The key to the universe

is not measure, but metaphor.

– Norman Mailer

The world of economic development policy has generally been dominated by an emphasis on hard, factual, no-nonsense, data-driven, empirical measures. Policy makers demand proof. Show me what works, and I’ll consider funding your program. Let’s increase the number of STEM – meaning science, technology, engineering and math – graduates. Let’s show young people that they can move up to big pay without four-year college degrees. What are the best practices from other states?

With this background, it is striking, therefore, to see economic development programs increasingly described in less mechanistic, more organic terms. Martha Bentley of the Maine Technology Institute recently said that one of MTI’s goals is “to help build an intentional community and culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in the state.” These words bring echoes of the utopian Oneida Community, 19th-century political economist Henry George and even the Shakers. The World Economic Forum recently released a report on “Entrepreneurial Ecosystems Around the Globe.” Babson College has established an “Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Project.” These terms bring echoes of biology, of nature, of organic processes.

In its original biological usage, an ecosystem is a community of living organisms interacting with nonliving components of their environment as a system. This definition has a flavor of uncertainty, of imprecision, of combining disparate factors coming together in vaguely mysterious ways to produce hoped for but not entirely predictable results. “Ecosystem” has the feel of agriculture rather than engineering, of cooking rather than chemistry, of art rather than science.

These differences in tone are important not because economic development does not involve precision, engineering and science – all are most certainly involved – but because economic development is not formulaic and predictable. It is messy and involves lots of risk, lots of trial and error, lots of failure. If we had to wait for precision and predictability, we would never see any economic development. Or we would be stuck in the grim predictability of some Soviet-style five-year plan.

The significance of this change in tone is what it says about the qualifications of those who would promote the economic development process. They must be less scientist than extension agent, less chemist than chef, less engineer than coach. And the messier, less precise metaphors must apply equally to economic development programs. Rather than shaking North American Industrial Classification System codes like dice in a cup hoping to come up with precisely the correct industry or business for a town or region, economic developers should fertilize their soil to better support whatever business opportunities arise.

Rather than insisting on a precise set of skills and experience a job opening requires – as if it were a 3-inch nut that could work properly only with a 3-inch wrench – employers must think more carefully about how to manage the skills of the employees they have and can recruit. They must think of creative ways to train managers, build apprenticeship programs and reformulate the definition of “the job.”

And, perhaps most importantly, elected officials must come to embrace the organic metaphor of community as garden – something to be nurtured and cultivated over years – rather than the engineering metaphor of blueprint – something to be built on a precise timetable and budget. The latter approach may satisfy enough voters in the short run to win the next election, but the former will yield more satisfying returns over the seasons of a lifetime.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be reached at:

clawton@planningdecisions.com