A call for systemic change has echoed loudly across the world — at uprisings in Tahrir Square, anti-austerity demonstrations in Greece, and encampments on Wall Street. Our economic, political, and social institutions have failed to provide for human and ecological well-being.
Few societies have organized for broadly shared benefits, despite abundant wealth and power. The Fukishima nuclear disaster, the U.S. housing bubble collapse, and the Gulf oil spill reveal how vulnerable we are to disasters of our own making. And we lack the adaptive capacities will we need to address climate change and other resource challenges in the future.
To meet human needs more reliably in the 21st century, our communities, our economies, and our ecosystems will need to become more resilient. Cultivating resilience means harnessing our capacities to anticipate and influence change. Those capacities are rooted in the interdependence between human and natural systems.
In our globalized world, our relationships to each other and to nature have become increasingly complex, mediated over long distances by markets and technology. The homogenizing influences of global commerce endanger the local knowledge, relationships, and regionally diverse cultures that once connected people and place.
The benefits of international trade and communication are many, but globally interconnected economies also render communities more vulnerable to forces they have limited ability to anticipate or to change. Shocks in the form of natural disasters, financial disruptions, disease, infrastructure failures, and social unrest transmit quickly from one region of the world to the next.
Building robust regional economies and trade based on the real competitive advantages of people and place is a vital resilience strategy for the future. Regional economies can support a greater diversity of businesses and production systems and reduce vulnerability to systemic shocks. A greater diversity of production systems can also support more ownership models, which allow for more ownership opportunities.
Recently, in the food space, we’ve heavily invested in and supported local farmers that sell direct to consumers and retailers. But we also need to boost the success of medium-level regional suppliers — so-called Ag of the Middle — so they can feed large neighboring customers like hospitals, schools and corporate cafeterias. More local ownership can lead to greater community investment and social capital formation.
Regional trade networks can be more responsive to community needs and better positioned to make decisions that enrich the communities and natural environments that support them. They can generate more immediate and clear feedbacks on the impacts of their activities on others and the environment. When the true costs of production and consumption are reflected in prices and standards such as living wages, fair trade pricing and carbon taxes, sustainably produced regional goods and services can compete and generate profit.
By aligning policies, economies, and metrics to support living cultures and living systems, we can enhance the natural competitive advantages of regions. A regional economic development strategy is neither backward looking nor insular in focus. Strong regional economies are the building blocks of a more resilient and equitable global economy. This is the premise of a more natural model of economic development — a model that can create a more reliable prosperity today and into the future.