Last Friday, 700 people descended on Saviles Rooms in Clarence Dock, Leeds to attend the Local Enterprise Partnership’s Summit on Realising the Potential.

I wish I could say it was a day full of surprises.  Of innovative and critical thinking.  Of real insights about how enterprise works in the region and beyond and what can be done to make it work better.  I wish I could say that we were listened to, engaged, given the chance to shape, not only ‘The Plan’ but also how it might be put into action.  But I can say none of these things.

It was the usual formula of a stage sequentially inhabited by a series of be-suited folk advocating their politics, or their research, or in some cases their business interests.  But generally, far too much politics and macro-economics, a sprinkling of economic development orthodoxy (clusters, sectors, high growth) and hardly any enterprise at all.  And where differences in ideology or strategy were clearly apparent there was no attempt at analysis or synthesis. It just came down to ‘we’re in charge now – so we’ll do it our way’.

The importance of SMEs was mentioned several times, but they were talking about 10+employee, high growth startups willing to put together funding bids and set up KTPs (knowledge transfer partnerships) with universities.  The kind of startup that allies itself with the economic development infrastucture and pursues every penny of public funding that it can.  There was little to no indication that anyone had given any thought to the potential of the regions enormous number of micro-enterprises and the fact that these are the hot bed from which the higher growth businesses will over time emerge.  We are back to what Drucker called ‘wanting the top of the mountain without the mountain’.

The implicit assumption was the regional economy would remain one based on traditional models of ’employment’, a white and blue collar region rather than a region where large numbers of self organising free agents contributed significantly.  What kind of employer skills board is going to define the skills and attitudes needed to escape employment by others but actually shape your own portfolio of work?  No, as per usual there was much discussion of what ’employers’ are looking for and the importance of that Holy Grail of employability.  As I said on the day, I don’t want the net result of 2 decades of education for my daughters for them to be merely ’employable’.  I want much more from the system than that, thank you very much.

It was also assumed that growth in the economy IS the only future.  And we seem to have the choice of whether we measure it using GVA or GDP.  No mention of the possibility, never mind the desirability, of a steady state economy.  Or perhaps measuring progress in terms other than purely financial expansion.  In fact nothing that wasn’t about mainstream economic development policy.  Nothing that we were not discussing in Mandelson’s White Papers on Building the Knowledge Economy at the fag-end of the last century.  Those of us with alternative ideas about to make the world a better place need to take a long hard look at ourselves – because our messages are just not getting through.

Somehow we were soon well behind the clock and time for questions from the floor was cut.  Not that it would have mattered.  If you really want to listen, you do not dominate proceedings from a stage and  give 700 people in the audience a couple of roaming mics.  You take the challenges of helping people to find their voice and express themselves a little more seriously than that, you build it into the process. If you really want to listen.

I had tried to encourage a few small business people to attend and others with an interest in ‘the economy’ who do not see themselves as ‘in business’, because the future of our economy should not be left to a partnership between business folk and politicians!  Sadly most had left within the first couple of hours as they heard nothing that spoke to them of their goals, the contexts they are working in, or their aspirations and they felt the dice had already been thrown, and that the strategy had been set for yet more capital investment and a preoccupation with high growth companies in high growth sectors.  All I could do was mouth my apologies as they picked their way out of the hall while speaker after speaker talked of engagement with ‘the business community’.

At least we had the back channel of twitter to contribute some different views.  Not that the screen displaying the twitter stream was legible and it took until lunchtime for the inimitable @johnpopham to explain that if they used twitterfall they would not need to keep hitting refresh……  I can’t help but think that something so apparently trivial as understanding twitter may hold the seeds of something important for the LEP in recognising that tomorrows economy will not be the same as yesterdays, only bigger.

So, we were late into our breakout groups.  The one I attended was like a fractal of the main hall.  A stage, a panel, an audience and not enough time to do the subject justice.  But this time there were some women too!  At least one of the panel members talked passionately of the LEP needing to speak the language of micro-enterprise!

Lunch was good.  Soggy sandwiches.  Fruit so cold it hurt.  But at least WE got a chance to talk…..

After lunch it was back into the main hall to listen to more clever and/or opinionated men (I would have been at home on at least one of those counts).  One of these had some thing to say about the drivers of regional growth in OECD countries and how some ‘basket case economies’ had managed to turn things around.  I can’t think why he would choose to provide data on basket case turnarounds in our region, can you?  Sadly the slides he presented were unreadable and I could not follow the plot.  I was so angry!  We jet in a researcher from lord knows where, presumably at great expense to the sponsors and then we don’t make sure that his slides will be legible to any but the front rows?  So I bailed out to the LEP Conversation Corner which was deserted to begin with, but which did eventually yield some fascinating conversations!

What did surprise me was the number of attendees who seemed to think that the gig was OK.  That it had ‘gone well’.  That any dissenting or challenging perspectives on twitter were just negativity rather than the result of any critical thinking, or different perspectives that may be worth exploring.

I found it genuinely puzzling until I realised that this was the congregation of the church of orthodox economic development – at prayer.  Where GDP is all that matters, and green/culture/tech/creative is only good IF it will create yet more economic growth.  This was the economic development supply chain in the room.  Hardly likely to be open to the possibility of radical innovation when they have so much vested in the status quo.