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.