Economic Developers’ Evolving Role: Point Guard

Our economy is undergoing fundamental transformation and the skills needed for economic developers in the future are similar in nature to that of a point guard.

In basketball, the point guard position is essential to the success of the team. Although victory for a basketball team is the result of one team scoring more than their opponent, scoring is not the point guard’s primary role.  Rather, their job is to assess the environment around them and make decisions to create scoring opportunities - be the playmaker. Additionally, when on defense their role is often focused on helping other defenders and not being the primary defender.  Our economy is undergoing fundamental transformation and the skills needed for economic developers in the future are similar in nature to that of a point guard.

As I previously wrote with my colleague Rick Smyre in Searching for a New Dynamic: Rethinking Economic Development, there are three different types of economies in churn and mixed together for the first time in the history of the world.  We are in the very last stages of the first economy, an Industrial Economy based on hierarchies, economies of scale, mechanization, and predictability.  The second is a transitional economic phase known as the Knowledge Economy, which started around 2000 and is based on knowledge creation and diffusion.  The third is the emerging Creative Molecular Economy (CME) in which biological principles regarding the nature of relationships and connectivity are forming the framework for future economic organization and operation.

A key characteristic of the emerging molecular economy is that initiatives, innovation, decisions and implementation are no longer made by a few individuals through hierarchical processes but rather by self organizing, open, interlocking networks of individuals sharing knowledge and responsibility.  In this system stakeholders are not easily defined and authority and control by a single organization does not result in successful strategy development and implementation.  In terms of the economic developer, success in this creative molecular system of networks requires playmaking: understanding the motivations, talents, and skills of individuals in these networks and continually distributing and sharing resources and information so informed strategies and initiatives can emerge and be implemented.

This is in stark contrast to command and control in hierarchical systems that characterized economic development in the industrial economy. In the past and in the midst of the industrial economy, economic development was focused on well defined inputs, outputs, and outcomes:   create new infrastructure (roads, sewer, power) to foster land, capital, and labor formation to provide well defined products and services repetitively and, therefore, efficiently.   Economic development planning and decision making in this traditional environment typically involved traditional leaders (chambers of commerce, company CEO’s, and State and local policymakers and managers).  They were easily recognized by their titles and organizations.  They came together and made projects and initiatives happen without diffusing and distributing knowledge and responsibility among larger open networks. 

This industrial economic environment is rapidly waning.  Taking its place are increasingly niche stakeholders representing diverse interests and motivations such as specialty industry groups, entrepreneurs, workers, educators, and citizens; each with the power through digital connectivity to become informed, engaged, and organized.  In this networked environment, participants are no longer satisfied to let decisions be made and implemented by a few formal, traditional stakeholders.  They must be part of sharing the information and decision-making in order to share the responsibility of implementation.  For economic developers, this role is best served through the point guard approach of focusing on engaging others and facilitating networks to create opportunities.  In other words, to be successful in the future economy, economic developers should incorporate an approach used successfully by Cousy, Robertson, Johnson, and Nash.

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