Want to see the real economic picture? Take your boom goggles off


Boom goggles: ‘with one’s boom goggles on’. Seeing an economic boom as increasingly likely, despite evidence to suggest otherwise.

I was in Australia recently. I was primarily speaking at the competitive cities conference. However, I also did some masterclasses, and caught up with the Centre’s Australian resilience research. At the conference, I was privileged to share a platform with Ed Glaeser, professor of economics at Harvard and author of The Triumph of the City. At one point he mentioned the problem of the ‘boondoggles’ – I did not know the term, but I now know it means a pointless scheme which wastes time and money. However, in my jet lag, I thought he said ‘boom goggles’, which I took to mean those who always see the imminent arrival of a new economic boom

Tim Horton, the integrated design commissioner from South Australia, pointed out my error. But it’s too late – boom goggles is now part of my economic development lexicon!

Two weeks later I am in the north of England, listening to a speech by someone who was wearing some boom googles!  – he is a ‘boomgoggler’! For him, the rosy future was merely a train-line, a city deal, better governance or a piece of global investment away. When I highlighted the need to think about the place and people and how we need a more inclusive economy that works better for places, he shot back with ‘profit was international, not local’.

His speech was typical of boomgoggler from anywhere in the world. In the UK sense, his viewpoint could have been placed in the early 2000s, at the height of regional economic optimism. This boomgoggling speech displayed an orthodoxy and the inability to see that the problems ran much deeper. The real solutions were far beyond his gaze.

Now of course train lines etc will help. However, when we take the boom goggles off, what do we see? We see disadvantages, which even the fastest train won’t solve completely – poor skills levels, fierce competition across the UK and beyond, a flawed economic planning context, national economic stewardship which still favours the city of London and no proper industrial strategy. And even if all of this was to be corrected, we are in the hands of a sluggish global and European economy.

For those of interested in creating great resilient and green economies which work for people and the place, we must not start from the notion of a new economic boom and trot out the tired old prescriptions. Only when we face up to the huge threats as well as the advantages of globalism to our local and regional economies, will we start to build a better more inclusive economy.

We must start from the local economic realities. Build on the assets of place, develop economic resilience, strengthen local networks, create conditions for local entrepreneurship, respect and nurture human and social capital. Boom goggling will just not do.