The Higher ED Blog: Everyone is rushing to love entrepreneurs… and this means what in rural municipalities?
Rebecca Mustard / January 5, 2015
Newsflash: the global economy is changing.
This is not particularly new news for anyone. We have all been watching as traditional driving economic sectors restructure and offshore, changing how things have always been done. All over the news is the employment decline in manufacturing and agricultural sectors alongside a growth in high tech and knowledge based industries. What is interesting is the impact of these structural changes on geographic locations. Manufacturing and agriculture have been the mainstay of rural economies, and the losses are felt in these communities, while the growth in high tech and knowledge based industries is concentrating in urban centres. We are seeing a shift in the geographic location of economic prosperity. So, what do we do in times of crisis? We look for an alternative. We find something that will fill the gap that has been created. Rural communities may be losing their traditional economic strengths to global changes, but the infrastructure, houses, parks, schools and local governments remain in the same physical location. If these rural communities want to remain vibrant and sustainable, they need to find additional economic drivers.
New idea: entrepreneurship!
Entrepreneurship is not a new concept, however, it has captured the attention of policy makers, economic development professionals, and academics as an opportunity to spur economic growth, job creation and community resilience in this new economy. Governments are playing an increasingly important role in providing resources and infrastructure to support the local economy and therefore, potentially, to promote entrepreneurship.
As an economic development professional in rural Ontario, I found myself watching the growing municipal interest in entrepreneurship. In concert, a municipality I worked for had recently completed an economic development strategy and some people were questioning the value of that project. All this took place while I was a student in the University of Waterloo Local Economic Development program. Being in the program provided the perfect opportunity to explore what was actually happening in municipal governments across Ontario to foster entrepreneurship and how they use economic development strategies. My research project involved an email survey of 45 rural southern Ontario municipalities that aimed to (1) assess how entrepreneurship is defined by rural southern Ontario municipalities; (2) determine where and how entrepreneurship is being fostered by rural southern Ontario municipalities, particularly through economic development strategies; and (3) evaluate the mechanisms used by rural southern Ontario municipalities to foster entrepreneurship.
The research showed that municipalities do not agree on one definition of entrepreneurship. In-keeping with the academic debate on the meaning of entrepreneurship, municipalities were asked to select one of the following three definitions of entrepreneurship:
1. Starting a business.
2. The characteristics of individuals who have the drive, organizations skills and capabilities to create a business venture.
3. The creation of an innovative product, process or organization, or finding new markets or sources for raw materials.
The majority of municipalities chose the second definition, however all three definitions were selected by municipalities.
The survey also found that, economic development strategies were important in determining entrepreneurship programming. Municipalities with economic development strategies offered more programs to support entrepreneurship than those without. Municipalities with an economic development strategy were also more likely to have a diverse range of programs to support entrepreneurship. These initiatives included; events for entrepreneurs, training, marketing, downtown revitalization, attraction strategies, business retention + expansion programs, Community Improvement Plans, cultural planning, policy, and small business centres. Municipalities that did not have an economic development strategy were more likely to identify services and programs provided by other organizations in the local community, particularly the small business centre or equivalent. Interestingly, there was no distinct relationship between how a municipality defined entrepreneurship and the type of program they offered.
The survey also revealed that the majority of municipalities with entrepreneurship programs do not measure the success of their programs. This meant that approximately half of the entrepreneurship programs identified by municipalities had no basis from which to judge the outcomes of their programs. The majority of municipalities that did measure the success of entrepreneurship programs were using internal evaluation methods meaning it would be difficult to compare the success of programs between municipalities.
So what does all this mean for rural municipalities? As rural communities strive to maintain resilience and economic growth through entrepreneurship, they need to carefully examine what they are doing to foster it The first step is to develop a clearer vocabulary so that everyone has a similar understanding of what constitutes entrepreneurship. Second, the majority of municipalities in this study had a responsibility for economic development, yet less than half had an economic development strategy. This study found a clear link between an economic development strategy and programming–if you have a strategy, you are more likely to program–therefore, intentional economic development planning is a critical initiative in supporting entrepreneurs. Third, municipalities should seriously think about measuring the success of their programs, internally and between municipalities, because if entrepreneurship is a serious economic development opportunity to strengthen rural economies it must make an impact. After all, without measurement, how will we know that we are achieving what we set out to accomplish?
About the author
Rebecca Mustard is an Economic Development Officer at the Region of Durham and has worked in community economic development for 8 years in both Australia and Canada.
She is a recent graduate of the University of Waterloo ‘s master’s program in Local Economic Development and is a Certified Economic Developer through the Economic Development Association of Canada.
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.