot of places I was the only one they could really confide in because I wasn’t embedded in the local situation. So when I started working out what I wanted to say, it dawned on me that there are hundreds of reports and white papers and books that tell you all the programs, all the analysis, all the methods that You Should Be Doing. But none of it is easy, and any kind of meaningful change generates resistance, and resistance is scary at best. Anyone who is trying to make their community better is going to fund themselves fighting against something, and eventually that something includes a lot of personal, emotional exhaustion.

So what I most wanted to do with this book was peel back, get underneath the level of the programs and methods that we tell people they should be using, and get to the deeper place of why it matters. Why is it that we need to change what we do so fundamentally? What’s driving the need to discard some of our familiar old approaches and strike out in directions that are unfamiliar and scary? Why should I keep trying when it’s hard, so very hard?

The book was designed to give people an underpinning, a deep framework for understanding why all the new methods and change are necessary. And hopefully find some encouragement to keep at it when the work of being a changemaker gets tough.

Without giving away the book, can you share some perspective about the book’s principles? In all fairness, I respond positively to the idea because (while certainly not stated) in principle it supports my personal belief the economic development profession should measure performance based on how well they are enabling residents to achieve their American Dream.

The book is built around three sections: three deep undercurrents driving change, four of the impacts of those undercurrents on what communities need, and three Secret Weapons for dealing with those impacts.

The undercurrents, as they are explored, have a lot to do with the fact that communities live or die on the interdependence of all the different aspects of the community, and how failing to deal with that effectively had set us up for many of the big problems we have today. The Impacts, as a result, have a lot to do with shifting the paradigm of whatever aspect of a community we are dealing with to manage those interconnections better, and the Secret Weapons have to do with working from better information, building a stronger team of community advocates and…staying the course. But I call it something else. 🙂

So there is a very strong tie back in my approach to residents’ overall prosperity and the long-term viability of the community, which is of course central to helping people live satisfying and engaged lives.

At the recent annual IEDC Conference in Philadelphia, I was evangelizing that the economic development profession was quickly approaching a Y in the road where one choice led to accelerated marginalization of value add to our communities and the other led to a reinvention of the discipline to become even more important in a community’s success. My counsel was to focus on helping communities become magnets for top talent by better enabling resident realization of their American Dream. My sense is that in some ways you touch on that theme in your book (particularly in the Sea Change chapter. Please share some high level thoughts on the importance of providing companies access to top talent and the impact that might have as a differentiator in site selection.

Ed, I’m going to bite the hand that feeds me a bit here. I get what you’re going at, and I don’t think there’s any question that a community’s ability to provide a high quality of life, particularly for its most economically impactful residents, is central to economic success in this era.

But I am starting to conclude that the attraction model of economic development, at its core, has largely outlived its usefulness, and I think that simply transferring economic development’s historic dependence on attraction strategies from businesses to people… doesn’t fundamentally impact the root of the problem.

Here’s what I mean:  If a community is going to focus on “becoming a magnet for top talent,” it’s going to find itself in tighter and tighter competition for a pool of “talent” that, if it’s growing, isn’t growing at anywhere near the rate necessary to appease the huge and growing number of places trying to jockey for a piece of that action.  You might hit every so often, but it’s a relatively long shot bet that demands higher and higher stakes from you.  It’s the same issue we’re seeing in business attraction – more and more competition, by and large, for fewer and mostly smaller deals.

Perhaps more importantly, even if you can attract some new “talent,” doing so may not make any difference in terms of raising the quality of skill and opportunity for existing residents and businesses, who will still make up the vast majority of what you have to work with. We tend to assume that we can just get something new in, whether it’s talent or business, and that will make everything better, but if you look at the long term trajectory of many communities, that hasn’t been working.  Instead, we end up with this bifurcated economy that we have in large and small cities across the US–a smallish number of the “talent” doing very well, and a lot of other people who aren’t.  On a purely pragmatic basis–and this is a numbers statement, not anything political– relying on talent to have some kind of magnetic attraction to turn all the rest of the population into high-value community assets… it just hasn’t worked.

I am coming to the conclusion that the goal can’t be simply making your community a magnet for talent. I think we have to shift internally, to focus on making the best possible use of the community and human assets we have in our communities. That means growing our own talent based on the unique environment that each place individually offers.  If we can do that, some other talent may find it worthwhile to come and be part of the talent economy that has grown up in a place, and that’s great.  But building the place that can attract that talent requires that we build a meaningful ecosystem of talent at home.  And we have to start with the raw materials that we have to work with.

Otherwise we have just shifted the hunt for big businesses to the hunt for fancy degrees, while the places we are trying to attract them to fall apart.

What do you feel the biggest barriers are to effective ecosystem development? Why can’t EDOs typically get the right people at the table to create a comprehensive strategic development plan? Are there any EDOs you would call out as doing a best in class job today?

One of the biggest barriers on the economic development side is usually that people set too small of a table. They think they have to get the “right” people, and that means that many of the people who could be most relevant to finding useful solutions don’t even know the planning is going on.

I’ve become a big advocate of crowdsourcing solutions because we have entered an era where relying on the usual sources will give us the usual, and by now ineffective, solutions.  If we think that our star chamber of economic types are going to have all the answers we need in a complex, fluid, interrelated and frankly unpredictable environment, we’re nuts. At this point in history, I think our plans often fail to do what they need to because we didn’t look past our old assumptions,  and we didn’t include enough people who could bring new information to that table.

That doesn’t mean that you just throw open the doors and let everyone say anything– planners often get in trouble because they allow too many people to spout off anything they want– but it does mean that we use structures, group collaboration methods and good team implementation skills to engage the broadest possible range of people in the economic development planning.

I want to not only see the denizens of the other local government silos at the economic development plan table, but I want to see the shop teacher, the high school student, the immigrant mom, the environmental whacko who opposes everything….they all need to be part of it, or at some level, it doesn’t work.  It won’t work, it will miss something important. That doesn’t mean that they’re allowed to drag the work off track or overturn the objectives. It does mean that a structure is used to engage them in the search for solutions that everyone knows we need.

The best Fortune whatever companies place a huge emphasis on broad cross-discipline work teams, on not only bringing into their work people from different disciplines, but giving them systems and training to enable them to work the together in a manner that leverages all the experience they can bring to it. They’re not doing that out of some kum-ba-yah thing about wanting to be nice, they’re doing it because they know that diverse teams create better plans and more useful decisions. And if everything is changing all the time, they know they can’t afford anything less.  We need to do the same.

Some EDOs are doing this to some level, but the best work along these lines at the moment appears to be coming out of the community development field.  There’s a nonprofit in Clarkston, Georgia, that I did a podcast about recently that has basically created a community-led process for setting priorities and allocating some of the community’s resources, and that’s in a place that has been a refugee settlement community for so long that they needed to work in 10 different languages.  But I’d be hard pressed to think of a conventional EDO that is fully embracing the need to integrate and engage with its community.  It might be that I just don’t know about them, and if so, I hope someone will tell me.  I’d like to talk to them.

Please share your thoughts on the importance of the diversity friendliness of a community. If a community is diversity friendly what does that look like and is it something that can be a competitive advantage? Or, if a community is not diversity friendly, what are the implications (particularly for FDI attraction)?

Frankly, I’m surprised we still need to talk about this.  If you’re not “diversity friendly,” anymore, I think you’re dead in the water.  And of course that’s an issue for attraction – whether it’s that “talent” or it’s FDI or probably anything more complex that a tire recycler – but the bigger issue is simply the community’s ability to change and adapt in a fluid economic world.  You have to, have to build that capability to deal with people who are different from you into a community if you want to be able to grow that local capacity, to capitalize on the local human assets that you need if you’re going to cultivate a community that can maintain itself in a modern economy for the long term.

I talk a lot about local this, and community that, and I worry sometimes that people will think that my message is about just retrenching back within your town’s walls and trying to reach some medieval level of self-sufficiency.  That’s not it at all.  We are simultaneously part of a local economy and much larger economies, and learning to be not just “friendly” to diversity, but able to meaningfully support and benefit from a diverse world, has become central to the basic capability to contribute.  We frankly don’t have time, particularly in American cities, to worry about whether or not to be “diversity friendly” anymore.  If we’re not, then we are missing out on enormous benefits, and someone else is eating our lunch.

I particularly like your statement in the book that “Economic Development isn’t really just increasing the number of businesses or the number of jobs”.  You talk this in the context of ecosystems.  Please say a little more about the benefits of the paradigm shift you are encouraging the profession to make.

I talked a little bit about the ecosystem thing in the previous questions, but here’s the Cliff notes version: We’ve tended to assume, as People Who Do Economic Development, that if we change a certain factor involving a business or a local economy, that a diffuse range of impacts on the community will happen.  That’s fundamentally the intellectual basis for incentives, for example – if I lower this cost, then this project will happen and all these other good things like employment for residents will happen as a result.  There’s an ipso-facto sense to that thinking that I compare in the book to running a paper machine, which I was around a bit in the 90s.  You change the mix of water and wood pulp at the front end, the paper comes out different on the back end.  Fundamentally, at least, pretty straightforward.

The problem is that, if you accept the premise that the ultimate goal of economic development is to improve the economic function of a community, you aren’t dealing with a mechanical process.  You’re dealing with a complex set of interrelationships between businesses, buyers, employees, the other people in the buyers’ and employees’ lives, physical places, tax structures, history, you name it.  You’re dealing with something more like a natural ecosystem, where a change in one element has impacts all over.  Look at the places that are dealing with the beehive colony collapse issue, or where a species of bat has gone extinct, and you see what I mean.  Losing the bats might mean more mosquitos, which means more bites, which means a certain disease may spread more among livestock or people… And chances are there are other impacts as well.  The interrelationships end up mattering as much or more than the initial event.

I don’t claim to have a magic answer to all our community economic woes.  What I have concluded is that our simplistic approaches – shoving on two or three levers and insisting that our tweaks on those will generate the complex results that we said we wanted – that’s not working.  As humankind, we have methods for understanding and dealing with complex interrelationships, but we’re not using them on the public policy level yet.  My long-term objective for the Wise Fool Press is to help us do that better.  But we have to make that mental shift, step out of that simplistic paradigm first, before we can do the rest.

Since we have not found time to have another coffee for over a year now, I can attest to how busy you have been.  But, if a community wanted to tap into your knowledge, what would be the best way to do so?

Given that you and I just happen to live… what, 20 minutes apart?  I guess that says something.

Well, first, they might want to check out the book at www.localeconomyrevolutionbook.com.  That site will give you links to buy the book for Kindle, Nook, PDF or print copy, depending on your preferences.  You can also find some other information, like recent book tour events, audio selections from the book, and soon we’ll start posting links to good examples of the Local Economy Revolution in action.

Second, my home in the internetverse is www.wiseeconomy.com.  That gives a little more explanation about the broader Wise Economy work, and it hosts my blog and podcast.  You can also pick up the podcast directly at www.soundcloud.com/wiseeconomy.  Soundcloud has a nice app that is really easy to use, or you can download or stream.

Finally, my social media handles: I’m on Twitter as @dellarucker, on Facebook as Della Rucker AICP CEcD (that page is separate from the dumb stuff on my personal page), and I’m pretty easy to find on LinkedIn.

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