Sunday, May 29th, 2011

How I Think About Cities

Since it is a topic I’ve had some recent conversations about recently, I wanted to take a bit of time to talk about the way I approach thinking about cities, and a little about how I blog.

One of the things that has always struck me about cities is how incredibly siloed their functional areas are and how the work done in them is so often dominated by specialized (I’d argue over-specialized) technicians. For example, civil engineers design roads, planners do zoning, architects design buildings, teachers teach, etc. There has traditionally been little concern about how one area interacts with or affects another (though with things like transportation and land use, that has of course started to change), nor any sort of overarching framework or vision.

I come from a very different background. I spent most of my career in management consulting in corporate America. (Lest I get overly dinged for this, let me hasten to add that I also spent 5+ years in staff roles with actual operational responsibility). Management consulting is an inherently integrative discipline. Even if you are just doing a technology implementation, you certainly need to take into account all aspects of the company in question. So inherently I like to try to look across functional areas and look for those interactions and overall system effects.

Also, looking at how CEOs approach their business, the things they obsess over are often not really of much concern to urbanists or state/local political leaders. For example, identifying customer segments and value propositions, creating sustainable competitive advantage/differentiation in the marketplace, brand, talent acquisition, company culture, organizational effectiveness (harnessing the power of the existing employee network for innovation, etc), and more. When a politician talks about “running government like a business” you can be sure he means cutting costs or some other operational item. Those are important to be sure, but that’s not where most businesses hang their hat. Contrast that with Jeff Bezos’ relentless focus on the customer that has made Amazon what it is, for example.

While companies are typically looking to stake a unique claim in the marketplace, urbanism is by contrast very driven by dogma and “school solutions.” Partially this is because so many of the players are institutionally aligned with political movements trying to advance a particular policy agenda. But it also comes from the generally risk averse and play it safe nature of too many politicians. That’s why 49 out of the 50 states claim they want to be the next biotech center of the US, or why everyone is chasing high tech, green economy, etc. businesses; or building bike lanes, light rail, etc. The idea is not to differentiate yourself but rather to simply copy what is popular in the marketplace right now. (Rod Stevens takes a great look at this in his post “The 31 Flavors of Urban Redevelopment“). It should come as no surprise that most of these initiatives don’t really move the needle. Even if they have a positive effect, they aren’t differentiating versus peer cities that are probably doing the same thing.

Again with my background I tend to side with the Michael Porter’s of this world who say that “the essence of strategy is about being different.” That is why so much of my analysis is about what cities can do that is unique to them and their situation, history, culture, values, etc. This gives is a bit of a contrarian feel just for that reason, even though much of this is 101 level stuff in the corporate world. And of course that’s doubly true since so much of looking for opportunity is looking for marketplace gaps, i.e., the things no one else is looking at or doing. (Lest you think there isn’t a real school of thought on this, I recommend reading Paul Arden’s book “Whatever You Think, Think the Opposite“).

I also have a contrarian feel because of the way I ate my own dog food. When starting out, I realized I didn’t have a platform or other credentials that would cause people to take me seriously. I wasn’t a foundation fellow or a professor or mayor or newspaper columnist. So saying the same things as everybody else likely wouldn’t have attracted that many readers. To build and maintain an audience I feel I have to put out unique, compelling content that isn’t available elsewhere. That probably gives a bit of a false impression about how much of an unconventional thinker I am. Where I’m in line with some piece of conventional wisdom, which I often am, I usually don’t write about it since there’s typically already an ample supply of material out there on it elsewhere.

So in a nutshell my approach is rooted in looking at overall strategic items, marketplace differentiation, sustainable competitive advantage, and an integrative approach to urban systems. There are very important differences between cities and companies. For example, companies in theory have a unitary goal – making money – and defined lines of authority. Cities are made up of diverse, independent people and institutions with lots of different goals, and are to a great extent self-organizing systems. And of course there’s often no real line of authority. But I think a lot of my analytical techniques are nevertheless applicable. And I certainly am a strong believer that we need less dogma-driven thinking and siloed approaches.

To flesh out a little bit more about my approach to blogging, I’ll tell you a few other key choices I made. These aren’t right for everybody of course, but I think they’ve been useful for me.

First, I focus on state and local policy, not federal policy. That’s not to say I don’t write about federal issues where I can, but I’m primarily focused on what local leaders can do to help themselves without help from the far off land of DC. I think think this has been an under-served area. Also, for someone such as myself, I did not see any real avenue to influence thinking at the federal policy level.

Second, I take a non-partisan approach. I have my own political opinions on things, but I try to stick on this blog to a “policy, not politics” approach that isn’t rooted in personalities or political parties. As part of this I try to provide an explanation of why I feel the way I do on a particular topic to people can see where I’m starting from. I also try to feature a diversity of thinking from others, where seriously argued, even if I don’t agree with all of it personally. Far too many blogs are only promoting one side of the story.

Third, I started out as a regional blog. There are tons of blogs on national issues and politics. City urbanist blogs are ubiquitous. But not many folks were looking across cities while staying rooted in local policy. I also picked the underserved market of the Midwest. Actually, this was sort of an accident. Originally my blog was very Indianapolis focused. I really wanted to make it an Indianapolis blog. But I was frustrated that people in Indy seemed to be clueless about what was going on right down the road in Louisville or Cincinnati. So I decided to focus on large Midwest cities instead of just Indianapolis, hoping to fulfill a sort of competitive intelligence function. The rest is history. Incidentally, today I consider the Urbanophile a national blog, though I do still write about Midwestern cities.

I hope that gives some additional perspective on my PoV and blogging approach. I often get questions about it, and this is sort of how I applied my own principles to myself and my blog. I think these are some of the same things that anyone writing about cities or starting a blog on any topic might want to consider. You might come up with different answers, but it’s good to explicitly think about your own goals, approach, and scope.


4 Responses to “How I Think About Cities”

  1. Trevor says:

    “That’s why 49 out of the 50 states claim they want to be the next biotech center of the US, or why everyone is chasing high tech, green economy, etc. businesses; or building bike lanes, light rail, etc. The idea is not to differentiate yourself but rather to simply copy what is popular in the marketplace right now.”

    I can certainly appreciate the benefits of breaking away from stock urban planning dogma, making use of insights gained from more competitive strategy regimes and paying proper attention to regional uniqueness. That said, this passage downplays a crucial difference between urban/regional policy and corporate strategy. The goal of city policy is not only (or even primarily) to differentiate one city from a competitive rival, but to better accommodate the lives that play out within it. To be a success, the recipe for Coke _must_ lead to a product that some consumers find preferable to Pepsi. A successful complete streets plan in Lansing doesn’t necessarily have to lead to roads that are preferable to those in Ann Arbor; it might just settle for providing its residents more freedom of movement and all the quality of life benefits that come with it.

  2. Danny says:

    Interesting…I had always assumed that Michael Porter was one of your influences based on your writing, but I had never thought it important enough to ask.

  3. Tee R. says:

    I’ve always respected the fact that you come from a management consultant backround and will use that experience to present fresh ideas on ways to look at and improve cities. I don’t agree with everything you present,but I respect it

  4. George Mattei says:

    Aaron, I like that you have tried to apply real business concepts to cities. I think there are some places where your sort of thinking can really lead to better cities.

    I do agree with Trevor’s comments, though, that not everyplace has to be a market leader to be a good place to live and thrive. And some cities really do have market niches, or have the potential for them, that are not new and innovative, but lead to their growth and prosperity nonetheless. Maybe it’s doing innovative things WITHIN something like biotech that would distinguish an area, for example.

    Finally, I think that the basic motivations of corporations and governments are different. As long as the ship’s not sinking, government tends to resist innovation as a general rule. You’re more likely to get re-elected if you take fewer risks and don’t make a few big mistakes than you are if you take a risk and it fails. Corporations die quickly if they don’t innovate. Cities take decades or more, and by then the folks that kicked innovation down the road are long gone. (Incidentally we see this affecting corporations now where they will be bought, highly leveraged and then sold for a profit before they collapse under the weight of their debt…but this isn’t a business blog).

    Keep up the good blogging work!

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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