Sparking Sustainability and Innovation

About the Author

Lexi Herndon

Lexi Herndon is Director of Research Administration and Financial Analysis for the School of Government (SOG) at UNC. She formerly served as the Director of Communications and Business Operations at the Environmental Finance Center in the SOG.

This April, the North Carolina Department of the State Treasurer hosted a conference on “Sparking Sustainability and Innovation: Together, Let’s Build a Stronger Future”. The conference was designed to foster discussion around how innovation and sustainability are integral to creating and maintaining long-term stability for North Carolina communities. Successful economic development initiatives often rely on and are strengthened by vibrant, innovative, and sustainable communities, so this conference was aimed at sharing strategies, success stories, and identifying challenges and opportunities for North Carolina local governments.

Sustainability is often defined as a process of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Innovation is the act of introducing a new thing, method or idea. For that idea to rise to an innovation, it must be replicable at an economical cost, and it must satisfy a special need.

The conference discussed sustainability in the broadest possible sense, based on the understanding that sustainable local governments are not built by one idea, one group, one principle or one philosophy. Rather, they are built by many elements of the unit working together interdependently with a belief that all are necessary to make their community sustainable – local governments capable of surviving and thriving over the passage of time.

In order to foster sustainability and innovation, the conferenced featured speakers who offered strategies from other sectors who have partnered with local governments, including programs on water loss audits, reducing solid waste, and guaranteed energy savings contracts. The conference also featured many examples of successful North Carolina projects and information on financing strategies, including green bonds, socially responsible investing, and grants/loans (particularly those that focus on promoting regionalism in water and/or sewer infrastructure and management).

While these presentations were both informative and inspirational, some of the most salient lessons of the conference were those that surfaced when participants were asked to discuss frameworks for how to proceed with goals of promoting and supporting sustainability. In these small group sessions, participants shared thoughts around two key ideas: assets that can propel sustainability and innovation forward, and the key threats and challenges to those assets. Even with a strong diversity of communities represented, several clear themes emerged from these discussions that are likely to resonate with many of local governments in North Carolina.

Assets that are essential to community sustainability and livability

Sustainability and innovation in local governments are by their nature truly place-based: in such a diverse state, each community has its own interesting mix of resources and history. When asked what cultural and environmental assets are essential to the sustainability of their communities, participants identified a wide variety of very important assets.

These include natural assets like rivers, lakes, parks, and green spaces; for example, one participant talked at length about his town’s plentiful rockfish population that draws many outsiders in for fishing tournaments. Participants also identified important cultural assets, ranging from Civil War historical sites to long-standing jazz festivals to Native American culture, and they also described diversity as an important asset.

While often cited as a challenge, in this context many participants actually saw opportunity in North Carolina’s transition away from a manufacturing economy: old buildings and structures left behind from industry are now considered assets with high potential for revitalization and rehabilitation. Participants spoke of the importance of institutions, such as universities and hospitals, in providing both economic sustainability and driving innovation forward. Several representatives from Triangle area communities mentioned that the presence of strong “anchor” educational institutions benefits the community as whole by fostering an engaged and dynamic population that is ready and willing to innovate. Finally, infrastructure is often viewed as a key asset; for one community, investments in high quality water and sewer infrastructure paved the way for new industry and community growth.

All of this discussion is closely aligned to the principals of Asset-Based Economic Development, which has been discussed in previous posts on this blog (see Embrace Your Unique Place and Asset-Based Development: An Approach to Poverty in the U.S.) 

Threats and Challenges

Of course, for each asset there are also important challenges and threats that must be overcome to achieve sustainability and innovation. For many small towns, lack of jobs and loss of industry are true obstacles to growth and innovation. The rural/urban divide continues to grow, leaving some rural communities with dwindling populations and a reduced tax/customer base that can sometimes make providing basic services difficult. Further, the strengths of some communities are in many cases threats to others. While some boast world-class infrastructure, in others, aging infrastructure is a significant and costly challenge. And while North Carolina hosts some of the nation’s best educational institutions, in many parts of the state, communities are in real need of increased educational opportunities.

It is clear from these discussions that while North Carolina communities have a lot to offer, there are also significant challenges to sustainability. As your community considers its own sustainability and economic development goals, carefully thinking through your unique assets and challenges can be a valuable starting point. We encourage you to explore some examples of how North Carolina communities can and have innovated to overcome these challenges on the conference website.

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