If there is a question that has defined this state throughout its history, it is this one: What are we going to do to grow the economy?

Over the last four weeks, we’ve talked about the emergence of a new economy in Maine, driven by our innovators, entrepreneurs and doers.

We’ve looked at Maine’s long history of resourceful tinkerers.

We’ve explored the idea of a bottom-up economy of smaller businesses selling quality Maine products to the world.

And we’ve recommended that we, as taxpayers, focus more on supporting Maine’s smaller businesses and less on trying to lure footloose companies to the state.

Today, in this final installment in the series, we look at a plan for accelerating the growth of Maine’s next economy.

Like any business plan, this one begins with our assets and liabilities.

On the negative side, we’re a small state with an aging population and modest incomes.

That means we have limited resources for the critical investments that a robust economy needs, in education and training, infrastructure and business development. That, in turn, requires us to be smarter about where and how government invests in creating new jobs.

Our other liabilities are so well known that virtually any fourth-grader in the state could recite them from memory: We’re cold, remote, expensive, disorganized and discouraged.

On the plus side, we’re a hardworking and resourceful people. This beautiful state is loved by millions of people all over the world. And we have a reputation for producing quality products. The Maine “brand” – our most precious asset – is regularly associated with words like authentic, wholesome and trustworthy.

So what are the opportunities for Maine? We have a chance to build an economy, just as Mainers before us did, that is driven by innovation and new ideas, and that can become a magnet for aspiring entrepreneurs from around the world. An economy that exports quality Maine products and services to the world and imports both people and talent.

To build that kind of future, we’ll need to focus more attention on smaller businesses with two or five or 10 employees that might someday grow to 50 or 100 or 500. Two-thirds of new jobs are created by companies less than 5 years old. That’s also where most innovation happens.

Our goal should be to create a state that is not only “open for business,” as every state is, but also is a welcoming beacon to small innovators, inventors, dreamers and doers.

WHAT WE HAVE TO DO

Transformative change in Maine almost always happens at the grassroots level first, then trickles up. So let’s start with what we can all do, as citizens of Maine, to advance to the next economy.

 If you’re already part of the next economy, keep doing what you’re doing and encourage others to join you.

If you’re thinking about creating a new business, do it.

If you’ve got an idea for a product or business, pitch it.

If you’re in school, focus on building the technical and business skills – and the flexibility – that you will need tomorrow.

If you’re an experienced businessperson or innovator, speak out and mentor others.

If you have resources, invest in new startups.

Link up with others in your community who are working to sustain a local innovation culture.

Insist on common-sense, nonpartisan approaches from your political leaders.

Read “Maine’s Next Economy” (available at envisionmaine.org) and then encourage others to do the same.

Now let’s turn to what government can do. Across the nation, forward-looking state and local governments are betting on innovation and entrepreneurs. They’re creating partnerships between government, businesses and educators. And they’re providing targeted and smart tax incentives for new jobs, expanding training, developing small-business assistance programs and bringing entrepreneurial education programs into the classroom.

Here are some of the things that would make sense in Maine.

1. Review all existing economic development programs to ensure that tax dollars are spent wisely.

The state invests as much as $500 million annually in tax breaks and incentives to support economic development. Are they producing the results we need? We can find out by:

Evaluating the return on investment of our economic development programs and tax breaks.

Weeding out the less effective programs and expanding the more effective ones.

2. Scale up what works.

Many of our publicly supported initiatives are effective, but we have undercapitalized some of our strongest assets. We can take these initiatives to scale with predictable, sustained funding.

3. Invest in research and development.

Research and development helps Maine compete in the new economy. Universities, public and private laboratories and industry can generate research that leads to new products, processes and services that help drive job creation.

4. Reinvent education to build the skills Mainers need.

In the next economy, Mainers will need to know how to innovate, work in teams and start and run their own businesses. Every third-grader should know that being an entrepreneur is a career option. Right now, fewer than 5 percent of K-12 students are exposed to entrepreneurship in their schools, even though more than 90 percent of Maine jobs are in small businesses.

The state, community colleges and the University of Maine System should work together to create an integrated elementary school to post-graduate entrepreneurship curriculum.

We also need higher education to function as one efficient system. Our community college and state university systems include a total of 13 campuses, a law school, 31 course sites and Cooperative Extension.

In effect, we’ve driven the cost of education up in order to provide geographic access to students, who then can’t afford it.

5. Retrain workers.

To help workers in declining industries fully participate in the next economy, we need more robust training programs that offer a bridge to new jobs that are going unfilled.

6. Invest in the telecommunications infrastructure.

Maine’s next economy cannot grow without improvements in our broadband infrastructure and cellphone service reliability. This is a basic cost of doing business in the global economy.

7. Apply the full power of the executive branch.

The governor has significant resources at his disposal to help support the next economy, but they have to be utilized. Here are some of the things that could be done:

Refocus the Department of Economic and Community Development so that it spends more time and energy supporting entrepreneurs, startups and innovators.

Create an innovation sub-Cabinet to align public resources and ensure agency coordination.

Promote Maine as an innovation and startup state in the same way we market ourselves to tourists.

Can Maine retool itself for the new economy? Only if we’re ready to take some bold steps, work together and have the patience to see it through. Our state’s innovators are already doing that, by reinventing older businesses and launching new ones. What we have to do, as a state, to support these dreamers and doers is make innovation the centerpiece of our strategy for sustainable prosperity.