Friday, August 17th, 2012

Life In a Bubble – And On One

“Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” – 1 Corinthians 10:12

“Only the paranoid survive” – Andy Grove

As I noted, my post on why I don’t live in Indianapolis kicked up a bit of a furor. The Indianapolis Star actually did a point-counterpoint on it between columnists Matthew Tully and Erika Smith. Tully’s piece is called “Indy is still in the process of becoming great” and Erika’s is “Indy needs to set goals that go beyond Good Enough.”

You can read these for yourselves, but a couple things really jumped out to me about them, especially Tully’s piece, though Erika’s sort of implies some similar things through silence.

The first is judging the success of Indianapolis solely relative to its own past. According to Tully, “The city isn’t a completed project. No city is — cities are works in progress, living organisms, as some say. That’s particularly true for Indianapolis, the modern version of which is at best 35 years old. Complaining about what the city doesn’t have or doesn’t offer or doesn’t think enough about fails to take into account a key point: Indy isn’t done creating itself yet. It’s evolving from its sleepy, conservative past to its more active and progressive present (and I’m not speaking politically).” This is basically the “incremental improvement” model of growth, which many endorsed in reaction to my piece. We’re better than we were yesterday, so life’s good.

The second is a nearly explicit rejection of comparing Indianapolis to any other cities. Tully makes such a comparison, but only in order to reject such comparisons as invalid. “Many critics hold Indianapolis up as something it’s not. It’s not Chicago, with its massive population and pockets of extreme wealth. It’s not Austin, Texas, or Portland, Ore., filled with high incomes and college graduation rates that are the envy of the nation. It’s not Washington, D.C., with its built-in jobs factory and guaranteed influx of tourists every year. It’s Indianapolis, a land-locked, blue-collar city in a metro area that, by population, ranks 35th in the nation.”

A few things in response to this. I have long been on record as saying Indianapolis should not try to copy other cities, that it shouldn’t try to be Chicago, New York or Portland, but rather should try to be the best Indianapolis it can be. I’ve got no problem with that. It’s my own longstanding position.

However, the problem with looking only to yourself is that it ignores the marketplace. Maybe you are content with how your city is and proud of what it has achieved, but how does that stack up against the market? What about the 7 billion people who don’t already live in your city? Are any of them likely to find your city compelling enough to move there? Can you retain the people you have? Are businesses out there likely to find it compelling? Those are the great unanswered questions.

I actually support the incrementalism model, but believe it has to be market relevant. That is, the rule should be, “incrementally improve at a rate faster than that of the cities you aspire to compete with.”

Sadly, people in most cities seem to have no clue about what’s going on in the marketplace. It’s as if they live in a bubble. For example, I hear people in various places bragging about how there’s an apartment building boom in their city. But the reality is that almost every decent sized city has a downtown apartment boom ongoing. So having apartments under construction may tell you that you’re better than you were yesterday, but it doesn’t mean that you aren’t possibly falling behind the competition at the same time.

Richard Longworth discovered this first hand when he drove around the Midwest researching his book and discovered that most people were totally clueless about what was going on even in the state right next door. He wrote, “In my travels, I was astounded to find so many ‘experts’ in these states who had no idea what was going on next door, across the state line.”

The same thing is true of cities. One of the reasons I started the Urbanophile, and started it as a regional blog, was because I was blown away that people in Indianapolis had absolutely no idea what has happening even just 100 miles down the road in Cincinnati – or anywhere else. I soon discovered that the same was true of most of those other places. I hoped to use my blog to provide a sort of competitor or market intelligence function. Even today, I doubt there are that many people in Indianapolis or most similar sized cities that regularly do any sort of benchmark or competitive scan of how the city stacks up. I rarely see it, perhaps excepting some dry annual community indicators report nobody really looks at.

Think about these questions: Do you know what the customer/marketplace is demanding? Do you know who your competition is and what their capabilities are? Do you know what you have to bring to the table to close the deal and then deliver on it? Think about these with Indy relative to sports. Does the city know the expectations of folks like the NFL and NCAA? Intimately. Does it know what other cities vying to host an event have to offer? Most certainly. Does it know what it has to do win and deliver? Judging from the track record, it clearly does. Now ask those same questions relative to talent attraction and the like and I think you’ll find the marketplace is not nearly so well understood. Certainly folks like Tully don’t give any indication they’ve ever even considered the matter in any realistic sense. He thinks it’s bunk.

Being your own unique city is a great thing – but not at the expense of ignoring the demands of the marketplace. You can make any choices you want, but be sure you are making them with a rich awareness of what’s going on out there in the wider world and what it means to you in it.

This is critically important because the world out there today is a competitive meat grinder. There’s a recent book by Enrico Moretti called “The New Geography of Jobs” that I plan to review in some detail at a future date. One of the points he makes, however, is that in today’s world we are increasingly seeing a bifurcation of people and places into winners and losers. He labels this the “Great Divergence.” I think most of us intuitively get this. He divides cities into three categories: winners, losers, or on the bubble.

Which is your city? I’d say Indianapolis (and similar regional cities like Cincinnati, Kansas City, etc) are on the bubble. They may be winning, but they are not yet winners. They’ve got what it takes to be winners, but haven’t finished closing the deal. It’s actually possible that they could flame out and lose.

This is no time for complacency and contentedness, but rather for urgency. If you look at places that are already competitively strong, you see that they are constantly asking the tough questions of themselves and looking at what they need to do better to thrive in the future. For example, Joint Venture Silicon Valley publishes an annual “State of Silicon Valley Index” that is very candid about the very real challenges even the world’s premier innovation region faces. New York City was so worried about overseas competition it hired McKinsey to do a report on sustaining the city’s financial center dominance. Last year at the MAS Summit for New York City half the speakers talked about what New York needed to do differently or better to succeed in an extremely challenging competitive environment. When’s the last time you saw this type of talk from smaller cities? Almost never.

If places like Silicon Valley and New York, and CEOs of world beating companies like Intel*, are paranoid about whether they can survive in the future, then surely those who live in more workaday cities, particularly those on the bubble, should be doing the same.

* It’s worth pointing out that Intel also killed off the product line that was core to its corporate identity (memory chips) in order to reinvent itself to survive. Most cities struggle to make even minor changes.

Topics: Strategic Planning
Cities: Indianapolis

25 Responses to “Life In a Bubble – And On One”

  1. Chris says:

    I would have to disagree, at least in Kansas City, that we are not recognizing our challenges and addressing them. We frequently have discussions about better positioning ourselves in the global marketplace by looking at both what we need to work on and what our strengths are. For the recent Google Fiber initiative here, we have an entire task force dedicated to looking at how we can properly leverage this asset to improve our quality of life, and potential challenges that might come arise. A few years ago, one report called “Time to Get It Right”, which completely changed the conversation around here, addressed our major deficiency in not having a major research university within the core city, as compared to other cities, and how to address it. Since then a great deal has been devoted to dealing with this issue. Right now there is something called the “Big 5” initiative ( which, again, is attempting to build up assets that we already have into something extremely competitive in the marketplace. Some might say that all cities are working on initiatives such as being a very entrepreneurial city, but the key is that WE have assets in this city that give us a competitive advantage over other cities that, up to this point, we have not been using. If you listen to the discussions on these topics, it is very clear that the individuals leading these changes are extremely aware of the competition nationally and globally. We know that we are competing in a global marketplace. Even right now, there are so many conferences and panels featuring local, national, and international speakers that talk about what we can do with our assets and what we need to improve, it is not even funny. I cannot speak for everyone in the metro, but I certainly do not get the sense that political and business leaders are content with the way things are.
    At the same time, of course, there is a danger that addressing challenges can turn out to do more harm than good. I talked about this in response to another post on this site. Basically, while I get the sense that business and civic leaders want to move this city forward, I do not get the same sense from our media. Oh yes, they do look at problems in this city, but it seems to be done from a perspective of “putting the city in its place” as opposed to helping to move the city forward. So many times I read an article from our newspaper, or a local political blog where someone criticizes the city and ask myself “okay…and?” So, if you are going to address challenges in a city, it needs to be done in a way where there is a clear goal. Negativity for negativity’s sake never improves anything.

  2. Matthew Hall says:

    Chris, whose “we”? I think part of Aaron’s point is that not enough of the influential people in many areas are part of these conversations.

  3. PeterW says:

    This is a fundamentally important post. *Nothing* can hurt Indianapolis more than refusing to realistically compare itself to other cities, and the Star columnists do a great disservice to the city by not just failing to do so, but by suggesting that it’s not necessary to do so.

    I am a fan of Indianapolis, and I think that the city has done a lot of things right recently…but so have a lot of other cities.

  4. Chris says:

    Well, on the Google Fiber initiative, the mayors of both Kansas Cities, a number of major philanthropists, the Kauffman Foundation, most of the leaders within the tech community including CEOs of both big and small companies, local organizations, and the local Chamber of Commerce have all been frequently involved in the discussions. The “Big 5” initiative was spearheaded by the KC Chamber of Commerce, and the leaders of each individual initiative are major players within the business community–though they all have expertise that makes them suitable for what they are overseeing. The “Time to Get It Right” initiative was commissioned by a major local foundation and the participants in that study range from civic leaders from all parts of the metro area to the major local universities such as University of Kansas and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Government and university, and business leaders have used this study as a rallying point to bring about collaboration and investment to an absolutely amazing degree. So, much of what has been going on here has involved most, if not all, of the relevant stakeholders in the business, civic and philanthropic communities. I just wish that more of the average citizens knew about this stuff–I think that is my main criticism of the media around here, they spend so much time talking down the city but they rarely talk about our assets and the efforts to improve upon them. So people around here, IMO, are shockingly clueless about what is happening, and just how many enviable assets this city really has.
    If there is anything that would screw us up, it would be Kansas and Missouri and their lack of vision on almost every conceivable issue. If the leaders in our city have the will to move this metro forward, then our states seem to do everything to further their own irrelevance. They are both thrifty and completely misguided on issues affecting their state. A perfect example is Missouri where they still cannot bring about economic reform, deal with the meth problem, or the puppy mill problem, but they sure can pass a law that protects the right to pray in school.

  5. Matthew Hall says:

    Chris, you are making Aaron’s point when you describe how “shockingly clueless” many are in Kansas City. Cincinnati has done much the same with Agenda 360, 3CDC development authority, and a new Port Authority. Kansas City isn’t distinctive. It’s what comes from these initiatives that makes the difference. Kansas City is relatively isolated and has an enormous hinterland and it’s only possible competition is St. Louis, so it doesn’t have to be as good in some ways when the competition is some stagnant farm town.

  6. Chris Barnett says:

    KC’s competition includes Omaha and OKC, the other mid-continent cities that define the break between the arid (Ogalala-dependent, sparsely-populated, emptying) Plains and the riverine, humid Midwest and mid-South. All have enormous dry-land farm and range hinterlands to the west. The only city of even middlin’ size between those and the Rockies is Amarillo.

    Omaha and OKC seem to have it more together even though they are smaller. The state line bisecting KC surely holds the metro back.

  7. Matthew Hall says:

    I lived in Omaha for three long years. Kansas City offers twenty times more than Omaha despite being only three times larger.

    I am describing the Kansas City metro area. I assumed that is what others were refering to on this forum. The two side may be competing for businesses that are already in the metro, but it isn’t as if the businesses would have left the metro if they hadn’t gotten their subsidies on the other side. Businesses and individuals decide between metros, only them do they decide where in the metro to locate.

  8. Chris says:

    My point is, though, that much has come from these initiatives. The problem with clueless locals is not that they do not care, it is that the main local newspaper–which has kind of a stranglehold on information–rarely talks about these initiatives. Also, from what I am hearing, it seems like the lack of knowledge in some other cities comes from a contentedness for the way things are. However what we deal with IMO comes from the exact opposite. People around here have no idea about what is GOOD, but they are painfully aware of everything that is wrong. Often times, people that move here from other metros are a little perplexed by this. However, my point is the major stakeholders here DO get that they are competing nationally and even internationally, and they are doing something about it by recognizing and building upon our strengths.

  9. Matthew Hall says:

    Aaron’s point is that these intiatives can’t truly be effective without locals knowing and caring about them. If the key stakeholders do something well intentioned and planned that doesn’t get enough attention and support from locals then it won’t work. Your description of Kansas City makes that point quite well.

  10. Chris says:

    Well, I am not sure that a lack of knowledge about other cities is particularly unique to Midwestern cities, or to smaller cities. I really got the sense that, for example, in Chicago people think that their town is the greatest in the whole wide world and most do not seem to have any clue about what is going on in NY or LA, let alone Minneapolis or Indianapolis. Is the average person in New York sitting around worried about what is happening in London or LA? Probably not, because they think they are the greatest city in the world. Average people in Austin and Portland seem genuinely shocked when they are not declared the “best cities” in the country. So, just from my anecdotal understanding of these cities, I do not see how Midwestern cities are all that different. I am sure that people in the business communities in these cities are aware, but I really do wonder whether the “average” person in these cities participates in the way you speak of.
    I wonder how widespread does the participation have to be? Of course one would want all or most people in an area to be involved, but that is unrealistic. Are we talking about people within a given community such as artists or entrepreneurs? Or do you mean something more? I think we need to define exactly what we are talking about because I am not totally clear on this.

  11. Matthew Hall says:

    I agree that some places have a much more realistic sense of their place in the world than others. Places that are isolated or have been the center of attention for a long time are often trapped by their own histories.

  12. Chris says:

    I just find it really hard to believe that the “average” working citizen in most cities–even successful ones–has the kind of deep and educated awareness of how their city measures up. I think people within industries or civic and philanthropic leaders do, but I not sure how broad this knowledge is throughout a metro area.

  13. Of course the people of a city should be curious and reflective about the future and their city’s place in it. We must compare ourselves with other cities, honestly and thoughtfully. And, of course, Indianapolis is on the bubble. In fact, even most of us who are actively involved in arts and culture and education and neighborhoods are blind to the problems that exist throughout the city. Most of the city is not like the places most of us active do-gooders live, and the city is failing most of its citizens in a profound way.

    Still: the thing that rankled about the last piece, and remains in the subtext of this one, is, “and that’s why I’m out of there.” Those of us who care about Indianapolis have a responsibility, each in our own way, to make this a better place to live–which means, in part, a more competitive choice in the global marketplace for smart people. Your choice to leave to pursue other opportunities is completely unobjectionable, Aaron. But if we all made the same choice, the bubble would most definitely burst.

  14. Matthew Hall says:

    Trust me Chris, there are such places. I’ve never met a person in Cincinnati who didn’t know of and have an opinion about the new streetcars plan, the Banks project along the Ohio River and the 3CDC Cincinnati city center development corporation. Maybe Cincinnati is the exception in this respect, but it is indeed possible for “average” Citizens to know and care about the development of their cities. I would suggest that places like New Orleans, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Pittsburgh are similar in this respect. On the other hand I never met a soul in Columbus or D.C. who really seemed to know or care about anything that didn’t directly affect him or her individually. There are different kinds of cities with different histories and different models of development.

  15. Matthew Hall says:

    I should add virtually everyone I know socially in Cincinnati is willing to offer a comment on how Cincinnati compares to the other places they’ve visited or lived in. Again maybe this is not universal, but it does exist. They are realistic for the most part.

  16. Chris says:

    All of us are only offering our opinions based on our social circles, which really only provides a limited perspective on our cities. At least in Kansas City, for as much as people in my own circle do not know about the city, there is a lot of evidence that others are very engaged. I guess it really depends. Are you telling me that I could go into a mall in suburban Cincinnati and talk to random people about these initiatives and they would have a well informed opinion on them? When I lived in the Chicago suburbs people were not informed at all, so for me it would not be surprising in another city to find that the level of engagement one perceives greatly depends on who is in their social circle.

  17. Matthew Hall says:

    Absolutely Chris. The streetcar plan in Cincinnati has literally transfixed Cincinnatians for and against in the city and suburbs. A complete stranger began discussing it with me out of the blue after my uncles funeral in Milford; a suburb 20 miles away. I cannot overstate how intensely it has been discussed. Do a google search of Cincinnati and Streetcar in google news and see what I mean. The 3cdc City Center Development Corporation and the Over the Rhine neighborhood it is doing a lot of work in gets an enormous amount of local tv and radio coverage. It has come up in many conversations I’ve had with people who live many miles away. Cincinnatians are well aware of these efforts, if often critical of them. The ‘Bank’ project has gotten an enormous level of attention. I know people who’ve never even seen it who are interested in talking about it, even if just to tell me they think it won’t work. Maybe Cincinnati is the odd one out in this respect.

  18. Chris says:

    It is possible that I do not have as clear a perspective on Kansas City as you do on Cincinnati because my dad, who is a doctor and meets way many more people in KC than I do–I am in school now so I am not home very often any more–tells me that what you are telling me happens to him all the time, but I do not experience it. Maybe I am the one who does not get enough exposure to people in Kansas City. He tells me how excited people are about things that are going on in the city. I am conflicted because the people I worked with in the service industry during my year off were the kind of people that were clueless, but then I hear about full town hall meetings on these initiatives that I discussed, high voter turnout and subsequent approval for civic improvement initiatives across the metro, and entire neighborhoods in Kansas City racing to see who can sign up the most people for Google Fiber, among other things.

  19. Matthew Hall says:

    I do know Cincinnati intimately and experience it every day. Local politics are easily taken over by small unrepresentative groups. 20% can be considered a “high turnout” in strictly local elections. Your father sounds very commmitted, but he may have fallen for the delusional apppeal of the dreaded ‘boosterism’. ie, ‘I love KC so everyone else will too, once I mention its wonders.’ I can’t speak for KC’s local politics, but I can for Columbus. I never met a single person there who cared about Columbus as a place beyond what they personally and financially stood to gain from it. It couldn’t be more different from Cincinnati in that respect. Some places are more ‘cared about’ than others. I know people who I think would die for cincinnati, but I never talked with anyone in Columbus who would have spent more than a few months there without the prospects of a good job. Otherwise they are outta there in a New York minute. For most of their respective residents Columbus is a job, while Cincinnati is an identity; almost a nationality. I don’t know KC well enough to say what it means to its residents.

  20. Chris says:

    My dad is a pretty pragmatic guy, so I do not think he has fallen victim to boosterism. He does meet way many more people than I do, so if anyone’s perspective is skewed it is mine.

  21. Josh Lapp says:

    It’s nice to see Chris and Matt proving the main points of the article.

  22. flavius says:

    I think that cities think of themselves too much in terms of a marketplace. People continue to move to Portland in spite of its lack of a shiny convention center, major research university, or any buildings whatsoever with retractable roofs–the things that marketplace-thinking tries to build. What kind of thinking does it have? Not sure what it’s called, but it’s the kind that builds libraries, sidewalks, a convenient bus system, and smart growth…things that a city builds to benefit the people who already live there, not the ones who are deciding where to relocate.

    People move to cities that don’t need them.

  23. Chris says:

    How am I proving the main point of this article?

  24. Matthew Hall says:

    He is suggesting that your surprise at learning about Cincinnati’s deep and broad public debate on economic development shows that you had assumed that all midwest metros were like the ones you’ve known and thus didn’t have such local debates. My comments suggest that isn’t true and that some midwest metro have a much deeper and broader local debate about economic development than others. He is saying you and I were unaware of the differences between Cincinnati and Kansas City much as Aaron suggested in his original article was true about the residents of midwest metros with respect to other midwest metros.

    I do agree that looking at metros through the lens of “midwest” is probably not the best way to understand them. Metros have different histories, economies, and politics. The river cities of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville,and St. Louis have some greater similarities with each other while the railroad towns have more in common with each other.

  25. Chris says:

    To be honest I am not that familiar with Cincinnati, but I am with many other cities. Talk to me about St Louis, Oklahoma City, Denver, Des Moines, Omaha, Minneapolis, and Chicago–or outside of our region–LA, San Francisco, New Orleans, Miami, DC, and New York–better yet talk to me about Chinese cities…I am pretty well versed in all of those. Just because one does not know about one city does not mean they have no clue at all. For what it is worth, I am learning more about Cincinnati and I am impressed.

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