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Yale Economic Development Symposium 2023: Building Resilient Communities

Building Resilient Communities: February 2023 Conference.

For the first time in three years, the Yale Economic Development Symposium convened in-person, exploring the role of economic development in "Building Resilient Communities." The audience of Yale students and regional practitioners heard from keynote speakers Ellis Carr (Capital Impact Partners) and Gregory Chen (BRAC), and participated in panels that tackled aspects of climate change, civic engagement, financial inclusion, food systems, rural community development, and more.

(Further information about the 2023 Yale Economic Development Symposium and its preceding Symposiums can also be found here.)

Filling the Gaps: How Communities Meet Their Own Needs When Institutions Don’t

By Khine Thant MBA ‘24

Panelists Dr. Anne Hallum (Alliance for International Reforestation, “AIR”), Billy Huang (Source Development Hub, SOM ’21), and Arishaa Khan (OBAT Helpers), and moderator Jose Medrano (Urbane) discussed the strategies, challenges, and benefits of building community-led movements. Though the panel’s practitioners work in vastly different international and local fields, they found consistent themes within their work. Dr. Hallum described AIR’s work in Guatemala that builds tree nurseries and, subsequently, micro-businesses, and noted the importance of garnering local buy-in through intensive communication with and support of local leaders. She proudly noted that the programmatic work of AIR is done by local employees and her current role is strictly administrative.  Medrano noted both his and Urbane’s belief that community development should come from within, echoing Dr. Hallum’s commitment to local engagement.

Huang founded Source Development Hub to streamline and strengthen the customer experience of seeking affordable housing, bridging a gap he believes is not being adequately addressed as commercial entities seek out for-profit opportunities. Unlike the rest of the panelists whose domain is with local communities, Huang intends the digital tools developed by Source Development Hub to be meaningful tools for state, regional, and local government agencies, as well as for housing seekers. Within the context of Connecticut, he hopes that government agencies of all towns in Connecticut will be able to collectively address the housing pandemic, a problem that pervades beyond zoning laws and the 169 geographical boundaries.

In the international realm, OBAT Helpers grapples with the complications that arise from political as well as economic stress, serving the internally displaced people and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Through providing education, access to healthcare, and other services, OBAT seeks to address the myriad challenges they face and offer them paths towards a more autonomous future. As the panelists discussed their responses to the Symposium’s theme, Huang stated to the agreeing nods of his co-panelists, “These communities are already resilient. Our job is to help them get to a level where they can tackle the larger, systemic issues that affect them.”

Building an Infrastructure of Digital Payments in Developing Communities

By Athena Bryan MBA ‘24

In a wide-ranging discussion of the role of digital payments in developing economies, panelists discussed the successes, challenges, and future development in this rapidly evolving field.

The panelists each represented distinct dimensions of the topic. Yale SOM graduate, Nithyasri R. Sharma, Director of Global Strategy at Women's World Banking (WWB), leads a ten-year strategy at WWB to introduce financial solutions to 100 million women world-wide. Fellow panelist Amelia Greenberg, Deputy Director of the Social Performance Task Force, focuses on strengthening manage and reporting of good practices in the delivery of financial solutions. Karina Johnson, who served as project manager of DCash, a central bank digital currency (CBDC) pilot for the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank, spoke from the perspective of an expert in digital solutions who has overseen a project from the beginning to the end with a deep knowledge of the context. The panel was moderated by Tony Sheldon, executive director of the Program on Social Enterprise, Innovation, and Impact at the Yale School of Management.

The discussion placed a heavy emphasis on the necessity for a physical infrastructure to supplement digital financial technologies. The promising potential of extending digital financial services to disadvantaged people does not belie the importance of – and in fact is reliant upon – a robust physical component, within which clients can easily convert digital currency to cash and vice-versa. Despite a lot of promotion of the potential of a purely digital landscape, many years of experience in an array of contexts has led the panelists to a consensus view that such a vison is not feasible. The panelists highlighted the importance of creating a “phy-gital” landscape on which to successfully execute digital financial technologies.

Another theme that emerged was the importance of instituting a firm set of consumer protection principles on digital products. Just as in developed economies, consumer rights and privacy are an important dimension of any digital financial product, and these are critical elements of their development and deployment in developing economies. Another key theme was that digital financial services require well-design regulatory and financial systems, as well as strong technology, in order to be successful. The DCash initiative in the Eastern Caribbean demonstrated that innovative experiments are well underway — providing a blueprint of how a central bank digital currency can be developed and distributed among citizens in a geographically diffuse territory. 

The potential for the distribution of digital financial services is considerable, but they are only as powerful as their ability to reach their intended users in a responsible and robust manner.

Energy Transition in Appalachia

By Azhar Zahid MAM ‘23

In the “Energy Transition in Appalachia” panel, Robert J. Klee, Managing Director of Clean Energy Programming at CBEY, moderated a discussion with Brandon Dennison, CEO of Coalfield Development, and Len Jornlin, CEO of Optimize Renewables, regarding how for-profit firms, NGOs, and government can work together to enable a just transition for extraction-based economies. 

The panel discussed how communities in extraction-based economies like Appalachia have an opportunity to become more resilient by diversifying away from fossil fuels. In his opening remarks, Brandon Dennison noted, “It seems obvious to say, but our communities have been vulnerable for so long as a result of our focus on a mono-extractive economy … this was particularly evident with the bottoming out of the coal industry in 2015, with unemployment of over 20% in certain West Virginian counties … creating social trauma for these communities.” This remark highlighted an important and central theme to the discussion – the need for workforce development and social and professional support to create a workforce for a new green economy. Although Coalfield Development is a non-profit and Optimize Renewables a private firm, they share many similarities in terms of how they address creating green-economy employment – including that they incorporate workforce development as a central part of their programs and their multi-sectoral approach.  

According to Brandon Dennison, Coalfield Development follows an “entrepreneurial, bottom-up, community-based approach” that conducts “economic R&D – to see which sectors have viability”. More specifically, as an NGO it helps incubate private social enterprises with high employment creation potential in new industries to diversify the economy. Coalfield has already incubated businesses in green construction, ecotourism, sustainable agriculture, carbon capture and forest management, and solar energy production. Their model is made up of two components: 1) developing private businesses that hire locally and 2) supporting workforce development.

Optimize Renewables, on the other hand, is a private enterprise and focuses on renewable energy (RE) development in rural Appalachian communities through project management, financing, and workforce development. The firm’s distinct approach is providing the “right mix” of RE technologies, public-private capital blends, and applied learning/workforce development. Len Jornlin emphasized how important addressing all three aspects is in terms of incentivizing the development of these projects as well as to provide local workers the opportunity to participate in the green economy. As part of the learning and workforce development component of Optimize’s model, they are developing a Higher Education Ecosystem with state and community colleges and private firms to develop specific skills required for implementing and managing RE projects.

Another important issue covered was the impact of recent climate legislation related to coal communities, with Brandon noting, “this legislation is a game changer”.. Both Len and Brandon emphasized that there is a unique opportunity today to accelerate RE – “the time is now [since] there is political will… and that may go away”.

The conversation went on to address the important role that local businesses and non-profits will play in channeling federal funding to productive and effective workforce development programs. Many federally funded agencies and non-profits provide training which is not aligned with employment opportunities. In contrast, both Coalfield and Optimize engage in workforce development and employment creation simultaneously to ensure a match between skills and job market needs. Len and Brandon concluded by saying how “there is a lot of economic pain in coal communities” with a history of imposed policies, which is why community engagement and co-ownership is important for getting local buy-in. At the same time, it is important to communicate to outside investors that the region “is an attractive emerging market” which can generate returns for society and business.

Learn more about the valuable work Brandon Dennison and Len Jornlin are doing to advance the energy transition in the Appalachian region here and here.