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“Green” Policy and Regional Development: Second Observation

October 28, 2009 by Joshua Wright

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Second Observation: “Policy” Versus “Environment”

Right now, the primary struggles with green development seem to come from: (1) actually understanding what “green” is and (2) knowing which industries people need to be prepared for. In many ways, this might be because green is happening according to a top-down, policy driven approach rather than an industry driven one. In the U.S. we often see industry development happening from the ground up (e.g., from the local level and up to the national level). Industries develop hubs of production (e.g., Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle, and the Rust Belt) and regions tend to develop specialization based on being more competitive at producing and exporting something that is demanded by the larger economy. This in turn produces a need for a specific skill and knowledge set and so on. Green jobs don’t really work this way. The “greening” of our economy has sprouted from a particular set of ideas (global warming, overpopulation, etc.); books have been written (Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Green Recovery, etc.); and policies have been shaped based on these ideas (carbon reduction, green jobs). Now money is being collected (via the ARRA) and pushed to regions in order to implement the ideas.

As is often the case, it is not particularly easy to translate the broad rhetoric, concepts, and policy (things like “clean tech”) into local industries, impacts, skills, training programs, and demand. At the local level, it is also incredibly difficult to assess present “green” realities, let alone to project future trends of what jobs and industries will begin to thrive or fail. Those who try to use such national predictions to implement new regional training programs or develop local policies could find themselves in hot water should their programs not result in tangible benefits to the region. In a recession folks need and want jobs (in some cases, any job will do), and discussions about how something like clean tech is going to be the next big thing can be really frustrating (think “dot-com” bubble).

Finally, a big part of the frustration around green jobs actually comes down to semantics. Let’s try to unpack that a bit. Politicians and news anchors often refer to green jobs as some sort of new “industry.” To a regional developer this is a little misleading because in regional development the term industry more correctly refers to a set of businesses that produce a specific set of goods and services. As a result, when we are talking about industries we are really much more concerned about “what” is being produced. Green development seems much more interested in “how” things are produced. It’s a nuance that needs to be understood because it creates a lot of confusion.

Here is a thought experiment: let’s imagine you have two tire manufacturers. One produces tires using traditional “non-green” methods and the other uses recycled materials and can be classified as “green.” At the end of the day are they both manufacturing tires? Well, yes of course. Should they be understood as being part of different industries? No. Both of these companies also likely employ the same sort of people, use the same sort of equipment, and have similar sales and supply chains. Also, from a training/workforce development perspective these industries are going to look pretty identical–with maybe a few minor skills differences. Seen from this angle, green is not actually about creating a new industry sector in either a general or specific sense. Rather, it’s more about changing and retooling all existing industry sectors (check out this article by Andrew Shapiro on CNN) to make them operate differently.

Conclusion

Regional economic strategies have to work in regional economic frameworks. And the time frame for regional development (e.g. 30 weeks, 30 months, and sometimes 30) years) is much different than a politician’s framework (e.g. 30 second soundbites, 30 minute stump speeches, and 4 year terms). Also, it should be understood that in regional workforce and economic development, the most difficult thing to do is to adapt the environment to the species. You could say, “Every region should have wetlands,” and pump water into a desert to make wetlands, but how long can you sustain it and at what expense? Development needs to make sense in the context of a region and not the other way around. Ultimately, bending the rules of economics (like laws of ecology) can be done, but not for long.

As we have said before, it is imperative to gain an understanding of local industry activity and demand. If you know what your region’s industries are doing and are up against, you can also be helpful in instructing practitioners on green policy and the skills needs they might have. Regions can do well with green developments, but it’s going to come down to understanding how the current industry mix fits to the movement,  harmonizing national policy with regional need, and operating within reasonable time frames.

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