What are the most innovative economic developers thinking about in 2019?

Posted by John Karras on Feb 19, 2019 10:44:50 AM

Every conference has a few themes that cut across the conversations – formal and informal – among speakers and attendees. The recent IEDC Leadership Summit in Fort Lauderdale was no different.

Here’s what I’m seeing that will be on the minds of economic developers in 2019:

The Need for Better Storytelling, Marketing, and Promotion

Marketing for business recruitment, marketing for talent attraction, and marketing to internal audiences (investors, partners, and local community leaders). There are a handful of places that, within recent years, have built buzzworthy brands – cities like Austin and Nashville or smaller places like Asheville and Bend – thanks to a combination of on-the-ground realities and marketing (storytelling). But what amazes me is the amount of economic developers I meet in communities around the country that are working with tremendous economic assets, but few people know about them. Including, oftentimes, local stakeholders that aren’t aware of just how good they have it in their own backyard! The gap between a region’s true strengths and the perceptions of the place (or lack thereof) is huge for most places. That’s the bad news: Your target audiences don’t know why your community is an appealing location. It’s also the good news: You have an opportunity, no, an obligation, to tell the unique story of your community. The need for stronger, more targeted messages about your economic opportunities is something I heard in conversations throughout the conference. Beyond the Leadership Summit, this is also a consistent theme I am hearing from economic developers around the country.

A More Flexible and Adaptive Workforce

Did you know that the share of remote workers in the U.S. workforce has nearly doubled since 2000? How connected are you with “gig economy” workers in your community? Do you have an up-to-date list of where all the coworking spaces are in your city and who is using them? Few in the economic development profession would’ve given much thought to these questions as recently as a couple years ago. But we can no longer ignore the impacts of a workforce that is more flexible and adaptive than ever before. This is equally true for entrepreneurs, freelancers, and employees of major corporations. We’re not just talking about the Tim Ferriss followers chasing the 4-hour workweek dream. Big banks, multinational corporations, and even some manufacturers are adapting their formerly rigid 9-5 “show up, suit up, and shut up” approach to employees as they navigate the new realities of the workforce in 2019 and beyond. Shout out to Jon Roberts of TIP Strategies and Crystal Morphis of Creative Economic Consulting for leading an important conversation about the “gig economy” and allowing me to briefly crash their session with an argument for why we should be paying more attention to remote workers.


Ummm, what?! Really? E-scooters are a major issue for economic developers? Well, not exactly. Let me e-scootersexplain. There are three reasons you as economic developers should be paying attention to e-scooters: 1) They are the latest unicorns (high-growth companies valued at $1 billion+), and these firms were practically born yesterday. Two e-scooter companies – Lime and Bird – didn’t exist two years ago. Now they’re valued at more than $1B each. JUMP, another e-scooter & e-bike company, was acquired by Uber for $200 million. 2) E-scooters are transforming how people get around in downtowns and urban districts. In just the last month, I’ve used them personally in downtown Austin, Fort Lauderdale, and Charlotte. In each case, the scooter was the fastest/cheapest/most efficient way of getting from point A to point B. This has big implications for the future of downtowns, including everything from parking facilities to ridesharing. I could be wrong, but the arrival of e-scooters feels like an “everything is different after this…” watershed moment for how urban places will function and how they will be experienced. 3) Disruption caused by technology and social forces continues to create opportunities and challenges for economic developers. E-scooters showed up overnight in dozens of cities throughout 2018, but they are the result of decades of technological advancements (improvements in battery technologies, widespread adoption of smartphones, and the growth of app-driven business models) and long-term market factors creating a demand for new transportation solutions (residential development in downtowns and urban neighborhoods, rising traffic congestion, and the resurgence of downtowns as 24/7 districts). Shout out to Mike Ammann with the San Joaquin Valley Partnership, my co-speaker on the session of Six D’s of Exponentials, where we talked about the rapid, technology-driven changes affecting our economy (yes, including e-scooters!).

The lessons here are less about e-scooters than they are about staying on top of the changes taking place in our economy and workforce so that we can spot new opportunities for economic growth. That’s why we go to work each day at Atlas Integrated! Our core purpose is to serve as a thought leader for economic developers so that you can better navigate disruptions and big changes, take advantage of tech and business trends, and ultimately guide your community toward a more prosperous future.

Topics: International Economic Development Council, storytelling, technology disruption, workforce trends

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