This Is The Moment To Re-Envision Our New Economy - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Keoni Lee

Keoni Lee is the CEO of Hawaii Investment Ready, an impact investing accelerator. Prior to his current role, he co-founded ʻŌiwi TV and Waiwai Collective.


As Hawaii’s economy reemerges from the COVID-19 shutdown, let’s take a moment to reflect on what we have learned about ourselves: when tough decisions for the collective good were necessary, we rallied together. We made the necessary short-term sacrifices in order to reap the long-term benefits. Our ability to act with courage and conviction towards a clear goal successfully flattened the curve.

As we plan for our recovery and long-term resilience, let us not lose sight of the fact that our economy was in crisis long before COVID-19. Many in our communities are barely making ends meet. In fact, we are so accustomed to the negative impacts of our failing economy that we no longer question why our families, friends, and our best and brightest young people must leave Hawaii to find better opportunities.

This is where our business-as-usual system has taken us and it has no plan or solutions because, according to Albert Einstein, “no problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it.”

COVID-19 painfully exposed the flaws of our economy and forced us to step away from business as usual. This is the moment for us to re-envision our new economy that better serves our residents and protects us from the future economic shocks and crises we will inevitably face. We will either rise to meet this moment or fall further behind, facing greater risks and disruption down the line.

A systemic shift of this magnitude will be driven by visionaries with innovative solutions that require investment. With budgets tightening and the CARES Act funding allocated primarily to relieve immediate economic pain points, funding these solutions over the coming months and years will be a challenge. Hawaii’s political and business leaders will face decisions between investing in short-term fixes or long-term change.

Downtown Honolulu buildings along Honolulu Harbor with Aloha Tower.

Local investment and local businesses are key to a new economy for Hawaii.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

There are no easy or clear decisions given the scale and complexity of our problems but there are two things that can improve our chances for success.

First, we must acknowledge that a long-term systemic, not sectored, view of our economy is necessary in solution-building. Our economy needs an overhaul, not a tune-up.

Second, we need a shared vision and clear goals that we can all rally behind. Just like we did to flatten the curve.

Coupled together, this will enable leaders in business, government, philanthropy and community to more effectively work together and help us make the short-term sacrifices for our long-term benefit.

Michael Shuman’s “Theory of Comparative Resilience” offers up a motivating premise: “Communities that are best able to withstand future crises — whether pandemics, climate disruptions, or financial meltdowns — will be the ones that thrive economically. They will be the best places for investors to park their money.”

His 8 Principles for Post-Covid Reconstruction offer an outline and priorities for our economic recovery and reconstruction:

Local Ownership: A higher percentage of locally owned businesses contributes to our independence, self-determination, and is the foundation of a strong economy. Local business-to-business and business-to-consumer transactions keep value creation here in Hawaii.

Local Investment: We have invested millions of dollars and decades upon decades promoting the image of Hawaii to attract visitors and their dollars. Let’s now invest millions of dollars and decades upon decades in strengthening kamaaina companies and homegrown talent to provide investors with reasons to park their money in our thriving local industries and innovations.

Economic Diversity: Ramp up, close the gaps of, and grow the economic diversity we already have — culturally and environmentally aligned businesses providing products and services in local food systems, sustainable energy, clean water, and finance products. Getting these fundamentals right creates more self-reliance and means less disruption in times of crisis.

Regeneration: A healthy and resilient island economy depends on our ability to recalibrate our economic activities to leverage and honor our islands’ carrying capacity and its resource regeneration capability. A case and framework for “Greening our Economic Recovery” has been proposed by the conservation and natural resource sector.

Innovation: The innovative business models and practices needed to reshape our economy are already emerging. Our work at Hawaii Investment Ready directly supports these brilliant and passionate innovators creating Hawaii solutions for Hawaii problems.

Now is the time to shift our economy to better serve all people and our aina.

Social Equity: Hawaii is uniquely positioned to solve social, environmental, and economic inequalities — our diversity, our collective values, and our aloha for each other and the aina — these are foundational strengths and building blocks towards collective well-being. The Aina Aloha Economic Futures initiative is poised to harness these strengths through an inclusive community process and vision for Hawaii’s economy.

Connectivity: When we are our authentic selves, we are our strongest and we are empowered by our relational nature with each other and the rest of the world. We value the quality of our relationships over the value of any transaction. This kind of connectivity and reciprocity is attractive and strengthens our relationships here and abroad.

Social Performance of Business: When we all use the above principles for decision making and as one way to measure what matters, we all benefit. When government policies reward local productivity, we lift up the local economy. When families prioritize and support local businesses, we all thrive. When community and philanthropy partner with government and business, we grow the economic structure we all depend on.

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Shuman concludes in his theory that “every community has a different history, culture, place, demography, marketplace, and political philosophy, and should adopt these eight principles in its own creative way.”

These guiding principles are already evident in Hawaii. Island businesses and nonprofits aligned with these principles are actively supporting the recovery. Some are in fact scaling and demonstrating the case for long-term value creation.

We need not look elsewhere to attract cutting edge industries or world class talent to seed Hawaii with the next wave of opportunities. That model has not and will not produce Hawaii solutions to Hawaii’s problems. We have the innovations that we need right here right now. We just need to recognize it and invest in ourselves.

The “Theory of Comparative Resilience” framework outlines a shared vision for a new future, with increased diversity, equity, and stability — creating a resilient, just, and investable economy for everyone.

The journey ahead will undoubtedly be a difficult one but we must not let the magnitude of the challenge paralyze us.

ʻAʻohe hana nui ke alu ʻia  — No task is too big when done together by all.

Now is the time to shift our economy to better serve all people and our aina. The stakes are high and the tough question we must ask is: will we have the courage to continue to rally together to get us from crisis to resilience?


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About the Author

Keoni Lee

Keoni Lee is the CEO of Hawaii Investment Ready, an impact investing accelerator. Prior to his current role, he co-founded ʻŌiwi TV and Waiwai Collective.


Latest Comments (0)

In the age of COVID, Hawaii has a unique advantage - it could be the only COVID-free location in the USA. We could do away with masks and social distancing soon, just as New Zealand did. Instead of 5-day tourists, lets advertise to folks who come for several months and bring their retirement funds or remote jobs. A fun version of quarantine keeps everyone safe.After COVID, we'll have a reputation for preserving health and living in safety. Let's build upon that and bring long-term visitors who need those offerings into Hawaii. This would make use of the hotel buildings and bring in as much money as tourists did.The outflow of money for fossil energies is dramatic, in the order of $5 billion per year. The inflow from tourism is higher, but not by much. A solar/wind/storage solution will be paid off within 10-15 years and provide free energy after that.Ag, yes, but lets figure out first how to offer good jobs with a decent income.

ChrisMaui8 · 2 months ago

These a great outline.  That said we need to change the very foundation of our government.  Set term limits for our elected representatives.  Some have become too entrenched and we need people who are not making a career out of politics.

Richard_Bidleman · 2 months ago

With apologies to all commenters below, as well as to the author, I have to say I found no truly novel thinking in this conversation. I agree with the need to "relocalize" our economy, and to dramatically lower energy and housing costs, but I found no sufficiently specific ideas about how to do so other than Richard Ha's energy plan and steeply increasing taxes on absentee-owned real estate. In comments on other recent CB articles, I mentioned what I regard as more novel ways to gradually relocalize and better democratize ownership of Hawaii's business and economic assets, which I think could gradually increase local living standards and quality of life, with fewer tourists, and no matter what mix of industries, businesses, and jobs are economically viable and cost-competitive in Hawaii in a wider range of plausible future scenarios. Some other sources of new econ thinking will follow, after this comment is posted, and my own commentary will be ready soon. 

Slammer · 2 months ago

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