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The Higher ED Blog: Four lessons to consider when engaging in regional collaboration

Brittany Bruce / December 1, 2014

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The Higher ED Blog: Four lessons to consider when engaging in regional collaboration

Over the past few decades—with increasing prevalence—, many governments and non-government stakeholders have been calling for greater collaboration in regional economic development. There is an expectation that regions, consisting of multiple cities and counties, will be capable of mobilizing more resources than a single municipality would be able to alone. This is a reasonable and attractive expectation, but one that is often hindered by the complexity of working with diverse stakeholders.

Academic, policymakers and practitioners are paying close attention to this issue. In fact, during a recent conference, “New Realities, New Relationships”, hosted by the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation in Prince George, BC there was dedicated session on ‘Building Capacity for Regional Economic Development’. The diverse terrain covered in this session, from rural development in Newfoundland to partnerships between institutes for higher education and small and medium sized enterprises, as well as my own thesis research, speaks to the growing interest in regional approaches in a variety of contexts.

My thesis research explored real world collaboration in two case study regions to uncover success factors and challenges to pursuing regional economic development. I explored initiatives in collaboration in the Four Counties region of southwestern Ontario and the North Country region of upstate New York. These two regions represented two different experiences with regional collaborations: the Four Counties have collaborated at a bi-county or intra-county scale, while the North Country pursued multi-county collaboration. To understand these differing approaches, I interviewed 35 key stakeholders from business, community and government organizations involved in each region. The interviews revealed very different experiences in three areas: leadership in creating a regional structure, attitude towards collaboration, and presence of an existing regional identity.

In the development of their regional structure, the two regions had very different experiences. The Four Counties’ approach to economic development has been bottom-up in practice, while the North Country followed a more top-down approach.  In 2011, the State of New York created 10 Regional Councils and gave them funding to develop and implement long term strategic plans for economic growth. This approach worked well for the North Country because the region was chronically under-funded and needed both the funding and strategic direction. The Four Counties did not have an equivalent agency playing a driving or organizing role. Often, a bottom-up approach is more effective because it engages key stakeholders; but in this case, the Four Counties is a less successful example of regional collaboration than the North Country. In the absence of strong leadership, the economic development landscape in the Four Counties has been fragmented, with multiple organizations operating under overlapping mandates with limited provincial interference.

While both regions faced challenges in their pursuit of collaboration, their respective stakeholders differed in their attitude toward collaborating at a regional level for the good of the overall region. The stakeholders interviewed in the North Country held a positive attitude toward collaborating as the ‘North Country’. County level stakeholders understood that working together as a region would accrue more benefits than continuing to in-fight. The Four Counties lacks a history of operating as a united and defined region. Therefore, stakeholders remain distrustful of their neighbours, making collaboration at a regional level difficult.

Attitude toward collaboration in these regions seemed to be predicated on having a historic and embedded regional identity to build collaboration from. The North Country has been the ‘North Country’ for at least 30 years, with multiple organizations existing to service the region. Therefore, when the State decided to divide the state into economic development regions, the North Country was an obvious choice. Conversely, the Four Counties is not called the Four Counties outside of the Four County Labour Market Planning Board, so the region does not have a similarly strong regional identity that stakeholders could build support around. Historically, regional collaboration has occurred on smaller and larger scales; the two sub-regions of Grey-Bruce and Huron-Perth are most recognizable. Other regional organizations cover all of southwest Ontario. Since stakeholders in the Four Counties area were not used to working together, there was little social capital present, and little interest in collaborating for the betterment of the region. The individual counties often saw themselves as too different from their neighbours to be able to collaborate on a regional project.

Based on these and other findings, my thesis concluded with several lessons learned that might be useful to other regions that are considering pursuing regional economic development strategies:

1)      Strong leadership is important to move collaborations from the organization phase and into implementation. Leaders can act as catalysts to mobilize support for regional initiatives.

2)      Historical parochial attitudes need to be overcome in order for meaningful collaboration to occur. The benefits that can accrue from collaboration need to be better understood by regional stakeholders.

3)      Regional boundaries are not impervious to flows of information and resources, therefore inter-regional collaboration should be pursued when appropriate.

4)      Stakeholder identification and acceptance of regional boundaries is key to the success of a regional organization. Regional boundaries should be designed around existing divisions, if any exist.


About the Author

Brittany Bruce is a recent graduate of the University of Waterloo-Wilfrid Laurier University Geography and Environmental Management Masters Graduate Program and was the recipient of the J.A. Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council. Her research was part of a broader project, Evaluating Regional Economic Development Initiatives (EREDI), led by Dr. John Devlin (University of Guelph), and Dr. Tara Vinodrai (University of Waterloo) and funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Brittany is currently a Research Associate for Dr. Tara Vinodrai at the University of Waterloo. Brittany also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and International Development Studies from Trent University.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

2 responses to “The Higher ED Blog: Four lessons to consider when engaging in regional collaboration”

  1. […] “Over the past few decades—with increasing prevalence—, many governments and non-government stakeholders have been calling for greater collaboration in regional economic development.”  […]

  2. […] than they could on their own. For more insights into this topic, read the Higher ED articles on regional collaboration and partnering across the urban-rural […]