Ecosystem Thinking: A Northspan White Paper

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As a field, economic development has long recognized the benefits of businesses in clusters working together to support one another. How strange, then, that we often fail to fully implement the insights that underlie these theories in our own work.

Now more than ever, regional cooperation is the most fundamental building block for successful economic development, and nowhere is that truer than in rural areas. In this white paper, we reflect on some of the issues facing a changing field, lay out a vision of what strong support networks look like, examine some of the things that block them from being successful, and lay out a strategy for the development of a successful regional ecosystem. As a consulting firm dedicated to regional economic development, Northspan understands exactly how knitting these ecosystems together can create the regional dynamism necessary to act effectively in the current economic development environment. Vice President Karl Schuettler lays out the case for ecosystem thinking in our new white paper.


Consider a day in the life of a small-town economic development professional. She knows there’s going to be a re-zoning fight at the next planning commission meeting, and it’s going to get ugly. The mayor is in her ear about his pet project renovating that old theater, and there’s that one councilor who thinks the only thing she should be doing is sticking a new factory in the industrial park. If the town is small enough, the professional isn’t even an economic development professional: she’s an administrator or a clerk or some other mashed-up position invented out of desperation, and she also must run elections and coordinate public works and complete fifty other duties large and small.

Her email inbox fills up. Some regional partners in a large city have a summit on child care coming up, and she hears firsthand how terrible the situation is in her town, but attending would mean losing a whole day on that zoning issue. A foundation pumps out news releases on this or that new grant program, all of which seem to have changed in size and scope and scoring criteria since they last came around, but the informational webinar is at the same time as her meeting with the guy who might actually have a viable plan for an abandoned old storefront, and the local reporter just called to ask why that business that got city funding three economic developers ago went bankrupt. City budget season looms. An email to the state asking if someone is willing to meet on a program gets a defensive reply over the number of projects the state has completed vaguely within her city’s region.[1]

She thinks back to all those transformational thoughts she had when she first went to school for this, or when she moved back home to take a job in the community she loves, and she checks her calendar again. And a little part of her dies inside.

No one said jobs like hers would be easy. She knows the stakes. She’s found some project management tools and little life hacks that let her push aside the insanity. But the scope of the challenges and the complexity of the solutions seem to grow more and more extreme, and the time and tools at her disposal seem less and less able to meet the moment. What the small-town economic developer needs is an economic development ecosystem that embeds her in a supportive network of partnerships necessary to confront those great challenges.


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Getting On the Right Level

Our economic developer’s plight points to an underlying issue: So many of our economic development challenges suffer from a misalignment of problems and the resources necessary to solve them. Amid the endless series of jolts to the economic development world in recent years—Covid-19 relief fund administration, an overdue confrontation with inequitable systems, a tightening workforce crunch, supply chain chaos, the return of inflation, a glut of federal money—it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on where and how the solutions to these challenges get implemented.

Simply having a person who can devote time to planning and economic development is a huge achievement for a city of a certain size; get a little bit larger, and the possibilities presented by two such people can be exponential. In theory the single economic developer in a city of 10,000 has the same level of responsibility as a ten-person department in a city of 100,000, but larger cities achieve economies of scale and can specialize in certain functions. In the city of 10,000, one person needs to know how to apply zoning code and be savvy with developers and chase down water system funding and guide the comprehensive plan; a city of 100,000 can devote several people specifically to code enforcement, have one focus strictly on monitoring and writing major grants, and give its leadership some time to do visionary work instead of getting stuck in day-to-day operations. Roles are clearly defined, and there are people in place who match them.[2] The small-town economic developer, clearly, needs to find more resources somewhere to match that comfort level and capacity. The question is where exactly she can find them, and how much she can defer to them without losing her say on the issue based on local knowledge.

Scale in Economic Development

In some ways, the economic developer’s challenge is wrapped up in age-old debates: consolidated resources versus local control, government versus free market, collective action versus going it alone. Parsing the trade-offs between these competing worldviews, a few thinkers have suggested that solutions to problems should take place on the smallest scale most able to address them.[3] If that sounds stupidly obvious, just stop for a moment to think about how rarely we stop and ask ourselves if we’re addressing problems on the right scale.

Economic development theory about the appropriate level for action has swung dramatically over time. The first half of the twentieth century saw development on a dramatic scale, as the federal government mobilized to fight two world wars and combat a depression. Thanks to favorable regulations and a spigot of cash, highway planners unspooled freeways across the country, developers put up whole suburbs, and businesses developed entire communities. It was a great era of centralized planning and American building. By the 1960s, however, there was a justified pushback to the trampling of the environment, deep corporate control, and the destruction of neighborhoods often populated by people of color and those at the bottom of the income scale. Large projects are now subject to extensive community meetings and plan reviews, and often a fair amount of litigation, too. The image of Jane Jacobs rallying to rescue Greenwich Village from demolition for the Lower Manhattan Expressway has been the urban planning school ideal for half a century.

Now, however, we inhabit a different world, and there is growing recognition that a few powerful local interests can torpedo projects that would do the world a lot of good. The state of California led the way in creating supposed responsiveness to local concerns, and it is now ground zero for an ideologically complex revolt against a regulatory framework that thinkers from across the spectrum realize has become disastrous. Laws born of the noblest intentions, including the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), sought to protect the environment but have effectively become vehicles for wealthy people to prevent new development in their neighborhoods.[4] This seemingly humble nod to local control is a driving force behind that state’s out of control housing costs, and there are plenty of other examples across the United States, including in Minnesota, where Northspan does much of its work. As small towns’ populations flatline or shrink, panic about the rising taxes necessary to maintain the same level of services, once relatively confined to urban areas, are emerging in rural communities as well, and small-town officials find themselves explaining in exasperation that they only control so many levers. Something is clearly off.

This doesn’t mean that the lessons of the mid-twentieth century are invalid, or that the answer is more centralized planning. The situation we face today is just different, and the questions in those debates seem distant to the day-to-day struggles of our strained economic developer. Her story points to a deeper challenge: the question isn’t as simple as one of scale. It’s about how different pieces of a whole interact to create an environment in which our economic developer operates.


The Case for Ecosystem Thinking

An ecosystem is a complex network that includes both the institutions that frame the actions of those within it and the incentive structures that guide them toward the choices they make. It recognizes that the design of these systems, whether conscious or unconscious, whether within the control of the actors or the result of broad societal forces, creates the world in which our economic developer operates.

The concept of ecosystem building has been gaining traction in economic development circles. Its most notable proponent is the Ewing M. Kauffman Foundation, which states in “Ecosystem Builders’ Declaration of Independence” that “there is a need for a new model for inclusive economic development, one that takes into account the whole system.”[5] The Kauffman Foundation emphasizes the complexity and interconnectedness of the environments in which entrepreneurs act, and it sees a role for an “ecosystem builder” to guide the enterprise.

The Kauffman Foundation model is built around entrepreneurial support, but that is hardly the only ecosystem at play in economic development and related fields. Strong ecosystems blur ideological lines because people recognize healthy and unhealthy institutions when they see them. The pro-development charge in California is being led by a funky coalition of developers and housing activists who understand the economics of the situation. Deeply conservative rural Texans have emerged as staunch defenders of public schools, recognizing the roles they play as community anchors in a fluid world.[6] Libertarians seeking to unleash economic innovations come together with staunch environmentalists to unlock the potential of transformational technology for energy generation.[7] No matter how great or small, they recognize that collaboration within appropriately scaled networks is the foundation for economic development success—and perhaps, if we can make an even bolder claim, to human flourishing.

There are a series of practical reasons why ecosystem thinking can help our rural economic developer, and why it is particularly well-attuned to the moment in her field. We now consider four of them.

Making Sense of the Deluge

Our economic developer’s plight is in part an information problem. Her predecessors a generation or two ago could only dream of having the resources that she has at her disposal. If she just didn’t have so many emails and wasn’t aware of all these opportunities she could be using if she had time, if there weren’t myriad ways people can now tell her that things are going wrong, and if she weren’t subjected to an endless news drip on problems near and far, her life would probably be a lot easier. For better or worse, she would just do what she knows how to do, what she is asked to do, and what people in her likely rather narrow network of day-to-day interaction suggest that she do. It can be easy to rebel against this bombardment of information and instead focus on a few simple tasks: just keep the bosses happy and get some deals done! But that sort of dismissal of complexity fails to recognize the magnitude of the moment. It’s a retreat that lets the crush of modernity master us instead of seeking ways to master it.

Ecosystems provide frameworks in which people can think and act collectively to get past the simple recognition of a problem. They help people sort through the endless paths available before people in an information age and provide structure that helps resist the anxiety that comes from being spread too thin. People embedded in healthy ecosystems may not know answers, but they know who to talk to, or at the very least can stick an idea in a queue for further workshopping and an eventual solution.


Group of multiracial volunteers working in community charity donation center. Diverse volunteers collecting food donations in a warehouse. Focus on a blonde caucasian woman wearing eyeglasses.

The Human-Centered Regional Scale

For an ecosystem to flourish, it needs to be large enough to provide enough resources and talent for meaningful action and small enough that the local economic developer is a known figure, not some anonymous voice in the wilderness. She has human relationships with the other actors in the ecosystem. The system is big enough that there is some breadth of expertise, and enough diversity of experience to keep everyone from getting stuck in the same rut. In a rural area, this all but guarantees that any collaboration will happen on a multi-county level.

The power of regionalism has been a persistent theme in economic development theory for over a generation.[8] Practitioners almost universally acknowledge the importance of human capital,[9] and regional economies are often built around clusters of interconnected businesses that are in the same industries or use interconnected supply chains. “Cluster development is the new economic development,” proclaimed the Federation of American Scientists in January 2023, rattling off a list of 12 programs from various federal agencies that encourage or require regional solutions.[10]

An ecosystem, however, is more than just government policy operating on the appropriate scale. The Metropolitan Council in the Twin Cities is one of the most robust metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) in the country, with powers to direct utility expansions across a seven-county region; here in northeast Minnesota, we have a frequent partner in the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, a unique state agency covering 14 school districts that are current or former homes to the iron ore mining industry and its attendant infrastructure. But while these organizations bring significant advantages in service and program delivery, government alone cannot knit together all the pieces necessary to build regional wealth.

This problem grows even more obvious when political boundaries do not conform to those of cultural or economic areas. Economic forces have little mind for city or county boundaries, while governmental bodies are almost by definition laser-focused on activity within their boundaries. And sometimes, whether due to accidents of history or idle bureaucratic decisions at some higher level, cities or counties with little in common get lumped together into some larger jurisdiction that then has to find ways to knit together people and places who may not have much in common.[11] Without some sort of system to mediate between all these confused actors, the results are going to be haphazard, vastly unequal, and will almost certainly disadvantage those smaller communities that don’t have the resources to specialize and compete with larger, better-unified cities or regions.

A Fluid Community of Practice

In nature, an ecosystem is an interdependent series of relationships with many disparate parts playing some role in a larger whole. Each plant or insect or large mammal has its own self-contained world, all interacting with each other to live and thrive. The benefits of working with another being come and go; sometimes that vine growing up the tree is incredibly useful, while at others, it’s just there in the background.

In much the same way, ecosystem thinking creates a network large enough to have visionaries who guide the process, boots-on-the ground staff to do the outreach, and a network of people behind the scenes working to integrate the two. In just about any region, some form of this exists: there may be a regional development commission that hosts regular lunches, a foundation that creates communities of practice for users of its programming, a broader economic partnership that periodically puts on educational events, or even a semi-formal group that meets on some level to discuss broader strategy. No one of these organizations is the ecosystem, however; they are institutions that operate within it and guide activity based on how they’re structured and who participates.

Members of an ecosystem may not look like the stereotypical economic developer. They may come and go based on the alignment between subject matter expertise and the group’s strategy. A healthy ecosystem makes use of these existing structures and doesn’t try to start from scratch, but it also recognizes that set patterns of meetings and doing business aren’t enough to move the dial in a fluid world. The ecosystem must be constantly reinventing itself, finding new ways to thrive and adapt to new economic realities.

Office worker holding cog wheel as unity and teamwork in corporate workplace concept. Diverse colleague business people showing symbol of visionary system and mechanism for business success. Concord

Toward a Regional Strategy

Old-school economic development fixated on deal-making and landing big projects to score wins here and there, and there is certainly still a place for landing those big investments that boost the tax base and create jobs. These efforts in isolation, however, feel futile to the rural economic developer facing a simultaneous housing shortage, workforce crunch, and child care conundrum. The magnitude of the problem demands a regional strategy.

Once again, a regional effort often exists in some form. Many regions develop a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) so they can chase down federal Economic Development Administration (EDA) funding if they need it, but a CEDS alone provides only empty vagaries if it doesn’t come with real structures to implement it. While a region can function passably as a loose network of interconnected people, its efforts can multiply if there is a guiding strategy, complete with a work plan, for the entire ecosystem. This level of coordination embeds the struggling economic developer in a network that gives her a path forward on the challenges before her. Within a region, different stakeholders may develop subject matter expertise: one county may have someone who’s a master of writing broadband grant and another may have a ton of EDA experience, and they can lean on one another as supports.

At its best, this network isn’t just a support group of people with similar job titles across different cities or counties, but it begins to pull in some higher-level groups who hold the purse strings: foundations, state government representatives, and civically minded private businesses. Their combined efforts can yield purpose-driven funding that ensures the resources to support community and economic vitality are more than just a vomit of programs acting in isolation. Too often, funders manage funds without thinking about how they interact with other pots of money that, when coordinated, could be drivers of long-term change.

The Perils of Cooperation

No single way of thinking about economic development is a cure-all. There are a few clear dangers and limitations to ecosystem thinking, and a thoughtful regional network for cooperative economic development needs to protect against them.

The Gates to the Club

The ecosystem analogy has its limits. By definition, in the natural environment, everything happens organically.[12] Human-built institutions are different: while good design is essential, there still have to be people driving the bus, and though this will require a certain level of political buy-in, it can’t be strictly at the behest of elections. Even in the rare occasions where a region has a single overarching political body, staff will need to implement these efforts, and the “personnel is policy” adage rings true here. Creating a self-reinforcing network of cooperation and mutual support is a project to define long careers. But it comes with a very real danger: it can be exclusionary.

It is very easy for groups to slide into the same ways of doing things, engaging the same handful of stakeholders without broadening the circle. As a city kid who was often the youngest person in the room by decades when I started in rural economic development, it was at times challenging to find my way and build relationships in those early days, even if everyone was pleasant and welcoming. Now, after just seven years in the field and dramatic turnover as a generation retires, I find myself on guard from becoming one of those club members myself. I can only imagine how much harder this must be for someone who doesn’t have some ties to a region, or who doesn’t loosely look or talk like many who are already in the field.

The danger of closed gates is especially acute in rural areas. With fewer people, it is easier for the club to become self-contained, a landing place for well-connected political animals or certain families. To some degree, these connections are inevitable and even admirable; many of these people are skilled and have important relationships, and it is easy to name a number of devoted, successful public servants who fall into this category. But the structure cannot ossify, and this in part reinforces the value of regional cooperation.  Larger scale collaboration makes capture by one particular interest group or cadre difficult to control entry to the rooms where regional strategy happens. Every time the partners of a regional ecosystem meet, they should be asking themselves if the people who should be at the table really are and take action to specifically invite missing stakeholders.

The Eternal Conversation

We’ve probably all encountered these in our careers: a group that holds meetings for the sake of meetings, its existence self-justifying, an eternal “conversation” or “study.” At these meetings one will even find some people whose sole job function seems to involve showing up at meetings, perhaps to interject the same few familiar points, the soundtrack on repeat. It’s a comfortable existence where the participants can shed important light on issues and make a few converts. People can find sympathetic audiences and validation, which has its value, especially when groups are relatively new, feature historically marginalized groups, or the participants face particularly challenging headwinds. But when the same conversations are still happening with the same people, month after month or year after year, the group has exhausted itself. After an initial conversation phase, any regional group should be moving toward facilitated action planning. If it doesn’t, it has ceased to serve any viable purpose.

These eternal conversations are aggravating enough for someone who wants to see results, but they also play right into the stereotypes of regional cooperation skeptics. Economic development professionals in this camp, grounded firmly in a growing tax base or job creation, complain about a lack of tangible results, and the critique isn’t always wrong. This is why building a strategy to guide the group is essential: even if it is hard to draw a direct line to jobs created, it’s at least possible to point to an increase in development ready sites, a new set of resources for child care providers, or more well-attended job fairs as the fruits of labor. Sometimes building these resources is a matter of years, not weeks, and a coherent action plan is the foundation that should allow believers in a regional ecosystem to stay the course, even if the skeptics start to grumble.

business accountin with saving money with hand holding lightbulb concept financial background

Letting the Money Define the Strategy

When a group comes together to create a regional strategy, the path of least resistance is often to look at what resources already exist. Where is the available money? What state or federal or foundation funding sources can keep the group going? This is a pragmatic approach, but it might miss out on taking more fundamental stock of the situation on the ground. Undertaking this sort of effort is one thing if there are local funders and partners who can handhold and help an inexperienced operator off the ground, but the situation grows riskier when looking at federal and state pools of money over which the local community has limited influence. If a region doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to go after these resources, it will only be wasting its time.

Fortunately, higher levels of government are increasingly aware of the importance of regionality and the interconnected actors necessary to move a regional economy forward. The federal Economic Development Administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge was a unique nod in this direction, as it gave organic networks the chance to self-define their opportunities, rather than impose them from on higher levels of government.[13] While northeast Minnesota’s application was unsuccessful, it did open new possibilities for regional collaboration, and these foundations are already proving useful for subsequent efforts.

Economic developers deserve some slack here, too: funding flow is a two-way street. Funders tend to move in herds, following approaches in neighboring states or comparable foundations, and the solutions aren’t always the best fit for the organizations on the ground, drifting closer or further from their grantees’ core capacities. Sometimes this leads economic development organizations to go after pots of money that are not ideal fits, or that they may not have the capacity to administer or implement it in a meaningful way. An ecosystem will be most effective when there are open conversations between funders, communities, and economic development practitioners about their needs and desires.

Ecosystem-Building in Practice: Lessons from Northeast Minnesota

Northeast Minnesota’s ecosystem is far from perfect, but a wide range of initiatives over the years gives a good flavor of the range of tools on hand that can build an ecosystem. The seven counties covered by the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission are disparate, with mining towns and lakefront resorts and one mid-sized city, but they have also, over time, forged a regional identity. The Arrowhead Growth Alliance, though lacking staff capacity for implementation, does convene a group of regional stakeholders to regularly discuss strategy. The region does have some unique institutions, such as the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, and it has some looser entities like the Iron Range Economic Alliance and a few regional programs that get practitioners in the same room. It also has Northspan, a private nonprofit consulting firm whose efforts, though not limited to this region of the state or country, emerged in tandem with many partners of the regional ecosystem. This unique, flexible structure has allowed it to play roles large and small in piecing the infrastructure together over time. Here are a few examples of how Northspan has worked to build an ecosystem to navigate challenges large and small.

Collective Crisis Response

Some of the greatest benefits of an ecosystem are most apparent when everything goes wrong. A well-built ecosystem can respond to crises through coordinated action, not jamming each new crisis into its existing funding lanes or programs. Northspan was born out of northeast Minnesota’s great economic upheavals of the 1980s, leading crisis response to layoffs and closures at mines and manufacturing facilities across the region. Many of these responses led to the development of recovery strategies and infrastructure investments that create the groundwork for eventual renewal.

The response to Covid-19 was eye-opening in its demonstration of how organizations can respond quickly to a crisis, and while there were occasional mistakes, the scale of this mobilization and its success in preventing a long-term economic crisis is an underappreciated triumph of collective action on the federal, state, and local levels. In its role as a consultant for a regional partnership, Northspan hosted weekly Zooms for East Central Minnesota economic developers, where they compared notes on how to structure relief funds and found a sense of solidarity in their new, Zoom-limited worlds. Northspan also administered successive rounds of relief funding for various local and regional organizations, giving them added capacity and moving dollars out the door. Their resilience when no existing rulebook applied is a testament to the relationships built over many years.

A more telling sign of an ecosystem’s strength, however, is how it reacts to a more localized crisis: one that means little for most of the community, but everything for some of its most vulnerable members. In 2022, Northspan facilitated a process to find a home for Neighborhood Youth Services (NYS), a vital provider of out-of-school programming for predominantly Black youth in Duluth’s Central Hillside neighborhood, after its parent organization went bankrupt. Based on community engagement and meaningful conversations, local funders didn’t just stuff NYS into their existing funding streams: they recognized a community need and adapted their tools to find the optimal solution. As a result, NYS’s new operator, a nonprofit dedicated to “unapologetically embracing what it means to be Black,” delivers vibrant, culturally relevant programming in a way its predecessor never did.[14]


Cheerful young blonde woman stand at flipchartand smile. She point at people who sit and have conversation. They all are in room

Incubator for Regional Programming

As a private nonprofit, Northspan has been able to launch regional programming that brings together partners around an issue that benefits from regional action. The Northland Connection program has evolved dramatically since it emerged in 1988, but it remains a hub for information on the physical assets necessary for economic development. It is also often the only place where certain partners are ever in a room together and having conversations beyond the essential but basic resource-sharing that happens in groups that have little activity outside of quarterly meetings like the Iron Range Economic Alliance. NORTHFORCE is an innovative program developed in direct response to a regional need, and it helped create networks to address the workforce crunch before it became extreme in recent years. Similarly, the Upper Midwest Film Office, for which Northspan was a home for a quarter century, was able to play that long game and finally blossom into something working to build a larger economic niche.

This summer, Northspan is assuming management of northeast Minnesota’s Launch Minnesota affiliate, an initiative known as Innovate 218 for its first several years of operation that is being rebranded as Driving Access to Wealth and Networks, or DAWN. While we aim to build on the strong foundations set by the Itasca Economic Development Corporation in its time managing the program, we envision an effort that collaborates with all our regional business support organizations to help all entrepreneurs who need assistance, no matter the stage of their business. Before the new programming rolls out, we’ll have spent countless hours completing behind-the-scenes groundwork with regional organizations such as the Entrepreneur Fund, Small Business Development Center, and LISC Duluth to map out a new ecosystem, and an infusion of funding from the Department of Commerce Minority Business Development Agency will make sure we can provide these resources at scale. This effort will adopt the Kauffman Foundation’s framework to create clear tracks for entrepreneurs through every stage of support they may need.

A Supporting Role

Some of Northspan’s most impactful projects have been ones where we do not lead the effort but instead expand the capacity of those who do have the vision. One substantial regional ecosystem-building effort was led by Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures (MLCV), a political subdivision of and for-profit corporation owned by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. It contracted with an array of partners to complete different aspects of a project studying the creation of a Tribal Economy Business Incubator (TEBI), including market research; architectural drawings of buildings; the development of a partnership agreement, operating policies, and procedures; and the creation of a curriculum for entrepreneurs. Northspan conducted background research on the Tribal Economy and launched community surveys to guide the effort. It also compiled an entrepreneurial resources guide for the Tribal Economy region. Later, we facilitated seven focus groups across the Tribal Economy to determine the practical vision and mission of the TEBI concept and gather feedback on the work done to date. This effort included hiring community coordinators from each of the Band’s three districts to recruit participants for the focus groups. When all these components were complete, Northspan compiled all of the partners’ efforts in a 546-page report on the TEBI concept to position it for pursuit of federal funding. Finally, we helped write a grant that secured $3.1 million in federal EDA funding that made two incubator projects a reality.[15]

East Central Minnesota comprises five rural counties north of the Twin Cities, south of Duluth, and east of St. Cloud, Minnesota. While it enjoys the beginnings of some spillover development from the Twin Cities on its southern end, the region has no major metropolitan cities and is effectively on its own, often with limited resources to push anything innovative at the local level. Its politics are, at times, suspicious of the idea of cross-boundary efforts for economic development. But the East Central Development Partnership (rebranding in 2023 from its old name, GPS 45:93) has existed for over two decades, and while most of its faces have changed over time, the longstanding commitment to sharing resources has created the foundations for regional action. Northspan serves as its staff consultant, working to guide its strategy and multiply the efforts of the economic development practitioners who make up its core membership.

Northspan plays a similar role, albeit for a much smaller geography, in the Iron Range communities of Aurora, Biwabik, Hoyt Lakes, and the Town of White. These communities banded together in the 1980s to create the East Range Joint Powers Board, a joint economic development organization that pools resources and has helped to build a unified identity for the East Range. In 2019, its longtime staff person retired, and instead of hiring a new individual, the board hired Northspan to provide consulting services using the diverse capacities of its larger staff. Rather than simply placing a staff person in a community to complete projects, we embed our consulting services within a community network, a process that builds stronger partnerships, avoids service duplication, and allows for achievement of broader strategic aims. The East Range is now a full member of a broader ecosystem, and its methods of collaboration are a model for other neighboring rural communities that have much to gain from shared efforts.

A New Era of Regional Strategy

The compounding challenges for economic development, particularly in rural areas, demand that we embrace the concept of the regional ecosystem as the necessary level for action. These regions may have fluid boundaries, and they may be an ever-growing tent, but they need to have cross-cutting annual or multi-year strategies to keep the stakeholders on track. There are four key steps that can make sure those strategies work.

Strategies for a Successful Ecosystem

Strengthening Informal Connections. The connections necessary for a strong ecosystem often exist, but just not at the level necessary to achieve any meaningful outcomes. Local and regional partners vaguely know each other and feel comfortable asking questions when they need something, but rarely is this a proactive or structured partnership. Ecosystems need to make sure partners get to know each other and invest that time and effort in relationship-building. Participants in the ecosystem should connect promptly with new professionals in the network, and never in a patronizing sense that suggests those who have been doing the work for decades are the sole authorities. Those intentional connections, even if they seem like distractions from day-to-day work, often come back around at a later date.

There are also almost certainly people missing from important conversations. Until recently, connections between the established economic development entities and the five tribal nations in northeast Minnesota were often conspicuous in their absence. Education is a huge driver of local economies but can be a self-contained world if leaders in both education and economic development don’t make an effort to build bridges, and often its inclusion can feel transactional (“please provide us with workers”) instead of holistic (“how can we embed students in our communities and make sure they come out with the soft skills and support networks they need to succeed here?”). And while the ecosystem-builders are most likely practitioners given the capacity and background necessary to construct it successfully, there should be avenues to pull in creative ideas from the broader public, who can sometimes be the sparks for transformative ideas.

Reviewing the Existing Ecosystem. An ecosystem already exists in every region, whether it works for the people in it or not. In addition to the missing people who should be part of the conversation, there are likely redundancies and inefficiencies, with longstanding programs operating in ways that have drifted over time. Ecosystem builders need to identify the institutions necessary to create strategy, implement efforts, cross barriers, or break down the inefficiencies that hold a region back. With any luck, there are also some exemplary efforts in specific areas that can be adapted to other contexts or scaled up to better support the region. The group needs to persistently ask the question: are we addressing this on the appropriate scale? Is this the best use of our time, given all the competing challenges we face?

Building a Cross-Sector Strategy. A regional ecosystem shouldn’t tackle an issue just because it is the hot-button topic. An action plan that identifies responsible parties and makes sure the plan moves forward in concrete ways is the stage where so many ecosystems fall short. Developing that clear pathway creates an incentive for others to participate, reassured that they won’t be subjected to death by meetings with no obvious outcomes. The importance of a real strategic vision for regions is only growing as federal grant programs increasingly orient themselves around initiatives led by broad coalitions.

Minnesota’s most famous case study in regional cooperation is the Itasca Project, an employer-led civic alliance featuring some of the largest employers in the Twin Cities. The Itasca Project has obvious strengths; by choosing an annual topic for study and action, it drives the agenda in clear and timebound ways, and can point to concrete achievements such the creation of the Greater MSP economic development partnership for the Twin Cities, a bipartisan campaign to raise the gas tax in 2008, and creation of cross-sector leadership programming for emerging professionals across the state.[16] But just as government alone cannot drive success, the private sector alone is a less-than-perfect vehicle to capture the full ecosystem. It takes everyone.

Tearing Down the Shelf. A classic critique of any planning process complains that it produces a document that will just sit on a shelf. “We need to tear down the shelf,” said an alderperson in Port Washington, Wisconsin, one year into a strategic planning process Northspan recently facilitated. We couldn’t agree more.

The group guiding the plan needs to review it regularly, provide updates, and keep each other accountable for moving the effort along. The time taken to review a plan, however tedious it may seem in the moment, will pay huge dividends when it acknowledges genuine success, atones for failure, and refreshes the plan to seize upon new opportunities that align with the strategy or cut out old ideas that are no longer the best fit. The process just needs to be intentional, or else our economic development professionals will drift back into that same scatterbrained, under-resourced reality that would be their natural state without a strong ecosystem.

A Call to Build the Ecosystem

The small-town economic developer, and many in her world, cannot operate in isolation. She is drowning in information, spread far thinner than someone in a larger community, and in need of a network that can replicate some level of that specialized knowledge and capacity. Building an ecosystem will take years of networking, investigation of what is working well and what isn’t, and inviting new people to participate in the process. When the network has become robust, it needs a strategic plan that builds in achievable tasks and accountability so that regions can address the issues they face on an appropriate scale.

The stakes are high enough to justify all this work. Only with a functioning ecosystem can the economic developer’s region build a collective identity that can turn around bleak narratives about small-town America and put it on more competitive footing with economic development infrastructure in major metropolitan areas. Without an ecosystem, economic developers are lost in the jungle, and though there will be sporadic wins and individual high achievers, long-term success requires a more comprehensive system that doesn’t need heroic efforts to score meaningful wins. But with the right framing for a broader effort, the pieces for sustained growth are right in front of us.

Hand holding light bulb against nature on green leaf with energy sources, Sustainable developmen and responsible environmental, Energy sources for renewable, Ecology concept.


[1] This last example is, unfortunately, a true story, though hardly a representative experience of working with state agencies.

[2] Well, theoretically.

[3] For the political philosophy buffs in the room, this comes from an idea called subsidiarity, based in a belief that problems should get solved on the smallest scale that has the capacity to address problems, by people who have intimate knowledge of the ideas. It emerged from Catholic social thinking and had its heyday in the workings of centrist and center-right Christian Democratic parties that dominated many European governments after World War II. The concept largely faded from view when right-leaning parties turned to a deeper free market orthodoxy in the late 20th century, though there have been some gestures in its direction since, including some foundational principles of the European Union and by British prime minister David Cameron in the 2010s. It has since attracted some debate among intellectuals on both the left and the right seeking to channel the populist forces that emerged later in that decade toward constructive ends.

[4] M. Nolan Gray, “How Californians Are Weaponizing Environmental Law,” The Atlantic, March 12, 2021,

[5] “Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Building Playbook 3.0, The Ewing M. Kauffman Foundation, 2019,

[6] J. David Goodman, “A Well of Conservative Support for Public Schools in Rural Texas,” New York Times, April 14, 2023,

[7] For a nearing-book-length series of essays on how economic dynamism plays a vital role in moving the world past the sclerosis of our current era, I recommend Brink Lindsey’s Substack, “The Permanent Problem,” at

[8] The foundational text for cluster theory, Michael Porter’s The Competitive Advantage of Nations, first appeared in 1990.

[9] Martin Neil Baily, Barry P. Bosworth, and Kelly Kennedy, “The Contribution of Human Capital to Economic Growth: A Cross-Country Comparison of Germany, Japan, and the United States,” Brookings, September 28, 2021.

[10] “Cluster Development Is the New Economic Development,” Ryan Buscaglia and Melissa Roberts Chapman, Federation of American Scientists, January 12, 2023.

[11] Some examples from Northspan’s immediate world include the boundaries of St. Louis County, Minnesota, a county with a land area comparable to Connecticut that includes metropolitan Duluth, the core communities of the Iron Range, and some deeply rural areas, all operating in the same economic world; and Minnesota’s designated planning regions, which provide regional structure but do not always match the geography of state programs, leading to confusion over identity and points of contact.

[12] Well, sort of. Human interactions with the natural environment are not open-and-closed question, and even the decision to preserve an area has wilderness is a sort of human intervention. For millennia, Native Americans have undertaken extensive forest management regimes (see Charles M. Peters’ Managing the Wild from Yale University Press, 2018, for one example), and while their relationship with the environment has often been more symbiotic than in many colonial and modern era societies, it was still far from the romantic ideal of an untouched wilderness.

[13] For an example of how this is working in practice, see Marth Ross and Joseph Parilla, “In Rural Alabama, a Test for Talent-Driven Economic Development,” Brookings, April 18, 2023,

[14] Learn more about this organization, Family Freedom Center, at

[15] Read more about this entire process at

[16] More information at As a point of disclosure, the author of this piece participated in the Itasca Project’s Minnesota Young American Leaders Program in 2021.