The socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic, and the opportunities that it is providing to do certain things differently, are stimulating renewed reflection processes in many places around their future economic development paths. In particular, the pandemic has intensified and accelerated the need to address big societal challenges such as climate change, health insecurities and lack of equity, diversity and inclusion. These challenges manifest themselves differently in different places, but they also contain common threads. Thus, as countries, regions and cities reimagine and reshape their economic development futures, there is huge value in learning from and with other places.

Universities and research centres have important roles to play in these reflection process. On the one hand they have the capacities to undertake robust analysis from a range of different disciplines that provide valuable inputs to local reflection and policy processes. On the other hand, their positioning in international knowledge networks means that they can connect the local and the global, anchoring processes of mutual learning and advancement and stimulating cross-border collaboration.

With this latter role in mind, Orkestra and the University of British Columbia organised a webinar in March to start a conversation across places in three continents: the Basque Country in Spain/Europe, the Okanagan region in Canada/North America and Uruguay in South America. The webinar brought together invited speakers from these very different contexts to reflect on their economic development experiences and challenges. Jordan Coble (Westbank First Nation), Mari Jose Aranguren (Orkestra) and Micaela Camacho (Instituto de Competitividad – UCU) shared reflections on current challenges in their respective contexts, alongside their thinking on the economic development futures they envisage over the next 20 years. This led into a fascinating discussion, guided by the questions of a diverse audience from 17 countries. The whole webinar can be streamed here.

Two common threads stood out across the perspectives offered by the three panellists. Firstly, the clear existence of transversal challenges that are shared in different ways across places. Mari Jose Aranguren framed these in terms of a set of the green, digital, and social transitions in which industry and society are immersed. Indeed, the need to leverage these transitions over the coming years to generate new, sustainable competitiveness is a key conclusion of the 2020 Basque Country Competitiveness Report. In the context of the Westbank First Nation community’s approach to the interconnectedness of peoples, lands, etc., Jordan Coble also talked about the transversality of issues such as climate change and the COVID19 pandemic, and Micaela Camacho was clear that key innovation challenges for Uruguayan industry were linked to the broader need for sustainability transition.

A second common thread was the conviction that there is a critical role for government, and institutions more broadly, as catalysts for addressing challenges and shaping new socioeconomic development paths. In discussing the Uruguayan model, Micaela Camacho emphasised the role that strong institutions play as a foundation for competitiveness and wellbeing. Meanwhile, Jordan Coble dealt with community processes of continually reflecting on the economic development paths taken and suggested that self-sufficient government is a critical component, while Mari Jose Aranguren emphasised the role of government, in cooperation with private actors and intermediary institutions, to facilitate complex green, digital and social transitions. If governments and other institutions –including universities– are to effectively play such roles, there is an argument that they also need to reflect on their own organisation and practices to ensure that they are in the best position to do so.

The shared recognition that certain transformations are critical for building inclusive, competitive, and resilient economies into the future, and that institutions and government must play a key role in shaping those transformations, provides a strong basis for learning from differences in approach across places. Indeed, there was agreement that collaboration on shared challenges offers exciting opportunities to develop together, and to do so whilst valuing differences and distinctiveness. We therefore hope that this will be the start of an ongoing conversation bringing together perspectives from around the world as we undertake proactive, ongoing reimagining of our economic development futures.

james wilson

James Wilson

James Wilson is Research Director at Orkestra-Basque Institute of Competitiveness and teaching faculty at Deusto Business School.

His research interests are in policy-relevant analysis of territorial competitiveness and socio-economic development processes.

Roger Sugden

Roger Sugden

Roger Sugden is Professor and Dean at UBC’s Faculty of Management, and a participant in UBC’s Social and Economic Change Laboratory (SE-Change). He has a PhD in economics from the University of Warwick. He previously held appointments at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin, and the Universities of Edinburgh, Birmingham, and Stirling. He has been a visitor at the Università degli Studi di Ferrara and University of Cambridge, and currently holds a visiting position at the Università di Trento. His research is on economic organization, governance, the interests of publics, and regional socio-economic development.