Sunday, July 27th, 2008

What is Your Ambition?

Paul Graham is a noted technologist, venture capitalist, and writer. He may be best known for his essay “A Plan for Spam” which popularized Bayesian spam filtering.

His web site contains a collection of his essays, many of which are well worth reading, particularly if you are interested in starting a software business. One recent entry called “Cities and Ambition” caught my attention. Here is the opening:

“Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder. The surprising thing is how different these messages can be.”

Continuing, “How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you’d be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that. Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.”

The example he gives is Florence during the Renaissance. Presumably there were lots of talented painters in other cities, but it seems that all the best and most famous work was done in Florence. In the modern day, Graham believes in New York the message you get is to be rich, in Cambridge, MA to be smart, in Paris to be stylish, etc. The message a city sends is incredibly powerful and shapes so much of how people behave there. Continuing:

“A city speaks to you mostly by accident—in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear. It’s not something you have to seek out, but something you can’t turn off….No matter how determined you are, it’s hard not to be influenced by the people around you. It’s not so much that you do whatever a city expects of you, but that you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do.”

Perhaps this goes to my idea of the brand promise of a city. What is it you are all about? Why would anyone care to live there? Why would anyone put a stake in the ground there and say, “This is where I’ll make my fortune“?

In a 21st century economy where it seems that there are increasing returns to talent, and where there appears to be a great bifurcation of people, cities, regions, etc. into the haves and have-nots, ensuring a supply to smart, talented, ambitious people is fundamental to civic success. As I’ve noted before, those types of people want to live with others who share their own values, and indeed in a city that shares them. They want to live in a place where the civic aspiration matches their personal aspirations. A city where good enough is good enough is going to attract residents who feel the same way. And in an ever more competitive, globalized world, good enough just isn’t going to cut it anymore. It certainly isn’t going to be what it takes to build competitive entries in businesses like high technology or life sciences, where the quality of talent is one of the absolute most critical success factors.

But as Graham notes, cities can have different ambitions. Being a great city doesn’t mean being like New York or Cambridge. It means finding your own message, your own ambition. Alas, back to Graham, “Not all cities send a message. Only those that are centers for some type of ambition do.” Right. And not all cities are going to prosper in the 21st century either.

There are a lot of other thought provoking essays on Graham’s site. You could easily kill a few hours there. I’ll leave most of them for your own perusal, or perhaps a future blog posting, but will note one other essay here, one called “Why Move to a Startup Hub” This is a pretty harsh and direct essay that basically says that if you want to start a software company, you’d best get yourself to Silicon Valley.

“You can easily reduce the opposing argument ad what most people would agree was absurdum. Few would be willing to claim that it doesn’t matter at all where a startup is—that a startup operating out of a small agricultural town wouldn’t benefit from moving to a startup hub. Most people could see how it might be helpful to be in a place where there was infrastructure for startups, accumulated knowledge about how to make them work, and other people trying to do it. And yet whatever argument you use to prove that startups don’t need to move from London to Silicon Valley could equally well be used to prove startups don’t need to move from smaller towns to London. The difference between cities is a matter of degree. And if, as nearly everyone who knows agrees, startups are better off in Silicon Valley than Boston, then they’re better off in Silicon Valley than everywhere else too….I’m not claiming of course that every startup has to go to Silicon Valley to succeed. Just that all other things being equal, the more of a startup hub a place is, the better startups will do there.”

Note that like AnnaLee Saxenian, Graham compares not struggling places to Silicon Valley but top flight, successful cities in their own right such as Boston and London. If those places can’t compete, why would any Midwestern city believe it can? Even Chicago, the new economy success story of the Midwest, has largely failed to penetrate this industry. It has had a few startups and such, but how many top software companies of today can you name that are based in Chicago? I can only name one decently successful startup there: Orbitz, and it isn’t a startup in the traditional sense. I’m sure that there are others, but this is clearly not the Silicon Prairie local officials had hoped for.

When Jack Welch ran GE, he famously would only stay in a business if he could be number one or number two. Similarly with cities, the top handful of industry cluster locations seem to reap a disproportionate share of the rewards. Of course, there are plenty of counter-examples of how large, seemingly unstoppable industry leaders stumbled in the face of more nimble competitors. Microsoft seems to be having a rough spot making the transition to web computing, for example. But this is usually as a result of some fundamental revolution in technology or business models. For the Midwest to find a way to truly have a high technology breakthrough, it needs not just to beat Silicon Valley at its own game, but rather to figure out where the hockey puck is going and leapfrog to the next big thing, getting the jump on the competition.

Obviously this is easier said that done. If I knew the next major disruptive technology out there, I’d be starting a company to go build it right now. Not to brag (ok, I guess I will) but Yours Truly is a world class technologist in Real Life.

Another possible alternative is to find a unique market niche and figure out how to take over that corner of the technology world. Warsaw, Indiana basically did just that with implantable orthopedic devices. They don’t want to own life sciences, just their little piece of it. Of course, this renders a town vulnerable to niche exhaustion. What’s more, it’s again difficult to do consciously. We operate in a free market world where local officials can’t just decide what industries will magically appear. They can only decide where to focus their economic development resources, and try to create the conditions in which targeted industries can thrive. The rest is up to entrepreneurs.

I know I often come across as skeptical of high tech and life sciences. I want to be clear again that I am not opposed to it and think that these industries are so ubiquitious today, that it is simply not possible to ignore them. However, given the roulette wheel nature of these industries, and the huge amount of competition from every other city out there, I don’t believe these industries alone constitute a sufficient target base for a metropolitan economy outside of a handful of places. And any city that plans to attract them must figure out how to address the problem Graham highlights in his essay.

PS: I’m awarding an Urbanophile gold star to the first person to correctly identify the source reference of the title of this post.

14 Comments
Topics: Economic Development, Technology, Urban Culture

14 Responses to “What is Your Ambition?”

  1. Jim Russell says:

    What about a city as the next disruptive technology? I strongly agree that a city shouldn’t try to be the next Silicon Valley or jump on the biotech bandwagon. Seems that each city has to do some soul searching in order to find that global economic niche.

    Oh, but that world city buzz. There is nothing like it. Then again, the hockey puck might be heading in the direction of a new urban geography …

  2. Mordant says:

    So what message does Indianapolis send? I can’t think of one, except perhaps that it’s important to drive cars really, really fast.

  3. Da Ville says:

    “What’s Your Ambition” – Seth Godin/Guy Kawasaki: ClueTrain Manifesto (or one of their other writings)

    Other: So much of ‘what’s your ambition for a city’ is colored by the media’s attention to and its’ own concentration on the ‘coasts’. The ‘right coast’ is the DC to Boston corridor; the ‘left coast’ is the SoCal to Seattle corridor. What is left out is that great swath of land known as ‘flyover country’.

    Honorable mentions in ‘flyover country’ to Chicago, Miami, Las Vegas, Texas, Colorado

    For the rest of ‘flyover country’ the message that is sent would be short-lived and not remembered at least as it applies to the national/international media.

    The above is particularly true about tech and almost as true about life sciences.

    So should ‘flyover metro’s abandon tech and life sciences? No. But they would be better off focusing on why they are metro’s in the first place; what resources do they have that can be leveraged; how can they keep their current populations happy and their current economies thriving? Looking to be the next ‘Silicon Valley’ is not the answer.

    Indy’s future might well be built on its past. How about focusing resources to come up with a new engine that gets great mileage or can be powered by alternative energy? The Indy 500 could become a ‘green race’ to showcase the results of those efforts. Seems to me, that is the kind of message that would attract attention/buzz.

  4. mordant says:

    I am intrigued by the idea of a green Indy 500 race. It needn’t be a replacement of the existing race; perhaps an entirely separate “Solar 500″ or something along those lines would generate some interest. Though not, I’m sure, enough interest to fill a quarter million seats.

  5. Gary says:

    Ther already are several “green” type events that are held around the city during the 500. There is an annual competition to come up with the most
    economical/environmental friendly mode of transportation. It just doesn’t get a lot of attention.
    The IRL already (and has for several years) uses ethanol.
    Not sure what NASCAR uses or what F1 uses, but alot of technology that we now see in manufactured cars came from the technology development done in those racing leagues.

    Sadly, I agree you aren’t going to fill 250,000 seats+ with what is a “real” green race, but you could always market it that way.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Re: Da Ville’s comments about flyover country

    I always understood the snobbish east coast concept to include Miami, ATL and even the NC triangle, which has had a steady influx of northeast expats over the last few years. Miami is basically the retirement borough.
    Also, absurdly or not, many Los Angelinos have a proprietary view of Vegas as an appendage, a recreational retreat or postmodern garden spa. At any rate, it’s only a few hours drive away, so it’s almost de facto west coast.

    Quibbling aside, the persistence of the simplistic “flyover country” concept shows how sticky these stereotypes can be. Is Eugene, Oregon really more prominent than Chitown because it lies closer to I-5? Is Texas not an economic powerhouse? If pressed for details, would anyone truly argue that there are only six or eight relevant cities in the country?

    That being said, I believe Indy suffers from “Cuyahoga River on fire syndrome.” If you visit the ChiTrib’s online destinations section, the last half dozen articles about Indy have been based on the premise that “it’s not as boring as you’d think or as it used to be.”
    Many on this board use the same concept to recommend the city. “It’s not as boring as you’d think” doesn’t cut it. Something dramatic is needed to shake the sticky stereotype.

    Part of the problem is that Indy is inseparable from Indiana in the minds of many. Minneapolis–another generic -polis–doesn’t suffer from this problem for a variety of reasons: its urbanity, the world-class strength of its theater scene, the market capitalization of its companies, its cultural ambassadors as diverse as Garrison Keillor and Prince, etcetera. U.K.-based Monocle Magainze, which has received props on this blog, ranked the big brother of the twin cities as one of its 50 most livable global cities, one of only three U.S. inclusions and the only Midwestern burg, on the quality of its culture at such a reasonable cost of living, something Indy could easily leverage.

  7. thundermutt says:

    Indy's chief "Arts & Culture" strategist got himself unelected last year because he lost sight of the details of good governance.

    That said, I agree that we could and should leverage our culture better. We have the best "Western" museum east of the Mississippi. We have the largest Children's Museum in the world. There is a pretty good museum of (what else?) auto racing, but an underplayed hall of fame. (We should have every basketball hall of fame here, too.)

    Ah…the rub: We're not comfortable with "high culture" in Indiana. So we'll never make Monocle's list of "great cities".

    But everyone will say "it's a great place to raise a family", as was proved by Hamilton County's first-place ranking on just such a list.

    Las Vegas failed miserably in its 10-year attempt to be more family-friendly, and it has totally reversed course with "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas". That's because they were playing against type.

    One niche available to Indianapolis is the "great place to raise a family" niche, but that means we'd forever be a net exporter of brains and talent…and hopefully, retirees, as folks get done raising families.

  8. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Thunder, the problem with “great place to raise a family” is that it isn’t much of a niche. That’s because it is the exact same value proposition of every other similarly situated burg. How do you stand out from the crowd?

  9. The Urbanophile says:

    I’ll give DaVille the gold star. That wasn’t what I had in mind, but he at least answered. (I was thinking the interview scene at the airport in Godard’s Breathless).

  10. thundermutt says:

    Urbanophile, one plays up the assets Indianpolis has that are "good for kids": The Children's Museum, FFA, Music for All (Drums & Bands), The Children's Choir, big Youth Tennis (at North Central) and Youth Soccer (in Lawrence) programs. It's a good place to raise kids because of the kid-friendly infrastructure.

    Add national-class youth-art programs centered around Carmel's Arts & Design district and Indianapolis' Art Center, and a youth theatre program, and you've got all the selling points covered.

    "Good place to raise a family" may be other cities' value proposition, but "it ain't braggin' if you can back it up."

  11. thundermutt says:

    I meant to write “IF you add national-class youth-arts programs…”

  12. The Urbanophile says:

    thunder, I agree that Indy is a good place to raise a family, for many of the reasons you cited. But I don’t agree with your implication that competitor cities like Columbus, KC, Louisville, Cincinnati, to say nothing of others across the country, aren’t for all practical purposes equally as great for raising a family. I’m sure residents of those cities could cite an impressive list of family friendly amenities.

  13. thundermutt says:

    They might very well do that.

    But now we’re back to the Jack Welch theory: we shouldn’t even go off in that direction unless we’re number one or number two in many of those dimensions.

    “The Biggest And Best Children’s Museum” is not just marketing hype. It’s a verifiable #1 or #2 position, the unique selling proposition that make the rest of the story plausible. We might expect another city in that competition to trumpet its “biggest and best youth soccer program”, or it’s “biggest and best youth-arts program”.

    Leverage the asset.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I dunno, lots of places are family friendly. Indy’s Children’s Museum is the best but on the flip side, Indy/Marion County have ‘lead’ the country for foreclosures for 5 years or so (pre-dating the current sub-prime mess)…and that is not so family friendly

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