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The Social Dimension

It’s quiet out there, isn’t it? Economic development programs seem to have hit the “pause” button and are stuck there. But underneath the surface of this recession, something is happening that hasn’t happened before.

A new dimension is being added to the business of investment attraction. You could call it the social dimension.

Social software has very quickly moved toward the center of business attention from the periphery. Investment-attraction websites increasingly include social-software tools and links. When site selectors hit the “play” button again, their screens will have a different appearance because this dimension will be added.

It’s no surprise. Some business forecasters saw this trend coming, Gartner among them. A report issued by Gartner in late 2008, Top 10 Strategic Technologies for 2009, urged business organizations to adopt social media sooner rather than later.

“Your organization is an entity in the broad social Web,” Gartner advised. “Get to know Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social sites and applications. The risks of not participating are growing, while the risks of participating can be mitigated.”

Why should economic developers in particular heed this advice? Because social software has become a means of site evaluation for investors. Site-selection criteria no longer are limited to the traditional quantitative data, such as employment rates, education levels and distances travelled to markets. Such data is still important but now is accompanied by qualitative data – and some of that data is gathered through social software.

All this has come from an economic shift documented by author and consultant Richard Florida, among others, and noted in an earlier article in this series, Economic Development 2.0. The North American economy is moving from jobs based largely on physical skills or repetitive tasks to ones that require analytical skills and judgment. What Florida calls the “creative class” is the dominant force in job creation for the future.

Communities’ economic prospects hinge not so much on luring new companies to town or on economic development strategies of the past, but on their ability to engage the next generation of professionals. The strategic focus for investment attraction has shifted to placemaking — creating and promoting communities that offer a distinct character, healthy lifestyles and a high quality of life.

For young professionals today, a high quality of life means, in part, living in a place with a strong sense of community and with vibrant social interaction. For that they depend on social software.

Your economic development department needs to be part of this reality. You need to be involved with your community and to encourage that community to create a buzz of economic vibrancy.

That’s the social dimension that is being added to the business of investment attraction. It manifests itself in the growth of social software including:

  • Social networking — MySpace, Facebook and LinkIn are examples of services that give people social profiles and the tools to manage them;
  • Social collaboration — It is increasingly vital to internet savvy professionals to be able to consult and collaborate with each other through tools such as wikis, blogs and instant messaging;
  • Social media — These technologies can assist your community to build content repositories and share them among a network of identifiable interested parties. YouTube and Flickr are examples;
  • Social validation — What’s the public assessment of your community’s economic strengths and the messages you are delivering? Find out through social rating and bookmarking sites like Digg and del.icio.us.

What appears to be a quiet period in economic development is in fact a time of rapid change. When the recession ends and site selection activity resumes, evaluation methods will have a social dimension already built in.

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