I have talked a lot on this blog about urban strategy and about what cities can to do develop their unique niche or become big in certain industries. But I want to make very clear that I do not believe these great results can be created out of thin air by the government or other entities. Rather, true progress in a city comes from the actions of thousands of individuals and firms who choose to plant their flag and seek their fortune in a given place. It’s people deciding this is where they want to live, work, play, and raise their families. It’s entrepreneurs deciding this is the place they want to start their company. It’s big companies deciding this is the place they want to expand, or hold their convention or meeting.
I think that civic development programs have an important role to play, but that role is in fertilizing the soil, it making sure that when the seeds fall, people people do decide to seek their fortune in a place, that there is an environment there that will be nurturing and cause them to be very successful. It’s important for local communities to get the legal frameworks, culture, taxation, infrastructure, and more in place so that when the seeds of your target residents or industry profiles show up, they take root, multiply, and flourish.
This is where the Midwest fails all too often. Every city I’ve been to or read about has good stuff going on. Every city has motivated boosters, entrepreneurs, etc. But how often do these end up being just one offs? How often does, say, one or two people’s passion for great architecture inspire a movement? Or a create a huge music scene? Or build a life sciences industry cluster? It seems rare.
There’s a well known book that I, like many others, read in college called “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. One of the interesting things the author notes that is in scientific research, one would think that coming up with hypotheses to test would be the hard part. But as it turns out, that’s easy. People are constantly coming up with new ideas to test. Similarly, it might seem that getting seeds to fall on your city is the hard part. But for any city of a million people or more, there are plenty of seeds falling every day. The real question is how many of them take root, and how much of a multiplier effect there is.
Why do I say the Midwest is failing on this point? Well, the Midwest is famously averse to change and its cities have extremely conservative cultures. I continue to be astonished that even places that are manifestly failing economically do not seem motivated to try anything that is really new or different than what they’ve done before. But rapid change is the reality of the globalized economic age we live today. Most of us really don’t like change. I’ve got to tell you, I personally hate it. But like it or not, constant change is here.
One of the things that goes into urban success is receptivity to new ideas, and the Midwest scores badly on this point. Even where there is often a true and sincere desire to move a city or state forward, historic culture, attitudes, legal frameworks, and business practices often combine to choke off the sprouts of goodness that start to grow. And even if a highly motivated entrepreneur does start a successful business in say the high tech industry, how often does it create a movement? Not often.
This is the challenge. I truly believe that most Midwest cities of a certain size actually have many of the ingredients of success. They just need to continue transforming their soil so that those ingredients can find full flower. That’s a long term game. And it requires visionary, courageous, sustained leadership. The cities that develop that leadership talent and leadership culture in their political, business, cultural and grass roots communities are the ones that are going to figure out how to succeed in the new economy. Those who don’t will continue to be left behind.