Blue ocean, blue economy

It’s probably just a coincidence, but an emerging discussion about Martha’s Vineyard’s “blue economy” and a compelling approach to disruptive business and policy planning known as “blue ocean strategy” sound confusingly alike. Blue ocean strategy is a planning concept arguing for the advantage to be gained from developing and investing in new and uncontested markets (blue ocean) over competing in well-defined and highly competitive ones (red ocean). Around for some years as a business strategy idea, the underlying premise is that sound enterprises providing unique products and services, operating without meaningful competition, can not only succeed more easily, but will create substantially greater value for all parties at the same time. Among many examples cited in W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne’s 2005/2015 text “Blue Ocean Strategy” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015) and elsewhere are Apple, Bloomberg, and Cirque du Soleil.

Catchy business strategy approaches and texts are staples of academic business consulting, and a great many persuasive ones hit the lecture circuit and bestseller lists for a few weeks only to be replaced by the next big thing. The jury is still out as to whether blue ocean strategy as a planning tool will stand the test of time. The underlying idea, though — that freedom from well-fished and relentlessly competitive red ocean markets by virtue of uniquely valuable offerings with consequently little or no competition — is hard to argue with, and certainly represents a worthy criteria for evaluating opportunities to create new and successful enterprises.

That’s why the blue economy initiative, described in the letter to The Martha’s Vineyard Times by Peter Temple of the Martha’s Vineyard Donor’s Collaborative published on Feb. 24, 2016, and in Cathryn McCann’s reporting in “Island planners look to ‘blue economy’ for economic strength” is so intriguing both as a community effort with a very broad potential base of support, and also as a possible path to creating enduring strategic value for the Vineyard by investing in and building new enterprises.

We’ve grown accustomed to well-intended but sometimes thin campaigns to package and market various Island attributes, generally with an eye on extending our visitor economy in competition with similar promotions in similar communities. In contrast, the blue economy initiative would explore the proposition that the aggregate of Island pursuits and enterprises connected by our ocean environment — everything from marine services and boatbuilding to aquaculture and fishing to coastal resource management — could be coordinated and leveraged off one another, offering the opportunity for teaching, research, and new enterprises and employment, all hopefully at the scale necessary to permanently move the Vineyard a bit further along in diminishing our dependence on seasonal visitors and tourism.

Blue economy planning has just begun. The goals, ambitions, and markers of success are yet to be established, and the dimensions of public and private support required are among much remaining work before a feasible plan can be fashioned. The project is just getting underway, and shouldn’t be weighted down with unrealistically high expectations. But it isn’t hard to register enthusiasm and encouragement for a vision embracing field research in coastal waterway management, and expanded investment in shellfish bed research, and new ventures both academic and artisanal, and the jobs that might be created. And the Island is just now seeing the rise of new, successful business leaders for whom sophisticated investment plans are the norm, and who could bring great expertise to the planning process.

Applying blue ocean principles in earnest will mean searching out the unusual projects where Vineyard resources can combine to create value in goods, services, and experiences not easily available elsewhere. An initial meeting, scheduled for March 9 at 6 pm at the Tisbury Senior Center, is an important first step, and will hopefully draw an enthusiastic and an open-minded crowd. We’re encouraging the blue ocean planners, and others with the vision to look for new, creative, and valuable development paths with which to leverage Island physical and intellectual resources, to set the bar high so our deep but small-scale assets aren’t diffused and drained.

Beyond the hard work of careful analysis and a necessary bent for looking outward to avoid provincial thinking, finding meaningful opportunity will quickly make clear how interdependent our resources need to be if we’re to leverage them adequately, and how much new investment we should anticipate making. Because if we’re thinking about creating academic and research environments, and new businesses, and conferences and visitors, as we think about diversification, it will also mean thinking about Martha’s Vineyard’s resources and constraints as a system — transportation, conservation and land use planning, seasonal workforce, and perhaps more than anything else, the Island’s housing challenges. Let’s try hard to fish and build enduring value in blue oceans, not red ones. As Chicago’s great master planner Daniel Burnham said, “Make no little plans.”