The Reimagining the Economy project explores local labor market, industrial, and development policies, combined with practitioner insights, to produce multidisciplinary scholarship to reshape narratives about how we achieve inclusive prosperity.


Economics and economic policy are in flux. The broad consensus that has shaped the approach of many governments to the economy has been dissipating. Prevailing policy mindsets have both failed to produce robust economic growth and generated increased inequality and economic insecurity. Societies are hostage to financial crises, the advance of climate change, and a lack of good jobs. When unexpected shocks hit, these vulnerabilities are further compounded.

These problems exhibit themselves to ordinary people in at least three ways. These trends not only produce economic inequality, insecurity, and racial exclusion, they also lie at the heart of the economic discontent that has empowered authoritarian populists at the polls and political polarization more generally.

  • First, we have experienced a phenomenon called “labor market polarization” – the disappearance of manufacturing, energy, sales, and clerical jobs that traditionally served as a stepping stone to the middle-class, especially for those without a college education. Skill-intensive and professional occupations, and to some extent low-wage personal services at the bottom end, have meanwhile expanded.

  • Second, economic gaps between select thriving metropolitan areas and lagging regions have widened. The former have been able to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the new economic context, while the latter have stagnated and suffered persistent joblessness and progressive social dislocation.

  • Third, the legacy of structural racism has imposed rising insecurity and diminished economic opportunity on communities of color. In the U.S., income gaps between Black and white households, which narrowed in the two decades after the Civil Rights movement, stopped closing 30 years ago; the racial wealth gap today is as large as it was in 1970.

We are motivated by a range of questions, which lead us to think about economic policy in a place-based manner: how can we improve the aggregate outcomes of regions? What are factors that enable some regions to be more resilient than others? Although there has been promising experimentation by local governments and civic organizations at the frontline of the economic dislocations – in sectoral training, regional economic development schemes, and social programs that target disadvantaged youth, for example – these efforts have remained small in scale, uncoordinated across regions, and disconnected from national debates on economic policy.

In some ways, policy, especially at the state and local level, has reacted more quickly to the disappointments of recent decades than have economic ideas. But if policy changes are to be more than fleeting, they will need to be underpinned by new ways of thinking about the economy and how it should be governed. What we need are the ideational frameworks, narratives, and evidence that will animate and propel more lasting changes in our economic arrangements.

Our Approach

We aim to produce scholarship that helps reshape economic narratives. We do this by developing, integrating, and disseminating three kinds of knowledge:

  • We will collect systematic evidence on the incidence and variety of local labor market, industrial, and development policies as they exist, both in the U.S. and other national contexts. This quantitative knowledge base will help understand the world as it is, to test alternative conceptions of the economy, and to design policies that are consistent with these conceptions.
  • We will call on the experience of practitioners to bear on questions of institutional constraints and opportunities. The experiential knowledge of local actors and policy makers, many of whom have developed sophisticated approaches to policy experimentation quite apart from the academy, can fill gaps in quantitative analyses and illuminate possibilities for policy evaluation that would otherwise go unexplored.
  • We will bring the perspectives of social and organizational theorists to identify the inequality-perpetuating features of existing institutions, interpret successful institutional arrangements, and develop alternative institutional trajectories for the future. Conceptualizers and theorists are required not only to make sense of data; they are needed to help us imagine possibilities that are far from current practices.

These three types of knowledge are complementary and we hope to exploit the synergies among them. They help us connect ground-level perspectives with high-level analyses; empirical research with qualitative/theoretical work; and positive with normative analyses — all in the context of substantive problems associated with the creation of prosperous and inclusive economies.

Hewlett Foundation

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is a nonpartisan, private charitable foundation that advances ideas and supports institutions to promote a better world.

Malcolm Wiener Center

Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy logoThe Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy draws on the worlds of scholarship, policy, and practice to address public policy questions about:
health policy, human services, criminal justice, inequality, education, poverty, immigration, and labor.

Center for International Development

Center for International Development logoThe Center for International Development (CID) is a university-wide center based at the Harvard Kennedy School that seeks to solve pressing development problems.

Taubman Center for State and Local Government

Taubman Center for State and Local Government logoThe Taubman Center for State and Local Government and its affiliated institutes and programs are the Kennedy School of Government's focal points for activities that address state and local governance and intergovernmental relations.