By Dean Whittaker

Let’s take a ride into the future, a future in which the economic geography has undergone  a sea change. Manufacturing is no longer the Holy Grail of economic development. It is a world where demographically driven shortages of talent have put a premium on those places that have had the foresight to develop and cultivate this scarce resource. “Getting the right people on the bus” has become paramount to business. Instead of marketing the place, the challenge becomes to maximize the return on the investment in the region’s limited intellectual capital. In this new world, organizations no longer solicit business locations.  Instead, economic development professionals broker pools of highly skilled talent to global organizations that compete for this scare resource.  It is a world in which talent has become the currency of innovation and entrepreneurship.  It is a world in which everything is outsourced, virtual, and service-based.  It is a world of temporary networks of teams of talent that are assembled, tasked, and disassembled. Land, labor and capital have been eclipsed by knowledge, innovation, and communication as the key factors of production.

How would you attract businesses in such a world?   For starters, smart economic development websites would promote their talent pools rather than their physical infrastructure–the skills and know-how of people rather than buildings, sites, utilities and transportation. They would emphasize their inventory of scarce-talent resources. Every effort would be made to track and recruit new talent into the pool. The stopper would be put into the brain-drain. The X, Y, and Z generations would become “boomerang” generations, tracked and recruited to return to the protective bubble in which they grew up, as the perfect environment in which to raise their children.

What tools and knowledge will the economic developer of this future world need? The infrastructure  will no longer only be about incentives, utility extensions, road networks, and available property. It will now include life-long learning, angle investors, venture capital and development of alternative uses of time outside work.  The role of quality of life factors, opportunities to participate in leadership positions, and a more balanced life, including a spiritual component, will take center stage. Flex time and the amount of vacation will be major negotiating points above all other benefits.

Is this “future sea change” sounding familiar?  You’re right.  The paradigm has shifted. Your cheese has been moved. Those still entrenched in the old paradigm are making every effort to hold onto it. But the tell-tale signs are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. One such sign is the re-structuring of the economy for enormous gains in productivity while employment continues to decline, especially in manufacturing. Many economic development practitioners will wait for the “good times” to return, but they will grow weary as more factories close, lay-offs mount and the signs become increasingly harder to attribute to the “business cycle.” The rain-makers will do their dance, the gun slingers will score an occasional hit, but the futurist will realize that the cheese has, in fact, been moved and begin to explore the new paradigm. Sprout some gills: the sea change has begun.