Gain a Competitive Advantage by Using a Systems Approach
Verona Thibault, Saskatchewan Economic Development Alliance (SEDA)
We all know Saskatchewan municipalities are faced with a growing list of responsibilities and demands. With stagnant or even decreased financial resources to implement these responsibilities, rural communities are presented with significant challenges that call for new approaches. Collaboration between municipalities and nations is arguably the essential component required right now, to leverage financial and human resources to ensure equitable and sustainable rural development.
A systems approach can help leaders transform these challenges into opportunities and gain a competitive advantage not possible for any single person, organization, or community working alone. With a systems approach, neighboring communities look at how their region’s goals work for—and sometimes against—each other. It can help you achieve more, not only through cooperation, but also by avoiding stumbling blocks that are easy to miss with other approaches.
This approach does not mean communities must give up their autonomy or create more red tape. Rather, it is about using common ground to build trust and collaborative solutions with urban, rural, and Indigenous neighbors, in addition to partnering with public, private, and nonprofit sectors to plan and execute joint initiatives. You bring all the players to the table to see what you’d be missing on your own and what you can achieve together.
The first step is recognizing how investment drivers depend on each other. Consider factors such as transportation, housing, childcare, workforce, health care, and broadband access. Each factor contributes to the fabric of rural resilience, rising above arbitrary and geographic boundaries. However, we tend to treat each of them as separate structures, and they often end up locked into disconnected systems and networks of policy advocates, service delivery agencies, funding sources, research specialists and political constituencies. If we want to achieve better outcomes and increase the rural readiness quotient, we need to connect these systems and networks into regional ecosystems—and that takes effective collaboration.
We can look to the center of Saskatchewan to find an example of leveraging common ground to support investment readiness. The English River First Nation (ERFN) Grasswood urban reserve is preparing for a new wastewater treatment plant in partnership with the RM of Corman Park. Under an agreement with the RM, the ERFN’s economic development arm, Des Nedhe Developments, and its utility company will provide wastewater treatment services to the fast-growing southern part of the RM, in addition to 135 acres of urban reserve land. With this project—the first of its kind in Canada—the ERFN and RM of Corman Park have jointly leveraged financial support from the provincial and federal governments, and are laying a foundation for environmentally sustainable residential and business growth that benefits both communities. Rural and urban municipalities around the province should consider how they can apply a similar model in their own communities.
Another emerging opportunity that would benefit from a systems approach is housing. In a public-private partnership model of shared responsibility, each partner has an opportunity to put “skin in the game,” so to speak. Municipalities can contribute via land and utility waivers; non-governmental agencies by leveraging social finance and public sector programs; the private sector as a development partner. Municipalities can even seek greater independence by establishing an arms-length municipal development corporation to provide a long-term return on their investment to support future demands.
A truly competitive community is one that is resilient. It’s one where residents have jobs and opportunities, and they benefit from efficient and reliable services—regardless of upturns and downturns in the economy and fluctuations in federal and provincial funding. Rural Saskatchewan is diverse, and as our provincial motto suggests, has the opportunity to benefit “from many peoples strength.” By tapping into that diversity, we can be stronger and more competitive than communities functioning alone. If we choose to skip out on collaboration, we will continue to miss out on investments, jobs, and opportunities that will pass our region over in favour of others that are reaping the benefits of a system approach. And ratepayers will pay a lot more for a lot less.
SEDA thrives on developing solutions with rural communities. We love to create synergies across geographic and institutional boundaries, to nurture transformative change and innovation. Our resources and experts can help you use a systems approach to create a competitive advantage in your region.