Economic Renewal is a process by which community residents from all walks of life work together to find and develop projects to strengthen their community and its economy. With the exception of the first preparatory step, it’s a series of town meetings, each designed to build on the results of the previous session. At first, this community-based approach may appear long and cumbersome, but because it develops sound decisions, builds trust, and diminishes opposition, it saves time in the long run.
The Economic Renewal process is carried out by a small team of residents with the help of larger group of volunteers and sometimes a professional facilitator. While many factors can affect the length of time required to organise and conduct the eight-step process, most communities find it takes two to six months. The process culminates in the development of project action plans; actually carrying out the chosen projects, which is beyond the scope of Economic Renewal, can take as little as a few weeks or as long as several years, depending on their size and complexity. The number of participants in the process varies widely from town to town, from as few as 25 to more than 200.
The eight steps summarised below are described in full detail in Rocky Mountain Institute’s Economic Renewal Guide.
Step 1: Mobilise the Community
The first step in the ER process is to mobilise a broad cross-section of community residents to participate in the rest of the process. This preliminary step is arguably the most important of all because, unless it’s done well, the rest of the process may not be worth doing. If an important decision that will shape a community’s future is made by an elite group of insiders or by outside experts, community residents who are left out may not stand for it. The result can be delay, distrust, controversy, litigation, or inaction. In contrast, when decisions are developed by all different kinds of people in the community, they’re likely to enjoy broad support.
Mobilisation usually starts with a small group of people who, having decided that ER sounds appropriate and worth pursuing, schedule the first town meeting (Step 2) and try to generate as much interest in it as possible. This is done in a systematic manner, initially by personally contacting representatives of every organisation and interest group in the community, whether official or not. Every possible viewpoint should be represented, including those that are typically ignored in local public processes. Having enlisted the support of key representatives, organisers publicise the process and the upcoming meeting through media announcements and, optionally, special presentations.
Step 2: Envision the Community’s Future
This is the first town meeting of the Economic Renewal process. It assembles residents who use worksheets to identify their values, goals, and perceptions, and from them project the community’s “preferred future.” The effect of this exercise is to itemise what the community wants to preserve and what it wants to create anew. Unlike many economic development efforts that begin with a narrow focus on jobs and business, this meeting gives participants the opportunity to say what’s important to them. They’re assured that these things, in addition to business and jobs, will be the basis for the community’s development effort.
In the course of discussing what they care about, participants often are amazed that others–even people they regard as adversaries–value most of the same things. This realization begins to build the trust that’s crucial to the success of the program. The information generated by this session is useful later on when, in Step 6, participants refer back to the preferred future to ensure that prospective projects are compatible with it.
Because many people who attend this first meeting haven’t been thoroughly briefed on the ideas of Economic Renewal, the session usually includes an introduction to sustainable development, the ER process, and the people who are conducting it.
Step 3: Identify What You Have to Work With
The serious work begins with this meeting, in which participants inventory the community and its economy. This provides a sound and factual basis for the community’s subsequent development effort. Without it, many opportunities would be lost.
Participants break up into smaller groups to discuss seven important aspects, or factors, of the local economy: business environment, access to capital, infrastructure, quality of life, the informal economy, natural resources, and human resources. Each group then itemises community problems, needs, and assets specific to its factor. The product of the session–worksheets listing problems, needs, and assets–becomes the raw data for the next step. If available, other economic and demographic data can be offered at this point in the process.
Step 4: Discover New Opportunities
Now the community’s inventory from Step 3 is displayed so that everyone can see it as a whole and find opportunities that might otherwise be obscure or hidden among innumerable everyday details. Prior to the meeting, the Step 3 worksheets are transcribed onto large sheets of paper and attached to the walls of a large meeting space such as a high-school gym. The visual effect is a huge map of community conditions. The task is to make connections–literally–between community problems, needs, and assets.
In addition to being challenging and creative, this exercise is also fun: lots of people milling around in front of the lists, pointing at items, comparing notes, and making connections. In the course of the evening, participants list dozens or even hundreds of actions that might be pursued to strengthen the community.
Step 5: Generate Project Ideas
Freewheeling and creative, this step concentrates on identifying more projects the community might pursue to strengthen itself. Participants brainstorm project ideas based on what they learned in Step 4 and on ideas gleaned from case studies of other towns.
Some communities find they’ve already generated so many project ideas that they need very little time to complete this step, and are able to combine it in the same meeting with Step 6.
Step 6: Evaluate Project Ideas
Steps 4 and 5 generate more project ideas than any community can deal with. Many will be impractical, incompatible with the community, or too difficult or risky. The worksheets employed in this step provide a framework for evaluating how well project ideas fit the community’s needs.
Participants form committees to evaluate project ideas. Each committee starts by clarifying and adding details to the idea, which may originally have been stated in general or vague terms, then evaluates the idea for its practicality, sustainability, compatibility with the community’s preferred future, and other appropriate criteria. Projects that aren’t chosen for evaluation are set aside for future consideration.
Step 7: Select Project Ideas
Though Step 6 reduces the number of prospective projects, there usually remain too many ideas for the community to implement at once. In this step, participants compare project ideas to one another to select the few that are most promising for the community at this time. Depending on the number of project ideas, this step may require more than one meeting.
Committees present the results of their project evaluations, which, tempered by comments from all participants, are summarised on a wall-sized “project menu.” When the presentations have all been made and the project menu filled in, participants discuss the comparative merits of each project and agree by consensus which projects should proceed.
Finally, participants form project development committees and a committee to create a permanent organisation to carry on the Economic Renewal work after Step 8.
Step 8: Develop Project Action Plans
This final step is a bridge from the Economic Renewal process to specific project implementation. It begins with a public meeting, which ensures that the committees get off on the right foot, but after that they work independently.
The committees’ task is to create a written action plan for each project. In the process of developing their plans, they’ll refine project concepts, recruit technical assistance, analyze alternatives, identify barriers to implementation, create budgets, secure financial support, and deal with resistance.
This is an update to my thinking and a revisit of those aspects of my life that fascinate me. I recognise totally that this comes from The Rocky Mountain Institute, http://www.rmi.org/Communities and I had the privilege of use some of these ideas in Leonora in developing their five year strategic plan.