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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Fixing RI Part 3

What the green economy looks like
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So far, I have looked at three “big ideas” our state’s leaders need to embrace, including changing Rhode Island’s trajectory by moving towards a sustainability economy. Yesterday, I examined some reasons why we should steer our state in this direction.

So what will this new, green economy look like? I have my own vision, but part of Rhode Island’s problem thus far has been that, for the most part one single person or entity has been responsible for determining the direction of the state’s economic development (i.e video gaming was a bad choice). Instead, a network of stakeholders – entrepreneurs, economists, policymakers, land developers, labor officials, academic institutions, bankers and funders, nonprofits, and so on – must collaborate to create a viable solution.

All of these entities will need a seat at the table because cooperation from all will be required. One person or entity or government agency cannot helm an entire economy – it must be a collaborative process to be truly fruitful. State and local governments must put in place policies that spur green business growth. Capital needs to be made available from both public and private sources. Antiquated zoning ordinances must be reworked to allow for high-density, mixed-use developments.

But I digress. I was talking about what such an economy might look like, and as I said, I have an idea. Some people might have better ideas, or will have ideas that build upon my ideas, and that’s the beauty of collaboration. So here goes:

Imagine if you will a linked network of businesses that specialize in specific aspects of the green economy. Larger companies manufacture and sell renewable energy components like wind turbines, solar panels, and smart grid elements to places around the US and the globe. 

These products can be assembled and shipped directly from the deepwater port at Quonset/Davisville, which becomes THE point of departure for global sustainability products on the east coast. The smaller components that make up these larger assembled units are manufactured by other businesses in retooled factories located in the older manufacturing cities throughout the state, places like Woonsocket, Pawtucket, and West Warwick.

These operations would provide steady, sustainable, working-class jobs for a sizable amount of the population. The rehabilitation of the existing factory structures into efficient LEED-certified buildings means construction jobs, as well as a call for architects, designers, and green consultants.

An economy rooted in the sustainability market cannot rely solely on the development of green energy, though. Small firms in eco-innovation incubators, led by the engineers and scientists educated at Brown, URI, and RIC and funded by grants, loans from local banks, and venture capital, develop new products like energy-efficient paints, environmentally-friendly and efficient HVAC systems, new permeable paving materials, and machines to work in low-emissions manufacturing processes. 

Collaboration between entrpreneurs and research institutions results in further innovation.

More fair-wage jobs are created as these products become ready for production and move to the mass manufacturing phase. Meanwhile, CCRI gears part of its curriculum to prepare this workforce for the shift towards this new economy. 

Other firms and/or non-profits specialize in energy-efficient construction consultation, green roof design, and sustainable waste management and recycling, to name only a few market opportunities. Nonprofits help these start-ups find funding sources and develop sustainable business plans.

Public transit improvements, including a two-line light rail system that reaches from Woonsocket to Quonset and West Warwick to Pawtucket and meeting up in Providence as part of the city’s proposed streetcar circuit allow workers to travel freely around the region, from home to work and back again, lifting the barrier of car ownership as a prerequisite for employment and connecting the manufacturing centers of the state with Providence. Workers will be needed to build and maintain this system, too.

Transit hubs located around the region make it so someone looking to travel from the airport to URI do not have to go through Kennedy Plaza first, increasing both efficiency and ridership. The artistic community that Rhode Island is so famous for will see a call for its services as well. Design is critical for marketing and branding of both products and the region itself. Industrial designers will find work as new products become ready to move to the manufacturing stage.

All of this results in aggregate income growth, a probable drop in unemployment, and a strengthening of the middle class. Tax revenues increase as a result – revenue desperately needed by municipalities – but taxes themselves do not. This means more investment in infrastructure, services, and especially public education. 

Importantly, income disparities begin to narrow. Residual economic growth in hospitality industry and in the form of other small businesses increases. All along, the economy becomes healthy, the environment is considered and natural resources protected, and social equity is increased. Of course, there are so many more pieces to sort out and details to attend to, but this is a start.

John Berard: Master of Public Policy candidate. Runner of campaigns. Runner of streets and trails. Brewer of beer. Designer of graphics. Player of instruments. Paddler of canoes.