Championing Economic Development: Luis Nieves-Ruiz’s Resilient Strategies for Shaping the Future

Luis Ruiz
Luis Ruiz

Luis Nieves-Ruiz is a dedicated professional with a diverse skill set and a passion for driving economic development and resilience in the East Central Florida region. As Director of Economic Development for the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council (ECFRPC), Luis plays a pivotal role in shaping the region’s future through grant writing, community revitalization, and strategic planning projects.

With over 17 years of residency in the Orlando area, Luis brings a deep understanding of the local landscape and a commitment to making it more livable and prosperous.

At the heart of Luis’s work is his leadership of the region’s Economic Development District (EDD), a partnership with the U.S. Economic Development Administration that has secured over $51 million in federal grants for economic development and technology projects.

One of Luis’s standout achievements is the development and implementation of the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS), a roadmap for economic growth that emphasizes smart and resilient cities. His innovative approach includes initiatives like the Regional Innovation Clusters program, which utilizes GIS technology to identify industry clusters driving economic competitiveness in the region and fostering sustainable growth.

Luis’s expertise extends to the emergent field of regional food systems, where he has been nationally recognized for his contributions. Through his work with the Urban Land Institute’s Health Leaders Network and the Wallace Center at Winrock International, Luis has developed food system assessments that leverage food production to revitalize distressed communities and stimulate economic activity.

In addition, Luis is a proficient economic modeler, using his skills to estimate the economic impact of various policy initiatives and projects. His work on the State Road 405 Economic Impact Analysis report exemplifies his ability to advocate for critical infrastructure projects by highlighting their importance to key sectors like aerospace.

Below are highlights of the interview, which showcase Luis Nieves-Ruiz’s multifaceted expertise and unwavering dedication, which make him a driving force for economic development and resilience in the East Central Florida region.

What initially sparked your interest in working to advance smart cities, and how has your journey unfolded in this field?

My interest in smart cities is an outcrop of my work in the fields of urban resilience and economic development. Resiliency is the ability of places to withstand, recover quickly, and adapt to adverse stressors such as weather events and economic downturns. My first work in this field was the Energy Assurance and Energy Resiliency reports in 2011. These projects were developed in conjunction with other regional planning councils across the state. The objective was to take a systematic look at the State’s energy infrastructure, supply, and overall ability to overcome disruptions. Since then, I have led a variety of vulnerability analyses to help our coastal communities mitigate the effects of sea level rise and stronger weather events.

How do you approach leadership in the context of driving innovation and transformation within smart city initiatives?

One challenge with being an innovative problem solver is that people sometimes question your approaches and methodologies. One thing that I emphasize with our community leaders is the need to address problems holistically. I call this the 360-degree approach to problem-solving. To achieve this, my team developed the People, Places, Prosperity framework, which seeks to harness the community’s people, economic, and place-based assets to develop more resilient jurisdictions.

For example, several years ago, the City of Kissimmee hired my team to develop a Medical Arts District Plan for the downtown area. Because this was considered an economic development plan, several people questioned why we started the project by developing a land use profile for the area. We also decided to develop business profiles of different medical districts from across the region.

This allowed us to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the Kissimmee district against similar regional competitors. Through this analysis, we were able to show that the city had one of the most competitive medical districts in the region. Thus, by the end of the project, City officials finally understood that we had made the right decision.

What do you believe are the most critical factors for the successful implementation of smart city solutions, and how do you ensure stakeholder buy-in and collaboration?

In my experience, education is the most critical factor for the successful implementation of smart city solutions. Most community leaders are very comfortable with the status quo. The challenges brought by climate change and sea level rise require bold actions. Smart City proponents need to recognize that they will be spending a lot of time explaining their solutions. This is especially true because these technologies often require additional investments and funding that might not be readily available. Here, we will need to explain the difference between short-term and long-term costs. Credibility is key to moving smart city solutions forward. However, this is no easy feat as gaining trust takes time.

In your opinion, what role do technology and data play in shaping the future of smart cities, and how do you leverage them effectively in your work?

In my opinion, smart cities discussions often veer too much towards the adoption of experimental technologies rather than focusing on addressing systemic problems. While these ideas sound sexy, they often prevent us from adopting more sensible solutions. One good example of this is congestion.

A couple of years ago, autonomous vehicles were touted as the solution to our mobility problems. In fact, several states and local jurisdictions adopted legislation to support this nascent industry. However, it has become evident that these technologies are not ready to be deployed in any significant fashion. Now air mobility is the next seductive technology.

Just focusing on certain types of technologies can be an impediment to providing much needed solutions. For example, I am currently assisting Orange County with estimating the economic impact of adopting a new sales tax increase to fund transportation improvements. As part of this project, I found a study that defined the occupations of the essential workers that were riding the bus during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I correlated this information with regional occupational data to define who was riding our underfunded bus system. One important finding was that people working within those occupational groups represent about 30 percent of the region’s workforce. The other was that most of them are women and people of color. Based on this experience, I think that focusing on improving public transportation would have a much larger impact on the well-being of the region’s residents than adopting new mobility technologies.

What advice would you give to aspiring leaders who are passionate about driving positive change and innovation in urban environments?

There are three main lessons I have learned through my 21+ year career. The first one is to be entrepreneurial about your work. This means having the initiative, self-drive, and courage to pursue groundbreaking projects in emerging fields. This might require you to acquire and develop a new set of competencies.

Good public speaking skills are a must in this field! You also need to understand that innovation is also a process that never ends. Every time that you complete a project, start thinking about what could be improved in the next version to take this work to the next level.

Another quality that has helped me to be successful is consistency. While showing up is the first step, the reality is that urban problems are overly complex and require an extraordinary degree of patience. It will take a long time to see tangible results.

Thus, show up often. Finally, another principle that guides my work is stewardship. This is being cognizant that the final objective of the work is to improve the quality of life of the people living within the community.

How do you balance the need for technological advancement with considerations for inclusivity, equity, and accessibility in smart city initiatives?

Before adopting any innovative technology or policy, it is particularly important to consider who the main beneficiaries will be. For example, a couple of years ago, I attended a continuing education session about the adoption of autonomous vehicles. The panelist representing the local transit agency was not incredibly supportive of autonomous buses.

His main concern was that they would not be very accessible for the elderly and people with disabilities. This is the type of question that smart city advocates need to ponder when evaluating emergent technologies. On a personal level, my smart cities work has been deeply shaped by my experiences serving underserved populations. I continue to pursue food systems work because I see it as an opportunity to create more equitable economic development and revitalize distressed communities.

Lastly, on a more personal note, what motivates and inspires you to continue your work in shaping the future of smart cities, and what legacy do you hope to leave behind in this field?

Equity the underlying principle behind everything I do. I firmly believe that we should strive to develop smart cities that serve everyone in the community. This includes developing innovative ways to increase access and opportunities for individuals and help them generate wealth. Let’s look at entrepreneurship for example. The current business incubator model in many communities mostly focuses on serving high-technology companies and professional business services establishments.

Is this equitable? Probably not. This model mainly serves individuals with a postgraduate degree. On the other hand, I have a colleague in the Boston area who runs one of the most successful shared kitchen incubators in the nation.

Besides providing food entrepreneurs with access to expensive equipment, she also assists them with connecting with potential buyers for their products. Most of her clients are women and people of color. This is an untapped market in the Orlando region. Thus, one of my goals is to attract a similar type of incubator to the area.