Having joined the throngs of people investigating my ancestry through DNA it's been a fascinating ride. I'm meeting lots of new rellies, some quite close, but that's another story for another time.

I also recently attended the funeral of one Professor Ian Shirley who did not have much trouble with family connection and that was clearly evident at the celebration of his life.

To me he was first a teacher then a research supervisor, a boss, a mentor, a colleague and a friend. He had a wonderful way of moving seamlessly across those roles on a personal level with the many people he came into contact with.

One of the things we did together was develop the Graduate Certificate and Diploma in Economic Development for people working in economic development. Two of those graduates now work for me and both of them remember Ian's contribution for the depth and game-changing nature of his analysis of development.


Ian's "development patterns" framework was the first thing all students learnt before we moved on to the heady subjects most commonly associated with economic development such as business and industry development, investment, innovation and entrepreneurship, cities and regions, local and community economic development and so on. What he did was provide a framework for understanding "development" before you attempted to do "economic development".

The difference between my personal DNA journey of discovery and development DNA is the amount of credence you ascribe to the social, political, economic and environmental forces and conditions that have influenced the development of a community or region.

Both are very revealing but uncovering patterns of development for communities, regions and nations is far more complex, with more influences that may be obtuse or not clearly evident on first glance.

His conclusion, and warning, was, paraphrasing, "do not intervene in something you know nothing about". Learn and begin to understand what you are dealing with. The framework he developed was influenced by his experiences in the third world, where "aid" was not always fit-for-purpose or appropriate.

So, why am I labouring this point?

Well, we have a head of steam up now in regional economic development with some serious money behind it in the form of the Provincial Growth Fund.

Ian's message was that is not enough to know a bunch of economic statistics about a place or the history of a place (names, dates, important events); it's not enough to know people connected into the community, it's not enough to have specific economic, investment or business expertise, it's not enough to be in a position of leadership and it's not enough to spout off about the number of jobs that will be created.

To make significant and sustainable change, for the better, you need to understand why things are the way they are so that you do not inadvertently do more damage than good with your good intentions. And, you need to understand the DNA of the community and the projects and programmes you are supporting, how they will make a change, to whom, and, most importantly, why.


For me it is no surprise that the projects that have the greatest impact have a DNA that comes from those that know the most about what should be done and why. Time is the litmus test.