Economic Development Lessons From My Two-Year-Old

I’ve learned a lot of things from my two-year-old son.  He’s taught me to take pleasure in the simple things like eating strawberries right from the garden or watching the garbage truck come down the lane.  He’s taught me that it takes exactly 37 seconds of unsupervised time to make a mess that takes exactly 37 minutes to clean up.  And he’s taught me that TV remotes don’t float.

Watching him grow has made me both a better person and a better economic development professional.

Here are a few important lessons both for two-year-olds and seasoned economic development practitioners alike:

It’s Good to Share

If you’ve ever seen a room full of two-year-olds playing together you can be certain that there’s not a lot of sharing going on.  In most cases, the toy that my son is playing with is “mine”, as is the toy that you’re playing with, and any toys that you’re considering playing with in the next five minutes.

Sharing is good.  When kids share toys everyone is happy (especially the adults who are simultaneously trying to chug their coffees, enjoy an adult conversation, and eat a muffin during the brief moment of calm they know won’t last) and children learn that lending a toy to a friend doesn’t mean that toy is gone forever but that those friends are more apt to share with them, too.  This means more toys for everyone.

Sharing business growth works the same; regardless of exactly where a new company locates, the entire region benefits from more jobs, increased spending, and improved access to services.  This means more toys for everyone.

Have a Plan

My son is addicted to Dora the Explorer.  He loves to watch the adventures that Dora and her friend Boots find themselves in.   A problem always arises that the pair have to find a solution for and Dora invariably asks, “Who do we ask for help when we don’t know where to go?” to which Boots always replies, “The map!”

The two intrepid youngsters then plan a route and set off on an insanely dangerous and completely unsupervised trip that often takes them through rivers, forests, deserts, and mountains, but I digress.  The big lesson here is to tackle a large problem in small steps.

In every episode, Dora’s route is broken down into three steps.  My son reminds me that sometimes it takes more than one step to get to where you want to go and he needs to know what’s coming next.  So, we take an afternoon’s activities and list them in steps that he can understand.  “First, the hardware store to get some paint, then the office supply store for washable markers, then the wine store…”

Economic development strategies often focus on long-term goals and day to day work can become confusing and unfocused if you lose sight of those goals.  The most effective economic development organizations have a clearly written strategy and know what steps to take next in the journey to achieve a future target.  This creates confidence within the organization that today’s activities will help to achieve tomorrow’s outcomes and provides everyone with clear direction on what’s coming next.

Have Patience

My son has a lot of great qualities, but patience isn’t one of them, at least not yet.  He has an almost impossible time understanding why you would wait for anything.

Why not eat ice cream just before dinner if it’s right there in the freezer?

If my wife and I let him eat ice cream whenever he wanted it would adversely affect his growth.  We have to help our son be patient and make decisions based on what’s best in the long run.

Impatiently chasing whatever economic development comes your community’s way isn’t necessarily good for the health of your community.  Certain types of development don’t make sense in some places and you want to protect the culture of your community when deciding how to grow.

Communities that impatiently act to attract investment by offering incentives or deeply discounted land can find themselves smokestack-chasing industries that may not be sustainable, leaving the community with empty buildings or financial debt.

You have to make hard decisions sometimes in order to grow soundly, even if the ice cream is sitting there staring you in the face.

Economic development isn’t rocket science.  It is often misunderstood, however.  In future articles, we’ll discuss the principles of economic development, how it can help (or hurt) a community, and why everyone from the president of the largest employer to the stay-at-home parent is crucial to a community’s future growth.

Richard Horncastle, Ec.D. is a consultant and certified economic developer.  With a passion for growing communities (and having some fun along the way) Richard is a partner Keystone Strategies based in Leduc, Alberta, where he lives with his wife and two sons.