Monday, November 17th, 2008
Conventional wisdom says cities should build on their assets. But they should really build on their liabilities. While assets can be building blocks for the new, more likely they are the legacy of the past, not the foundation for the future. The only reason cities have assets is because previous generations didn’t try to build on the assets of their day – they went out and created something new. And all too often “building on assets” turns into “defending the past”, as cities and states try to protect the industries and ways of doing business that worked in the days of yesteryear, but are failed strategies for the new economy.
I say “Invert the World“. Take the things you can’t change but you think are holding you back and figure out how to recontextualize them into an asset. Make your weaknesses into strengths. Turn what only you’ve got into a weapon no other city can match.
It’s critical for the Midwest to face up to the facts on the ground, stop whining about them and start doing something with them. There are the things we can’t change, but we can make them into something we can use instead of something to complain about. Some of these are:
- Centrality. How do we make being in the center of the country instead of the coasts an asset? Typical logic revolves around being a distribution center, saying we are X hours from Y percent of the population. And while that’s true, I think there’s an opportunity to dig deeper and figure out how to exploit centrality in a more structural way.
- No Boundaries. Cities like Indianapolis and Columbus have no barriers to growth in all directions.
- Seasons. I particularly like how the Twin Cities embraced the notion of being part of the frozen north and being a winter sports haven.
- North meets South (for cities in the Southern tier of the Midwest)
- Rivers and Lakes. They often seem to divide or create barriers. But why does it have to be this way?
- Water, more generally. We’ve got a huge amount of it.
- Bottlenecks, especially for Chicago and Detroit. It’s unlikely they will ever be free flowing, so how do you make being a bottleneck work for you?
- Large African-American populations. As I’ve argued before, the city that puts its black community at the center of its growth strategy is going to reap a big dividend.
- Agricultural heritage. Why not own local and sustainable agriculture? Why not figure out the agribusiness model to make it work at scale? There is no such thing as environmentally friendly farming in irrigation dependent California, but there could be in the Midwest.
- Unions. This one particularly intrigues me. Clearly, the era of achieving above market pay through the cartelization of labor is drawing to a close. Unions are, paradoxically, becoming obsolete as much of what they originally fought for has become standard in the workplace and globalization destroys their cartel function. But why not find a new role? Unions have long been active in worker training and certification. Why not take it a step further and morph the unions into educational institutions? Leverage unions as a key vehicle to help the Midwest have a competitive advantage through a uniquely skilled workforce that can’t be matched elsewhere.
- Multi-state metro areas. For those that are, how can you make this work to your advantage instead of as a source of structural weakness?
I don’t suggest this is an easy task. But many of these are structural conditions other parts of the country don’t have. If the Midwest can figure out how to turn them into the assets of tomorrow, this creates a “wide moat” barrier that other cities without these structural advantages can’t match. It also allows the Midwest to live up to our brand promise, and build a New Midwest based on the best parts of the old and our unique geography and history, rather than trying to import someone else’s story. It’s time to stop playing defense, turn the tables and go on the attack. This is how you do it.