In a popular study of the 1980s, David Osborne, the policy guru behind the “Reinventing Government” movement, referred to US states as “laboratories of democracy.” While our Federalist system is quite messy, it does help promote and encourage interesting experiments and new approaches at the local, regional, and state levels. Given the current mess in Washington, we’re going to need lots more of this innovation and experimentation.
My colleagues at the National Asssocation of Development Organizations (NADO) have just published two excellent case studies of new approaches to regional innovation. The studies assess the Kansas Opportunity Innovation Network (KOIN) and the Mobilize Maine program.
Each region has developed a distinctive approach based on unique regional assets and challenges. In Kansas, KOIN is built on a recognition that long distances and limited population density mean that traditional cluster strategies may not be appropriate for rural Kansas. In response, KOIN seeks to build virtual networks that link local firms to needed resources regardless of their location. In today’s wired economy, proximity still mattters. But, if you can’t have proximity, you can still access needed connections and resources. KOIN has already had great success in mapping and building a statewide wind energy supply chain, and a logistics cluster tied to an industrial park in Newton, KS. The KOIN team has developed a fascinating set of asset mapping tools and resources that can be used in any region.
Meanwhile, Mobilize Maine is a statewide initiative that has been fully implemented by Eastern Maine Development Corporation in Bangor, Maine and Caribou’s Northern Maine Development Corporation. Both organizations serve large rural regions with widely dispersed populations and limited capacity for expensive “flavor of the month” economic development strategies. Using the Mobilize Maine framework, both EMDC and NMDC identified distinctive regional assets and designed strategies to capitalize on these assets. For EMDC, its strategies now seek to build on its role as regional medical center (anchored by Eastern Maine Medical Center) and as a tourism destination. This latter strategy builds the region’s tremendous scenic amenites, which include Acadia National Park. Mobilize Northern Maine has targeted renewable energy resources where the region has major competitive strengths across serve industry sub-categories including hydroelectric power, wind, and biomass.
What do these two approaches have in common? Both projects are based on an asset-driven approach that avoids unrealistic aspirational reach (“We will be the next Silicon Valley!”) and instead looks at what assets really exist in the community. By using this bottom up approach, both regions are succeeding in building competitive niches where they can prosper in the global marketplace. Both KOIN and Mobilize Maine are real-life examples of ongoing laboratories for regional innovation.