Our economies are regional. Our civic systems are local.
This reality means that reversing a region’s economic decline demands an extremely high level of collaboration among diverse stakeholders who are, more often than not, required to compete with each other. Talk about a high degree of difficulty to get the civics right and to achieve collective impact.
Defining an economic region is no easy task -- either with words or lines on a map. But ample research has shown that even in the Internet age economies are organized around regions as businesses locate and grow in places where they have have access to regional assets, such as capital, markets, supply chains and talent. Some argue that the boundaries of an economic region are determined by the commuting patterns of its residents -- which at least puts a 45 minute to 60 minute commute circle around most metro areas. Here in Northeast Ohio, one could reach six different MSAs within that circle, depending on where one is located (and how fast one drives).
While someone who lives in the Canton MSA may commute to suburban Cleveland for work -- or may drive north for a dinner and a show -- that same individual will rarely encounter a civic institution that reflects their personal “regional footprint.” While this challenge is exacerbated in a “multi-metro region,” the same reality exists in economic regions dominated by a single metropolitan area. Civic infrastructures simply aren't designed to match up with economic boundaries.
Indeed, the civic organizations that are critical to shaping a region’s economic competitiveness (systems that govern education, workforce, transportation planning, business development, innovation, governance etc.) are almost all designed to serve local markets. Those systems were established when the economy was less global and less regional, and their base of power (constituent support) is derived from serving local constituents. In those rare instances when civic infrastructure might extend beyond a single county line it’s not uncommon for them to be designed in ways that exacerbate the challenge of creating regional alignment. For example, two counties that partner on workforce development may well be in different transportation planning districts. Good thing people who need workforce training don’t use roads or public transit to get to work...
This disconnect between our civic structures and our economic regions results in systemic dissonance. Systems designed to be local shouldn’t be expected to understand what needs to be done regionally, nor are they capable of acting regionally. Instead, local institutions must have the capacity to collaborate to address the opportunities that they cannot do on their own. And as noted earlier, regional collaboration is an unnatural act among non-consenting adults.
Creating an environment where local institutions can develop both shared value and shared responsibility in regional collaboration tests all of the skills of the regional physicist.