Thursday, April 8th, 2010
I just ran a guest post from Carol Coletta that reminded me of one of her (many) great insights. When we were in Grand Rapids for the Velocity conference, she noted that Grand Rapids was a city that “gets to Yes” faster than almost anyplace else. Perhaps that explains why Grand Rapids has implemented a surprising amount of forward looking urban programs, ranging from being a top ten city in the United States for LEED certified buildings to pulling off the Art Prize start to finish in under one year.
Former Curitiba, Brazil Jaime Lerner said, “If you want to make it happen, do it fast.” There is enormous benefit to being able to move fast. That’s not to say you should ignore due diligence, public input, or other matters in a quest for speed über alles. But as anyone in business will tell you, time is the enemy of the deal. The more you delay, the more likely it is something will go wrong.
In too many cities, it’s almost impossible to make things happens. It requires almost super-human focus and commitment, especially for people who aren’t power players in the community. I have a friend who was instrumental in getting the ordinance that legalized sidewalk cafes passed in Chicago in the 1980’s. It basically required him to just refuse to quit, including going to 15+ scheduled breakfast meetings with a key alderman who never showed up until appointment #16.
This sort of thing kills innovation in your city. And I’d actually say that Chicago is one of the best places to make something happen. Thought it can be extremely difficult to get the ear of your alderman or the mayor, once they are convinced, the game is almost over.
In an ever more rapidly changing and competitive world, the cities that can move fast are the ones that are going to distinguish themselves. It is critical that we figure out how to get to Yes faster.
There are two huge problems with the “high friction” environment that prevails in most cities.
1. It kills off ideas from non-traditional players completely. I continue to be astonished at the innovation and creativity that comes out of young, fired up leaders in almost every city. Some of these I’m just like “Wow, that’s an awesome, world class idea.” But can they come to reality? Most of the people with great ideas aren’t necessarily power players or those who know how to navigate the murky world of getting things in a city. They might also frankly not be the best implementers. The vast bulk of these ideas end up dying. The originators try to drum up interest, get nowhere, then the ideas end up filed in the “too hard” pile.
2. You’ll lose ground. Innovation is occurring all around us. Cities need to be able to rapidly adopt great ideas from elsewhere, and also make their own new an innovative ideas happen before they occur to someone else. The idea that you can just sit on a good idea for months or years and assume that the ability to be first to market will always be there is dangerously naive. Time to market matters.
City leaders ought to take a look at how easy or hard it is to make things happen in their town, and the structures that prevail there. In a more open economy, we need a more open innovation framework for our urban areas. The good ideas are going to come from everywhere, not just from a committee of movers and shakers in a downtown high rise or over at City Hall.
I’d suggest a couple things:
1. Make sure that you aren’t squelching grass roots initiatives. Often various civic groups that operate in some area (an economic development sector, a geography, etc.) believe that they own it and anyone who wants to play in their sandbox needs permission from them. For people who don’t actively need their help, these sorts of leaders or organizations need to stay out of the way and let innovation happen. It’s not necessarily an assault on them or a vote of no confidence that someone else has ideas in the space and is trying to make them happen.
2. Find a way to match people with ideas with people who can get things done. Often the idea comes from someone with no clue how to make it happen. On the other hand, there are many community leaders who are excellent at management, fundraising, outreach, the nitty-gritty of the gears of government, etc. who may not always know where to deploy their weapons. Both skill sets are needed. Back to the Art Prize in Grand Rapids, artists had to find a local willing venue to pair up with. They even built some tools for this. That sort of “matchmaking” service, whether formal or informal, could be very valuable.