Last November, I was fortunate to visit Estonia as part of the Startup Nations Summit, a global meeting of folks who work on public policies to promote entrepreneurship. It was a great event, but it was equally great to see what was happening in Estonia. Estonians are in the midst of radical experiment in how government works and the appropriate role of the state in the modern 21st century economy. The New Yorker did a great review, “Estonia: The Digital Republic,” in December and that is definitely worth reading. Among the transformations underway in Estonia are the digitization of nearly all government services, and the creation of an E-Residency, where anyone can set up a business and become an e-resident of Estonia. This is all very interesting and exciting, but I’m especially excited to see that many of these ideas are starting to gain traction here in the US. The latest example comes from Vermont, which is now considering whether to adopt many of these interesting ideas from Estonia. The Vermont Legislature is currently considering several bills that would assess whether Vermont should set up its own e-residency programs. These ideas are just gaining traction, but they could offer many benefits to Vermont and other rural regions, which like Estonia, are trying to attract new residents and workers. Vermont’s current Governor, Phil Scott, has made the attraction of new residents into one of his top priorities, and these new e-government efforts could be one means to attract greater interest for new businesses and new residents. These new experiments are worth watching!
I like the term Character Towns. This is a concept coined by Bill Kercher, a planning consultant based in Florida. He refers to Character Towns as small communities that direct all of their planning and economic, physical and social assets to develop a city that is both prosperous and pleasant. We all understand this concept, and we live it whenever we visit a place and say the following upon returning home: “You know—I could live in that place!”
Character Towns is also the name of a useful website and new e-book that provides tips and guidance on how to build a character town of your own. The e-book is definitely worth a read, especially at the low Kindle download cost of only $5. As someone who works in many Character Towns or wanna-be Character Towns, I found these materials to be very helpful. They don’t contain any blinding new insights (to me, at least), but the e-book is full of sensible ideas and concepts–all in one place and presented in a useful and readable format. It also contains lots of real-life exercises and examples from Kercher’s long experience in community planning.
We spend much of our consulting work focused on helping communities diversify after they’ve faced some economic shock, such as loss of a major industry (coal or manufacturing), a natural disaster, or a more general economic downturn. We’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, but a few important lessons jump out from this experience. Transforming one’s economy is hard, and if you attempt it, you need committed high-level leadership and you need to be in it for the long haul, not just until the next election. That’s why I’ve been so impressed with the preliminary work of Wyoming’s ENDOW (Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming) Initiative. Started by Governor Matt Mead in late 2016, ENDOW is focused on helping Wyoming develop new economic engines to replace lost jobs in the state’s large coal industry. ENDOW has just released its preliminary recommendations, and they contain a host of good ideas. They offer a mix of strategies that are relevant beyond Wyoming too—such as attracting Bitcoin focused companies, strengthening the state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, and beefing up workforce offerings. As always, the devil is in the details and execution of these ideas is still in the future. But, ENDOW is off to a good start and its ideas and progress are worth rooting for and following in the future.
There’s been plenty of interesting research and news stories on the gig economy and related topics n recent weeks. Instead of sharing the latest debates over Uber of AirBnB, let me point to two new resources that take a deeper dive into the issues:
- Global Coworking Forecast: A new study from GCUC (the Global Coworking Unconference Conference) attempts to get a grip on the size of today’s global coworking market. The short answer is that it’s mighty big. GCUC surveys estimate that, around the world, around 1.74 million people are working in more than 14,000 coworking spaces. The market is expected to continue booming, with annual growth rates projected at 16.1 percent. Future growth projections are based on the assumption that more traditional corporations will use cowork spaces as part of their own office networks. You can download the full report at the GCUC website; email address is required for download.
- UK Parliamentary Study of the Gig Economy: Earlier this year, the British Government commissioned a major study of the gig economy, known as the Taylor Report, a useful guide to new ways of working. This new Parliamentary committee report, A Framework for Modern Employment, moves beyond data to make important policy recommendations. The basic themes focus on providing clearer direction on the definition of a worker vs. a self-employed freelancer. It recommends that once a company reaches a certain size threshold (which is not yet defined in law), its employees should be defined as a worker (and eligible for benefits) by default. It also offers a number of other suggestions that will clarify when someone is a full-time worker and when they are a self-employed gig economy worker. These include require companies to justify why certain personnel (or classes of workers) are deemed as gig economy workers.
While this new report leaves many open questions, British policymakers are at least trying to grapple with the policy and legal challenges around new ways of working. Here in the US, few policy makers (with the exception of Sen. Mark Warner and a few others) are even talking about these issues. It’s time for a more serious debate and discussion.
America’s rural regions often have a tough time developing home grown talent. Because these places are smaller with a smaller absolute number of employers, they often lack the diverse array of internships, externships, and other career-building opportunities that are common in larger urban areas. As a result, younger rural residents (or adults) may not get the full range of career-building opportunities available to their urban or suburban counterparts. Ivy Love, a researcher at New America, presents what I think is an excellent idea for addressing this challenge: Apprenticeships! This work-based learning approach is more typically considered in sectors like construction or manufacturing, but there’s no reason why it can’t be applied more broadly. Under Love’s proposal, workforce development agencies would deploy their apprenticeship funds to help support salaries for people working in host of sectors, such as insurance, healthcare, finance, IT and many more. This broader take on apprenticeships offers many benefits. Younger workers get career training, firms get new workers and new ideas, and the companies provide essential services to their rural communities as well. As Love notes, this step can happen today under current law–all that’s needed is a willingness to try new approaches. This is an excellent idea that can take the popular concept of apprenticeships and make them applicable and attractive to a wider range of communities and industries.
Yesterday, I participated in a fascinating workshop from the folks at the Innovation Growth Lab. If you don’t know this group, you should get acquainted. They are UK-based and affiliated with Nesta, but have hosts of global partners including the Kauffman Foundation here in the US. Their mission is to bring a more scientific and rigorous approach to understanding what works in innovation policy. Our workshop focused on this topic and how to set up small experiments to test different approaches to innovation policy and business support programs. In addition to working with policymakers, they sponsor and promote research, including an interesting symposium here in DC this week. If you want to dive deeper, I’d suggest attending their big annual gathering which will be held this year in Boston from June 12-14. I can’t say that the current environment in DC is especially currently conducive to the use of science to make public policies more effective, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying!! Thanks to IGL, we can learn what’s working from around the world and find ways to act on these lessons.
Thanks to a family home in the area, I get to spend a good amount of time in Bucksport. Maine. Bucksport is small Midcoast Maine town of nearly 5,000 people. It’s a nice place, but not a tourist haunt. Since 1930, it was home to a large paper mill which shut down in 2014, slamming the town’s economy and putting about 570 people out of work. The town has been in a major rebuild mode ever since, and I’ve been inspired and impressed by how the community has come together in groups such as Bucksport Heart and Soul and Main Street Bucksport.
A new book, Still Mill: Poems, Stories, and Songs of Making Paper in Bucksport, Maine (1930-2014) is another recent result of the community’s healing and rebuilding processes. The mill’s closure was not just an economic shock; it was a blow to the community’s culture and heritage as well. Still Mill is a testament to that culture, and something of a time capsule for future generations. It’s a motley mix of poems, stories, plays, historical facts, remembrances, and even recipes—all of it serving as a means to honor the past but also to move the community forward. Contributors include school age children, former mill workers, and folks who’ve lived in the region for their entire lives. While I doubt that Still Mill will ever be a best seller, it’s a small but wonderful example of how to help communities heal and recover in the face of wrenching social and economic changes.
As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been involved for several years on a major project to provide technical assistance to America’s coal-reliant communities as they seek to retrain displaced workers and develop new economic engines. A new summary of our work to date has just been released, and it provides a good snapshot of both the challenges and opportunities facing America’s coal regions. This project is still underway, and we’ll be hosting training sessions in Montana and Wyoming in Spring 2018. You can stay updated on the project, and learn more about economic diversification more generally by signing up for our project e-newsletter, Growing Stronger Economies in our Coal Communities. You can learn more and sign up here.
The US Congress is not a very popular institution, and the list of its neglected policy work is pretty long. As a program evaluator, I’ve been disappointed in the longstanding lack of interest and support for serious program evaluations and assessments. I’m old enough to remember when Congressional committees dug deep into the issues, and groups like the sadly lost Office of Technology Assessment did excellent in-house policy research. So, I’m very pleased with a newly-introduced bill: HR 4174, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2017. The proposal has high-level bipartisan sponsors in House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), and it contains a lot of good ideas. It builds on the ideas of a bipartisan White House Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, convened late in the Obama Administration. Among other things, the bill would push agencies to build evaluation into all new programs, and provide adequate funding to support this work. It would also improve researchers’ access to data and allow better cross-agency sharing of information. These are all excellent and sensible ideas that shouldn’t be partisan. After all, all sides want to know if new or existing programs really work. I’m pleased to see this bill introduced and encourage you to advocate for its passage.
The latest version of our quarterly e-newsletter, EntreWorks Insights, is now available. This issue looks at the question of how best to revitalize the economies of our smaller legacy cities. You can access the newsletter and subscribe to future issues here.