Pushing the Boundaries of the Possible
Rhetoric or Reality?
Robert Pollack, Chair of Economic Development Association of Scotland
Recognising the limitations of the possible is a fact of life for economic development professionals. We operate in a complex web of multi-scalar interdependencies and relations which are economic, political, technological, social and, increasingly, environmental. By way of example, the UK’s model of capitalism is by international standards one of the more liberal forms. In turn, the choices and actions of economic development professionals are circumscribed by this institutional reality. As one wit observed at a recent regional development conference, you may be able to choose the topping of your pizza, even stretch the dough, but at the end of the day it’s still pizza.
However, such limitations are only one side of the coin. Over my two decades of working in economic development, I am amazed at the scope of possibilities to make our communities, our regions, our nation, better places. Economic development professionals have continually proven themselves to be agents of positive change by working with the tools at their disposal, whilst innovating and seeking out new ones.
The economic development process is never a stable one. It is a process contingent on political intent and the fluidity of markets and industries. Recently, policy emphasis has been placed on Regional Economic Partnerships and Inclusive Growth. Co-ordinating economic development at a regional level has many advantages in relation to labour markets, asset utilisation, infrastructure etc. Moreover, the intention of addressing the inequitable social and spatial consequences of the UK’s model of capitalism is welcome. A new organising and conceptual framework is emerging which has evident merits.
As with every new framework, it has to respond to the reality in which it is emerging. All economic scales are important; local, regional, Scottish, UK and international. Therefore, we need to get better at responding to the interplay of these scales in our policy making and delivery. Too many regional development policies are “introverted” (a word used recently in this context by Marc Lemaitre, DG Regio’s Director General) and give insufficient cognisance to linking regional assets to broader industrial, economic and institutional forces and cycles that determine their utilisation. In addition, an increasing focus on Scotland’s regional heterogeneity is notable. This is welcome given that some regions are relatively prosperous and integrated whilst others are markedly more disadvantaged and peripheral. If we aspire to spatial cohesion and equity in Scotland, there is a requirement to transfer resources and capacity and stimulate demand accordingly. Regional diversity necessitates differing responses. In this regard, the formation of the South of Scotland agency represents a welcome development.
Finally, as an economic development community – local and national government, the enterprise and skills agencies, and the third sector – we need to co-evolve. There is a requirement for us to further develop the capacity for transformational change in uncertain times. The Economic Development Association Scotland (EDAS) is playing its part in this collective task through CPD, conferences, networking events, briefings and a pilot Community of Practice. In a small networked country like ours, we should all push the boundaries of the possible.