The Power of Community Radio: WERA FM

Even in this time of non-stop connection and new social media, old school media forms can play a big part in community building.   Community radio still serves this role in a big way.  For many people, a great local radio station is a big part of how they connect with a community.   Here in Arlington, we’ll soon be embarking on our own experiment in community radio.  On December 6th, our new community radio station, WERA 96.7 FM, will go live.   The station, a project of Arlington Independent Media, is going to be an exciting mix of local flavor, great music, and community building. The station is looking for new program ideas and volunteers as the effort gets rolling.  It’s going to be a work in progress, getting better all the time.    If you’re based in the DC Metro area, you can listen at 96.7 FM.  If you’re not local, check it out at    (Also, if you’re interested in learning more about the potential and power of community radio, you can access great information from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and the Prometheus Radio Project.)

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Innovation in Legacy Industries

Like many people, economic developers can get entranced by new, shiny objects.  In our case, this refers to hot new industries and recent history is full of buzzy new sectors like biotech, big data, the sharing economy, and additive manufacturing.   As we embrace the new, we should also remember that existing industries also create a lot of jobs and prosperity.  And, in nearly every case, these existing businesses operate in “old” or “legacy” industries.   We often forget that while these legacy industries have matured, they can also be quite innovative in the right circumstances.    After all, one of the biggest economic game changers of the last decade—hydraulic fracking—emerged from a classic legacy sector:  oil and gas.

There’s been some recent interesting work on innovation in established industries.  A new book, Technological Innovation in Legacy Sectors, argues that we need to rethink U.S. technology policy toward industries such as health care, agriculture, and construction.  Traditionally, the U.S. has been good at supporting breakthrough innovation.  We’re not very good at supporting innovation in legacy sectors.  In these areas, we need to invest in new innovation organizations that serve as primary industry change agents, investing in new technologies and building a more supportive innovation ecosystem.  The authors point to ARPA-E’s advanced manufacturing programs as a model for other industries.   (You can see a recent discussion with the authors, Bill Bonvillian and Charles Weiss here.)

The Self-Made Billionaire Effect, by John Sviokla and Mitch Cohen, takes another angle on the same topic.  It finds that most billionaires made their fortunes in legacy industries and thus looks at “How Old Industries Become Young Again.”   The authors argue that executives must become more sensitive to signals of incremental change in their industries.  This can be easier said than done, but they point to five warning signs:  new customer habits, new production technologies, new means of distribution, new lateral completion, and new regulations.  By monitoring change in these five areas, executives will have better prospects of not being caught off guard by new disruptive innovations.

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Global Entrepreneurship Week 2015

November is here, and that means dealing with the shift to daylight savings time, watching football, and getting ready for Thanksgiving.  It should also mean getting ready for Global Entrepreneurship Week, which runs from November 16-22, 2015.  This is the premier event for honoring entrepreneurs around the globe and it’s now marked in a whopping 160 countries, from Albania to Zimbabwe and everywhere in between.  Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) first kicked off in 2008 and it’s been growing massively ever since.   Tons of fun and cool events will be occurring around the globe—all designed to get people excited about entrepreneurship and pursue their own entrepreneurial dreams.   Highlights for GEW 2015 include the Global Start-Up Open and the Start-Up Nations Summit, kicking off in Monterrey, Mexico on November 20th.   Closer to home, GEW USA is supporting activities in more than 32 states.  It’s not too late to sign up as a partner, sponsor events, and join the movement!   It should be a fun, exciting—and tiring—week.

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A Contrarian Take on the Gig Economy

I spent this morning at the Economic Policy Institute to hear from a panel offering a less glowing and more contrarian take on the gig or sharing economy.  The panel included presentations from EPI’s Lawrence Mishel and Steven Hill, author of Raw Deal: How the “Uber Economy” and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers.   Neither presenter thinks much of the current hype about the gig economy.  Mishel questions whether the gig economy is actually growing, pointing to very little growth in official statistics about these new forms of work.  While this criticism may be technically correct, it fails to recognize that the official statistics no longer work.  They do a good job of tracking the old industrial economy, but can’t capture the new complexities of today’s working patterns.   He is on stronger ground in his critique that many gig economy jobs can’t be considered “good jobs” and that a new kind of social safety net is needed.    Hill is an unabashed critic of many sharing economy firms, especially Uber and AirBnB, who, in his view, should now be viewed more as glorified temp agencies as opposed to real supporters of freelancers or gig economy workers.   His critique also includes some interesting suggestions for change, including creation of a new individual security account to help support benefits and other needs of the independent workforce.  (Here are links to related research from Mishel and a recent article on AirBnB from Hill.)   This panel, and many other discussions now underway, suggests that we’ll be hearing a lot more about the gig economy in upcoming policy debates.

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POWER+: Round 1 and Beyond

Today, the White House announced the first round of grants and investments under its Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative.  This effort is designed to help coal-reliant communities develop new strategies to help diversify their economies and develop new economic engines to replace jobs lost in the declining coal industry.  I’ve been spending a lot of time in coal country over the past several years and can attest that these investments are critical.   This is not about the “war on coal” or other such posturing.  Coal-reliant communities are in the midst of what will be a long and likely painful economic transition akin to that faced by steel towns in the 1980s and auto communities in the 2000s.  The impacts will be felt not just in Appalachian towns with coal mines but in regions across the U.S. that are home to coal-fired utilities and other parts of our energy infrastructure.  For example, rail and port volume is also down in many regions of the U.S. due to declines in coal shipments.  The impacts in these regions are profound and it’s not just about replacing lost jobs—it’s about reversing a vicious cycle of economic decline in the form of lost government revenues, declining population, and loss of hope.  When faced with challenges of this scale and scope, few communities can go it alone.  They need outside support and investment, and that’s where a program like POWER comes in.   In addition to these investments, a continued program is needed and is now being considered by Congress.  Let’s hope that Congressional leaders do the right thing and continue to support this effort which is essential to ensuring that these communities can return to the economic mainstream.

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The Distributed Conference: New Tools to Engage Rural Regions

Congratulations to my colleagues at Washington State University’s Extension Program who were just selected as one of five winners of the University Economic Development Association’s (UEDA) Awards of Excellence.   The WSU team won for their Pathways to Rural Prosperity Conference, a fascinating application of WSU Distributed Conference model.   Instead of holding a typical conference, the WSU team opted for a distributed model where the event was live-streamed to 18 different locations across rural Washington.  As a participant in the event, I can say that it was an excellent approach to engaging rural communities, where local residents often lack the time and resources for travel, registration and other costs involved with attending a conference.  Thanks to effective technology and good facilitation, the distributed approach allowed for the sharing of new ideas and active engagement from all participants.  This is a model that can and should be replicated elsewhere.  This year’s focus was on rural entrepreneurship but the same distributed conference model would work on nearly any topic where engagement of multiple rural communities makes sense.   You can learn more and access the project website here.   The site also includes very useful background on the distributed conference model.

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EntreWorks Insights October 2015

The latest edition of our quarterly e-newsletter, EntreWorks Insights, is now available. This issue looks at new practices for managing and ensuring the effectiveness of economic development incentives.    You can subscribe and access our archive of past issues here.

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Redesigning America’s Community Colleges

I must be in back to school mode as I have been reading lots of work related books and have been covering several of them in recent blog posts.   Today, I’ve got one more to add to the list:  Redesigning America’s Community Colleges by Thomas Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins.  The authors are all affiliated with Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, and this work builds upon decades of research on what works in community colleges.  The book’s big take-away is that the current system doesn’t work for most students—especially those from low-income households or those who face other challenges and obstacles.  The statistics presented in Redesigning America’s Community Colleges are sobering and depressing; less than 40% of community college enrollees receive any kind of credential or degree within six years.  In other words, lots of students enroll in community college, but few complete it.

The authors attribute this poor track record to the current community college model, which they refer to as the “cafeteria style model,” where it is very easy (and relatively cheap) to enroll and colleges offer hundreds of course and learning options to students.   For many students, the range and scale of choices is overwhelming—especially when they have little support or guidance at home and very limited guidance at the college as well.   Thus, it’s not surprising that many students make bad choices , fail to complete needed requirements and drop out.

The authors call for a more hands-on approach that they dub the “guided pathways model.”  This method, already being pioneered at many colleges, requires an extensive redesign of how colleges work.   It’s impossible to do justice to the model here, but, in general, it requires more investments in counseling and guidance, teacher training, and overall enhancements to the student experience.  Students don’t just receive orientation on their first day.  They are guided and supported throughout their college experience so that they leave school with a needed credential or degree.  After all, the purpose of college is not to enroll, but to complete your desired program of study.  This excellent book is worth a read by anyone working in economic and workforce development, and facing struggles in ensuring that local youth and adults are getting—and completing—the training they need for good jobs and successful careers.

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The World of Workforce Development: A New Guide

The world of workforce development is a complicated place.  As a consultant, I work for many workforce development organizations, and, as a citizen, I even sit on my own local Workforce Investment Board.  But, even with this background, I have trouble keeping up with the latest trends and innovations in this diverse and complex policy world.   That’s why I’m very pleased to see the recent publication of Transforming U.S. Workforce Development Policies for the 21st Century.  This book, a joint product of the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta and Kansas City and Rutgers University’s Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, is an excellent primer on what’s happening in the world of workforce development.   The good news is that the book is available for free download; the bad news is that it’s quite a hefty volume—coming in at 31 chapters and more than 650 pages.    This large volume is required for a book that covers a wide swath of issues, ranging from reducing long-term unemployment to the role of employers in training programs to specialized programs for women, baby boomers, and others to the use of data to improve decision making.    While the whole volume includes useful insights, you can also opt for a la carte reading–focusing on topics or chapters most relevant to your own work.  In either case, you’ll find this volume to be a useful introduction to the current state of the art in workforce development.

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The Local Economy Solution: A Mini-Review

Michael Shuman is a prolific author, long-time advocate for local business, and a driving force behind the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE).   His latest book, The Local Economy Solution, packs up all of these influences and pushes for new thinking about how to grow local economies.   This book, which I’ll abbreviate as TLES, builds on some of Michael’s more recent books such as The Small Mart Revolution and Local Dollars, Local Sense.   TLES comes closest to focusing directly on the business of economic development, and, not surprisingly, Shuman doesn’t like what he sees.  He is highly critical (sometimes unfairly) of how current economic developers work, and is advocating what he sees as a completely new way of doing business.   (Whether this approach is “completely new” is debatable, but this is a minor quibble.)

Shuman’s main point is that economic development should be about the nurturing of “pollinator” businesses, i.e. ventures that see their role as helping to spawn and support other local entrepreneurs.   These pollinators can take many forms, from service providers like law firms or consultants to businesses that also seek to inspire and support others.  These types of ventures are typically highlighted in studies of entrepreneurial ecosystems as well.  Perhaps the classic pollinator for Shuman is Ann Arbor Michigan’s ZIngerman’s Deli, which not only makes a nice pastrami, but also runs a variety of other ventures, provides training to other entrepreneurs, provides good wages to workers, and invests in many community projects.   Shuman argues that these pollinator businesses help grow the local economy and generate other ripple effects. In his view, this role contrasts with that of most large conglomerates.  When a new Walmart comes to town, it is unlikely to generate much new wealth and simply leads to a reshuffling of how local people shop and spend their money.  Pollinators help bring in new wealth and jobs and help grow (rather than reshuffle) the economic pie.

TLES reviews various different roles of pollinator ventures and strategies to support them.  The book’s  last chapter, “A Million Wishes,” also contains lots of ideas and examples for how to bring the pollinator concept to reality.   Here is where I hope to see further work being pursued.  Shuman does a great job of sharing inspiring stories and examples; the next step needs to be a hands-on guide to getting started.   Many communities—especially smaller towns—would love to support the pollinator model but don’t know how to get started and don’t know how to ensure that these pollinators are “self-financing.”   This should be the next book for Shuman.

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