Getting geography right for economic development

Economic development is about helping people and places thrive in a sustainable manner. But too often economic development practitioners have the places they focus on dictated by political geography rather than the economic geography of those they are trying to help.

Political geographical boundaries are artificial – they align with governance structures and service delivery models to the public. But people and businesses don’t go about their day-to-day activities being constrained by political boundaries. Instead, their lives revolve around where they choose to work, live, play and do business.

Before beginning any economic development strategy, or even project for that matter, you need to get your geographical perspective right.

Rather than being dictated by political geography, let economic geography determine your area of focus.

A bottom-up, rather than a top-down, approach can help guide this process.

In practical terms, this will involve analysing real data from your local economy regarding:

  • Labour market catchments: where people live compared to where they work
  • Consumers: where people live compared to where they spend their money
  • Businesses: understanding local supply chains and local customer bases
  • Recreation: what people do in their spare time and where.

Defining economic geography in this way requires moving away from preconceived notions of geography and letting the data speak for itself. Don’t constrain your thinking by jurisdictional geographic definitions, otherwise you might miss the mark of understanding the very people you are trying to help.

The optimal scenario for New Zealand would be a nationwide spatial study to better understand our economic geography, and then to recommend data-driven regional boundaries for economic development.

Unfortunately, such a comprehensive initiative might prove too confronting for our regional development czars in the Provincial Development Unit (PDU) at MBIE. The PDU is wedded to the current political regional definitions – and so too are other key funding partners for that matter.

But even locally-led solutions would have benefits, which could lead to better economic development outcomes and co-ordination between economic development practitioners in neighbouring areas.

For example, in my neck of the woods, one would question how sensible it is to have independent economic development units at both Queenstown Lakes District Council and Central Otago District Council, guided by two separate economic development strategies. The reality is that the evidence suggests increasing economic and labour market integration of these two areas, particularly within the golden triangle of Cromwell, Wanaka and Queenstown. More optimal would be to have a coordinated approach to economic development across the Southern Lakes and Central Otago, or at the very least an alignment of strategies to include a more realistic geography in decisions that affect both areas. From an inclusive growth perspective, this plan would not just cover the traditional realms of economic development, but social and environmental wellbeing as well.

Sadly, however, Queenstown Lakes and Central Otago are not isolated examples. All economic development strategies across New Zealand that I see at present take geography as an exogenous, immovable factor.

But I am asking you to not accept the status quo and instead let the actions of your local people and businesses teach you where your geographical focus should sit. That way your strategy will be more realistic, will resonate better with people and businesses, and have a higher chance of being effective. The disconnect between policy, community and business aspirations and actions must stop. More realistic reflections on geography – on people and places – is the starting point.