A couple weeks ago, some of the most important economic movers and shakers in Rhode Island gathered to listen to ideas for moving the state’s economy forward, and for turning those ideas into realities. Attendees included elected officials (Governor Chaffee, Speaker of the House Gordon Fox, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, and mayors of several towns), and leaders from the business, nonprofit and academic sectors. The ideas presented were gathered through a process that brought together more than 200 leaders in these sectors, and ranged from promoting Rhode Island’s already active “maker” movement (a high-tech extension of the DIY movement); promoting a stronger intersection of design and manufacturing, to take advantage of the state’s active communities in both areas; building up the state’s digital infrastructure for easier interaction, communication and collaboration among groups; taking greater advantage of the Ocean State’s setting to create a more unified marine sector; and so forth.
In short, this exciting event, sponsored by the Rhode Island Foundation and the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, left participants energized and eager to pursue a wide range of new opportunities to revitalize the state’s economy.
One implicit but important theme throughout the discussion was that many of these exciting plans depend on choices and investments we will make together. That is, the policies we decide on will play an important role in paving the way for economic progress – or not.
Too often we assume that government involvement in the economy is “meddling,” that the “market” is best at solving problems and creating innovation, that regulation stifles efficiency, that tax money is sucked out of the economy – in short, that government should get out of the way, when it comes to the economy.
But anyone listening to the conversation in that room – a conversation that was all about creating a more thriving economy – could hear a different theme emerging. Government can, does and must pave the way for economic progress, in a wide variety of ways.
One familiar example concerns opportunities in the “resiliency market” – i.e. economic opportunities related to creating communities that are better able to resist natural and man-made disaster. Policies are relevant to everything from development of new infrastructure to creating energy efficiency requirements and investing in R&D for things like better batteries and biofuels. In each of these areas there are opportunities to innovate and make a profit, as long as government plays its part.
To take advantage of the intersection of cuisine and agriculture enterprises in the state, policies can help catalyze economic growth by offering grants for new food-based enterprises (farms, seafood distributors, etc.), promoting the production of safe food that consumers can trust, or by creating convenings of small producers who can work together to learn from each other and create cost savings.
To promote the state’s (already surprisingly strong) manufacturing base, policy can provide more training opportunities, and can create marketing for the state’s manufacturing sector.
In other words, to get to the exciting future envisioned in the Make It Happen project, we need to make the collective choices (read: policies) that pave the way.