How Tech is Disrupting Planning & Economic Development

49798788 - technology future network architecture concept image of devices.In the past several weeks we’ve devoted a number of blog posts to technology – artificial intelligence, gene editing, touch sensory robotics, machine learning and more.  Why?

Simple.  Disruptive technologies are evolving faster than our current systems and mindsets.  In other words, things like community planning, small business strategies and economic development primarily use old methods and are ill prepared to embrace growth opportunities.

Not convinced?  Let’s take a look at how Lowes is using technology and then we’ll talk about what this means for small business strategy, community planning and economic development.

Lowes Home Improvement  

When we think of Lowes, we think home improvement store.  A big box that’s part retailer, part warehouse and a quasi-online shopping experience.  What we don’t think about is that Lowes has it’s own research and development program called Lowes Innovation Labs (LIL).  And if you think they are focused on drone deliveries, redesigning check out stands and retail displays, you’re sorely mistaken.

Lowes is emerging as a major player in embracing disruptive technologies and its about to change your customer experience.  Let’s look at three of the most significant changes:

  1. Virtual & Augmented Reality – So you like the design but you just aren’t sure how it will look in your kitchen? Lowes is going to take you there.  Gone are the days of 360 degree virtual videos you watch; replaced by augmented reality (AR), which can spatially take you into your kitchen to see exactly how it will look with what you’ve picked out.  Fantastical?  Consider that “Holo Room” was launched in 19 Lowes stores a year ago.
  2. Robotics – In 2014 Lowes deployed OSHbot in a single San Jose Orchard Supply Hardware.  The bots, designed to greet customers as they come in were capable of speaking back to the customer in their language of choice to directing them to where they needed to go in the store.  Fast forward two short years and Lowes is now launching LoweBot in select stores.  Not only will this robot greet you and direct you to what you’re looking for, it will also take you there and be able to answer simple questions.  Gone will be the days of pressing that button and listening to the ding followed by “Customer Service needed in the Paint Department” over and over until an agent from the plumbing department tries to help you.
  3. 3-D Printing – Lowes is investing in 3-D printing technology development and deployment to bring to the customer “manufacturing on demand” as a solution.  Scan and print your own ideas; scan and repair a broken part; or even replicate a family heirloom (see Bespoke Designs).  That’s not all.  Lowes made history early this year as it partnered with “Made in Space” to install the first 3-D printer in space that can be used by the occupants of the International Space Station.  Lowes and Made in Space are also working on the ability to up-cycle plastic waste to be used as its 3-D printer filament.

Cool Stuff, But What’s the Big Picture Here?

Toyer Strategic Consulting will help you build the solution one piece at a time.

Toyer Strategic Consulting can help you build the solution one piece at a time.

  1. Small Business Strategy.  Small business has to up its game in order to compete.  For the small main street retailer, it’s no longer a competition centered only on who’s got the lowest price and the most inventory.  It’s price, speed of product to customer and most importantly the customer’s experience.  The small main street retailer always had a slight customer experience advantage.  How can your business exploit these changed, adapt and get back ahead of the curve?  For the job shop, smaller manufacturer – this “on-demand” print manufacturing focus is going to directly compete with your small jobs casting, molding and tooling repair parts and other small batch orders.  Are you ready?
  2. Community Planning, Zoning & Economic Development.  The discussion points for cities and local community development organizations will be centered on infrastructure, innovation and incentives.
    • Infrastructure.  The roll out of these technologies in new big box developments right off the highway is easy, as its typically where the biggest investment is already being made in fiber availability.  But those communities that want their existing businesses to be viable must start considering investments in fiber and connectivity.  Small businesses are going to need both access and ‘bandwidth’ to link up to Internet of Things (IoT) and benefit from and share their own new innovations.
    • Innovation.  The availability and wider use of 3-D printing technology is about to explode.  The focus mustn’t solely be on how your large, existing manufacturers find new business opportunities.  It must also look at how you can support new entrepreneurs and innovators that are working their regular job and tinkering around with bringing their ideas to life.   This is the opportunity for your community to grow jobs from within and shift commuting patterns that currently take people out of your communities to jobs elsewhere.
    • To grow businesses are going to need permission and a pathway to scalability.
      • Permission.  First, its time to rethink ‘home based business’ zoning restrictions.  They should support and encourage technological innovation, non-hazardous research and development, and small manufacturing/production operations.  Doing so can lead to home grown manufacturing businesses.
      • Scalability.  Second, local government and community economic development groups must look at public and private investment in shared use innovation labs and manufacturing spaces.  Similar to “makers” spaces, co-work space and incubators, this is the next advancement in providing infrastructure to allow disruptive technology companies and new era advanced manufacturers the space to support the scaling up of these activities.  This is critical to those home based start-ups that run out of space and goodwill in their garage, but aren’t big enough or well capitalized enough to lease space (for 5-10 year terms) or build new facilities.  These spaces could come from  stand-alone shared spaces or working with existing manufacturers to monetize use of their technology during times when the technology is currently not used – a benefit to all parties.
    • Incentives.  None of these things are going to happen by themselves.  Communities are going to need to look at incentives.  Some options include:
      • Simple, clear and accessible permitting information so that these small start-ups are clear on what they can or can’t do (needs to be a single sheet, oversized postcard and/or prominently displayed online).  Nothing could be worse than to be forced to shut down a new business venture over permitting.
      • Property tax abatement or exemptions for the value added in cases where home values could increase because of modifications to support home based businesses or where shared innovation space is being created.
      • Tax increment Financing, late-comers agreements or public matching funds to support the expansion and connectivity of fiber.
      • Education is a key element of workforce skills development.  It’s also a critical factor in propelling innovation and providing small business with a pipeline of talent.  Community colleges and high schools are going to need to look at new ways to create skills based learning that is not just another title for hands on learning.  A good example of this is Iowa Big in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  They have brought the classroom to the shared work space and broke new ground in letting high school kids prove competency in “core” standards while working on real business projects.

Toyer Strategic Consulting is well versed in helping businesses and communities tackle these opportunities.  Let’s talk about how we can help you plan, implement and succeed!

The Tale of Two Cities

a-vs-bIn late 2009, we pursued the opportunity to assist two cities with their economic development efforts.

City A (who will remain anonymous) was looking to improve on its general position as a bedroom community to other larger cities and it wished to attract both retail and non-retail development.

City B (Webster City, Iowa) was faced with the announced closure of two Electrolux plants that manufactured washers and dryers, as well as central vacuum systems.  They were staring down the loss of 1,000 jobs in a community of 8,000 people.

Let’s compare the outcomes.

City A

City A selected a very large lead consultant firm primarily versed in architecture.  They conducted a year long process and used four additional consulting and engineering firms to round out the expertise of the consulting team.  Over the course of a year they held open community meetings, identified sub areas for additional planning and produced two very generalized documents with renderings of what future development may look like.  Since completing this plan, the city completed several annexations and has initiated efforts to complete planning for each of the subareas.

act-wait-buttonCity B

City B hired our firm.  We ’embedded’ ourselves within the community during the initial plan review and recognized that the city had to act quickly.  We interviewed key stakeholders; conducted a review of the city’s codes, fees and utility rates; and completed a ‘buildable land’ and key asset mapping assessment that were all presented to the City Council in four months.  After the presentation of our findings, we worked with the city and stakeholders over the next 30 days to develop an action plan, which the council adopted by resolution as its “Economic Development and Recovery Action Plan.”   It directed all city departments and resources to prioritize implementation of the plan.

We continued in our role as the consultant for City B and led implementation of the action plan, which included our assisting the city in evaluating, hiring and overseeing other consultants for select elements of the action plan (e.g. workforce assessment; development of a brand and a marketing plan).

The action plan was comprehensive and kept the city ahead of the curve in surviving and recovering from the closure of Electrolux.  Some of the highlights of what the plan accomplished include 100 Electrolux jobs were retained, incentives provided that encouraged new retail growth, multiple electric rates consolidated to simplify billing and encourage expansion of the remaining manufacturing base, and code amendments implemented to support home based businesses and an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

We think its clear which city got the better deal and the better result.

Is your community ready to take action?  Contact us today and let’s talk about what we can do for you.

You Call That a Plan

13727927 - office binders stacked white background

What is 562 pages long and calls for more planning and studies?

A failed opportunity. Let me explain.

I recently reviewed a 562 page long comprehensive plan. And to answer the obvious question, I didn’t do it because I was bored. In fact, I did it because I wanted to answer a question one of my friends posed while we met for coffee a few weeks ago. His question: “Why does it seem like our city has no plan, no vision?”

It was a reasonable question that peaked my curiosity. Over the course of the conversation we agreed that the City’s plan and vision were supposed to be what was in its comprehensive plan.

So, not long after sipping the last of my mocha, I was online and digging into that city’s 562 page comprehensive plan. The plan was both exhaustive and exhausting. So what did I find? Five problems that commonly plague the plans I see communities create.

With bowl games and the playoffs on my mind, I’ve put a football spin on each problem:

  1. The False Start. Who really has the time to read a 562 page document to understand where the direction a community is going? No one. That’s the problem. No elected official, staffer or planner is ever going to read, memorize and follow up on everything in a plan that long. Worse yet, it’s inevitable that a plan that long contradicts itself. Bottom line is the plan already committed a foul before it ran its first play from scrimmage. There is a reason everyone wants to read an executive summary of a long plan. That’s the bandwidth the average person has for digesting what the goal is, what the strategies are and what the outcomes should be. If that is the case, are the other 500+ pages really necessary?
  2. What’s the Play Coach?  Picture a quarterback in the huddle desperately going over a 562 page chart on his wrist band (it’s painful enough to watch when it’s just a simple flip sheet). So then how is a 562 page document supposed to be distilled into a crisp “vision” that can be shared with city employees, citizens and businesses so the priorities and future vision for the community are clear? It’s nearly impossible. When the ‘playbook’ is too long and the offense too complex to run efficiently, the result is a failure to get a first down let alone cross the goal line. I’ve seen good football coaches (think Mike Holmgren) take some grief for scripting the first 20(ish) plays from scrimmage, but when it comes to following up a comprehensive community plan with action – such a script is a must have.
  3. Team Captains. What happens when everyone is responsible but no one is in charge? At best, nothing. At worse, chaos. Communities have thinned their staffs over the last decade and they have smaller rosters of team members that are playing multiple positions. Communities like this need ‘team captains’ in charge of acting on the plan, but even more importantly the team captains need the time and authority to focus first on plan implementation. When this doesn’t happen the plan becomes just another document lost in the background noise of the daily grind.
  4. Free Agency Failures.  My guess is that a 562 page plan didn’t come by the cheap. I’ve yet to ask my friend what the plan cost them, but in my experience I’ve seen communities spend $100,000 on a consultant and assign 1-3 staff people to a process involving a less extensive plan that this one. Between fully burdened staff and consultants, it’s reasonable to assume the plan cost in the neighborhood of $200,000 – $250,000. Spending this kind of money on a plan that doesn’t create action is like giving a free agent guaranteed money only to cut them before the end of preseason. As the Boomer (Chris Berman, ESPN) would say, “Whoooop!”
  5. Diagnosing the Game Film.  Let’s go over a few ‘plays’ from the plan, as I want to call attention to some X’s (goals) and O’s (objectives/strategies). In one of the plan’s chapters, I found six goals and roughly two dozen objectives. However, six of those objectives specifically called for completion of another plan or a study. Six! Now imagine if each of the other ten chapters followed this framework (hint: most did). The result is a plan that calls for another 60+ plans or studies.  I can hear Steve Raible, the voice of the Seattle Seahawks, in my head, “Holy Catfish!” Even if each additional plan or study cost a mere $20,000 in either staff time or consultant fees, the result would be over $1.2 million in more planning and studies. It’s no wonder many small to medium sized cities struggle to find the money and resources to create a plan then begin to implement the plan.

I want to make it clear that I am not anti-planning. I’m pro-planning. However, a plan without strategy and deliberate implementation is just an ordinary document.

The most successful plans I’ve seen set forth a clear and concise set of actions that can be implemented by identified team captains who have the capacity and authority to take action.

A great plan can’t be measured by how long it is – it must be measured by how much it accomplishes.

Want another example, read our story: “The Tale of Two Cities”

Five Common Barriers to Action

We see it far too often.same-old-thinking

A business or community hires a large and ‘well-respected’ planning or consulting firm to help them decide on an objective and develop strategies that will lead to action and a result. The intentions are good in nature.  But the process ends up as just another document for which resources (time, money and stakeholder capital) were diminished without any real results.

So, why does nothing happen?

Let’s Look at an Example
The following is a recent news story that appeared on our radar.

The Daily News

Economic development officials and the local commission are expected to spend the coming weeks and months determining how to implement parts, or all, of the study recommendations.

“We’ll be keeping you posted as we go through this process,” he said.

Chairman Lewis said the months-long study process was the “easy part.”

“The hard part is moving and putting the plan in place,” he said to presentation attendees. “In order for us to do that, it’s going to take all of you participating.”

NOTE: in full disclosure we’ve edited the names and title of the paper and people to protect the innocent.

The Five Most Common Barriers to Action

  1. A study is not a plan.  A study is a process of acquiring knowledge.  A plan is a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something.  As shown in the article above, the two are often confused.  You don’t implement studies, you implement plans.  You’d complete a sewer study to understand what your capacity is and what improvements you need.  You create and adopt a capital facilities plan to finance and build the improvements.  The information from a study or studies should go into a plan, but a study’s recommendations can’t be your action plan.
  2. Action can’t be an afterthought.  Implementation needs to be part of the plan, not an afterthought or separate planning process.
  3. Full price for a fraction of the goods.  Recommendations from a consultant are just that.  However, we sometimes find that a consultant has a standard format it uses.  Such formats have built in biases and are more likely to produce irrelevant and in-actionable recommendations.  It’s the duty of both the consultant and the client to have regular communication so that the end result represents actions the client can take. The final product shouldn’t be questioned by stakeholders as being irrelevant or inaccurate.
  4. Follow the steps?  It’s human nature to think in a linear way.  We want to do Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, etc.  So the assumption is we must hire a subject matter expert to first give us a study.  Then we discern the information, call in the stakeholders, discern the information some more, start to develop a plan, reconvene the stakeholders, adjust the plan, and hopefully celebrate the plan.  Before we know it 12 months have passed.  It’s a long and disconnected process and its easy to see why momentum is lost.  Want to improve your chances of success?  Bring these processes together so they are concurrent, coordinated and concise!
  5. It’s your birthday. . .  Celebrate success.  It’s a catchy slogan we see everywhere.   But to keep momentum, this is critical.  While its customary to make a big to-do when a plan is finalized, little usually happens after the fact.  Celebrating success shouldn’t be like celebrating a leap year birthday, it needs to be a regular thing for each milestone reached.

Our company has a different approach to economic development planning and implementation. We’re confident we can help you succeed.  Contact us today for a confidential conversation about your next project.

Technology Changed the Game

tech-world-picAs we work with businesses and communities we frequently hear the phrase: “Technology is a game changer.” To that we pose the question, “Hasn’t technology already changed the game?”  [Hint: yes]

Here is what we know:

  1. Technology is changing at a pace faster than you, your business and your community comprehend.
  2. The implications of these technological advances mean strategic plans, such as comprehensive land use plans and economic development plans, are insanely obsolete in a short period of time.
  3. To compete in this brave new world, you need a bold, new strategic plan.

Not convinced?  Take our technology quiz.

The Technology Quiz

Happened or Not?

  1. A gene-editing tool can be injected into humans to repair broken DNA to fix things like cancer
  2. Bionic brain controlled arms are the new prosthetic and allow the user to have full sensory to touch
  3. Using only our brain activity, we can fly airplanes

Get the Answers

What are the Implications?

  • In economic development the speed at which technology is changing will require infrastructure to be rethought and redeveloped to ensure you can compete for the type of projects that will replace existing, traditional industry.
  • In comprehensive planning and land use the speed of technological advancement require changes in how we view allowable uses, mixed use development and community design.
  • In education the rapidly changing technology will mean rethinking how we teach, including looking at what we teach and how we relate it to the real world.

The Technology Quiz Answers
It may seem crazy, but all of these amazing things have happened and continue to evolve into new breakthroughs.  Don’t believe it?  CRISPR is a gene editing technology invented several years ago that relies on simple simple and repeatable DNA cutting enzyme to be combined with a molecular guide to edit broken genes that can be reproduced and injected back into the patient.  This month it entered human trials in the U.S. and China.  The Modular Prothetic Limb is a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Agency) study that has developed robotic limbs with full sensory feeling of touch.  In 2015, a quadriplegic woman became the first to fly an F-35 simulator with only her thoughts.

What’s Next?
3-D printing is about to evolve, rapidly.  Did you know that the patents for Selective Laser Melting (SLM) and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) are set to expire in December of this year?  According to many reports, this may be the huge step forward that allows for more reliable production, but also ushers in the mass production and use of “desktop” printers that will allow the common citizen to be part inventor, part manufacturer and potentially the next emerging business in your community.

Technology has already changed the game, are you ready to play?