Metro Business Plans: A New Approach to Regional Growth

No, a region is not a corporation. And no, turning around a metropolitan area hardly resembles running a business. And yet it’s undeniable that key planning techniques of the best-run corporations can help a region set its course and drive toward prosperity.

Which is why we at the Metro Program used our big Global Metro Summit in Chicago last week to preview a new business-inspired framework for facilitating regional transformation that we have been developing.

“Metropolitan business planning” is what we call this new framework and through it we think a new vanguard of sophisticated and self-starting metropolitan areas is going to take the initiative in moving the nation toward a more productive next economy, one region at a time.

The concept is introduced in a forthcoming concept brief written by myself and Bob Weissbourd.

First, the metro business planning concept reflects that in today’s economy, prosperity primarily flows from market activity. Second, it follows from the fact that major market systems are primarily metro-based. And third, it acknowledges that regional economies need highly specialized plans for performance enhancement. No longer does one size fit all. The notion also responds, finally, to the concern that we have belabored for years now that federal and state economic development policies and programs are still too top-down, siloed, and hard-to-use by increasingly creative, data-driven metro actors.

And so in a few U.S. regions where self-starting and thoughtful efforts to reposition local economies were already underway, Bob and I have been working for about a year now to “co-develop” the concept and details of metropolitan business planning with smart consortiums of regional planning leaders, business and civic groups, local governments, and elected officials.

In these regions, at least, the key elements of conventional business planning methodology–proceeding from vision setting and market analysis to strategy setting, operationalization, and the specification of financials–have translated quite well to the context of regional economic planning in the places we have been working. The leaders with whom we’ve been working have found it makes sense to adapt the discipline of private-sector “business planning” to the work of situating the market position of their economies; detailing emerging regional strategies for increasing prosperity; and advancing detailed development initiatives for catalytic interventions. Moreover, the consortia like that the bottom-up preparation of tailored, data-rich challenges to federal, state, local, and philanthropic players to “invest” in their plans (with a promise of return on investment) represents a new approach to regional development practice but also another experiment in recasting federal-state-metro relations in the United States.

As to the plans themselves, they are impressive in their breadth, analytics, and proposals. Northeast Ohio (as notes a short conference profile of the region’s full-length business plan) aims to reposition “older” economy manufacturing companies to compete in new higher-growth markets. Minneapolis-Saint Paul’s plan (profile, full-length) blueprints a push to stimulate more entrepreneurship in part through the development of an entrepreneurship “accelerator.” And Puget Sound (profile, full plan) seeks to go from good to great by making itself a leading region for the export of energy efficiency goods and services to the rest of the world.

And this is only the beginning. In each region, nearly a year’s worth of community meetings, expert consultation, and problem analysis has now yielded an interim work product that already includes scores of pages of market trend intelligence, extensive quantitative and qualitative analysis, and the preparation of unprecedentedly detailed development proposals complete with fine-grained design blueprints, specific operational information, financials, and return-on-investment estimates. Going forward, each region will present its plan and featured intervention proposals to an array of federal, state, local, and philanthropic “investors” for possible engagement.

Nor are the regional business plan metros only testing a bold new way to propose and implement a single transformative project. As is the case in the private-sector, the pilot metros will regularly revisit their plans to tune them to changing circumstances and new market realities (just like a smart company does) even as they reshape their strategies accordingly to best engage federal, state, and local policymakers/investors on their most current priorities. In that sense, the pilot metros are testing not just a way to develop single initiatives but instead a way to rethink the entire nature of regional strategy-setting and intergovernmental relations as each activity is challenged to respond to the increasingly volatile dynamics of the global economy.

In short a great deal remains to be learned and invented through the nascent metro business planning initiative, but the first results are in and—if I do say so myself—extremely interesting. Do check them out, and look for a fuller unveiling of the concept in the spring.