Economic Developers and Sustainability Directors Find Common Ground

By David Leezer for IEDC Now

More than fifty representatives of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) and the International Economic Development Council participated in the first-ever Sustainable Economic Development Convening, held in conjunction with IEDC’s Annual Conference in Cleveland, Ohio.

“The discussions and collaboration experienced at the convening is an exciting and important new development for both professions,” said Della Rucker, CEcD, AICP, chair of IEDC’s Sustainability Advisory Committee.  “This is the first time leaders from both sectors came together to enhance local economies’ sustainable actions steps.”

Representing 23 American and Canadian communities, participants spent a day and a half discussing strategies for economic developers and sustainability officers to work collaboratively, and settled on a shared definition of “sustainable economic development.” USDN is a peer-to-peer network of local government professionals across the United States and Canada dedicated to creating a healthier environment, economic prosperity, and increased social equity. Facilitating the discussion was the Institute for Conservation Leadership, a nonprofit organization committed to working with conservation organizations, leaders, coalitions, and networks.

Words matter

One of the first “Aha!” moments was the realization that, because both groups rarely interact, there was a gap in understanding between each profession’s language. Very quickly, attendees realized that words matter, and gaining an understanding of each group’s communication standards and jargon was step one. Establishing shared language is especially important so that both groups can talk to the private sector about sustainability issues in a language that business owners will understand.

At first, it was a challenge to define sustainable economic development in a way that resonated with the entire group. Participants went through three periods of discussion and rewriting of a proposed definition. This dialogue resulted in the following definition which most participants agreed upon:

“The investment in business, social, built, and natural environments that creates increasing prosperity for all, now and into the future.”

Creative collaboration

David Gilford, former vice president and director of Urban Innovation and Sustainability for the New York City Economic Development Corporation, spoke during Friday’s plenary session about sustainability efforts in New York. One strategy that was especially impactful, and replicable in communities of any size, was open data – because it allows a wider demographic to contribute to sustainability solutions. New York City facilitated this by hosting the Big Apps Gathering, an annual competition using data to find new opportunities to promote city well-being. “Be open to ideas on the outside,” Gilford advised. He challenged attendees to consider some strategies as they return to their communities, including:

  • Define sustainable economic development in a way that resonates with a broad audience.
  • Agree on sustainability metrics for today and in the years ahead.
  • Bring new and diverse funding sources to existing sustainability programs.
  • Maximize the chances for creative collusions.
  • Bring new voices into the sustainable economic development conversation.
  • Find partners in unexpected places.
  • Travel together with people from your own city to resolve differences.

Participants discussed “creative collaborations” several times following his speech. This is a concept that encourages organization to regularly interact, during happy hours or other social events, with departments and disciplines outside of their own. These informal settings encourage conversations that may lead to ideas on how to work together. Attendees saw this as an opportunity to break down the silos between the economic development and sustainability departments, which are typically housed in different divisions, and sometimes entirely different buildings.

Promising programs and metrics

After hearing presentations from economic development leaders in Cleveland, Vancouver, and Boulder, Colorado, it became clear that sustainable economic development strategies are not “one size fits all.”  However, each program highlighted two important lessons. First, it is best to start small, rather than rolling out big, ambitious initiatives all at once. Second, it is impossible for one organization to implement effective programs. Sustainable economic development requires partnerships and community engagement.

On the second day, participants broke into sub-groups to discuss efforts under way in their own communities. This included discussions about:

For the final discussion, the convening focused on metrics that communities can use to quantify their green economies. During this session, representatives from Vancouver shared information about their data-driven approach; attendees from Iowa City shared how their community underwent STAR certification, a green-rating program for municipal governments; and the Cleveland delegation discussed how their Sustainable Cleveland online dashboard keeps them informed and accountable.

IEDC’s Sustainability Advisory Committee came away with a renewed commitment to educate IEDC members and share best practices through 2017 and beyond. Overall, the convening demonstrated that economic development and sustainability can co-exist, and both groups can contribute to measureable results, greater prosperity, and a cleaner environment.

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