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.