The city as a startup
What if you were to view your city as a startup?
"The ingredients for a successful startup and a successful city are remarkably similar," writes Jon Bischke, a guest blogger on tech startup blog TechCrunch.
"You need to build stuff that people want. You need to attract quality talent. You have to have enough capital to get your fledgling ideas to a point of sustainability. And you need to create a world-class culture that not only attracts the best possible people, but encourages them to stick around even when things aren't going so great."
Adopting that theme for their spring conference, CEOs for Cities
, a network of urban leaders, convened in Cincinnati in May to further explore the idea.
Strong themes emerged from the start and resounded throughout the two-day gathering, starting with AOL founder Steve Case and wife Jean Case's clarion call to be fearless and think big.
Steve Case is the chair of Startup Partnership America
, which unites entrepreneurs with leaders from other sectors to spur the creation of high-growth firms.
Wanted: talent. Preferably fearless.
Case says the most important things cities can do as business generators are recruiting for talent and finding ways to connect people.
"It's the role of the government to set the stage for innovation to flourish," he says, and one way to do that is to "attract the best and the brightest to establish companies here."
The problem,he says, is that "the majority of Ph.D. candidates leave because they're not allowed to stay."
According to a June CNN report, 3.5 million STEM jobs in this country are going unfilled. Half of all Ph.D. degrees in this country in math, computer science and economics are being awarded to foreign-born students, many of whom are forced to leave when they don't get visas.
For our country to stay ahead in a world where ideas are increasingly adopted elsewhere, "we have to reinvent ourselves," says Don Graves, head of the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.
One suggestion: Instead of American cities taking ideas from each other, look to international cities and take their best ideas, a reverse of what is happening now.
Look at Songdo
, South Korea, a true start-up city.
In this city located 35 miles from Seoul, 1,500 new acres reclaimed from the sea were available for new development in what has become the largest private real estate venture ever (estimated at $35 billion). Not yet finished, it is a city that will run on information with a brain stem, a product of Cisco, as its hub. Intelligence is built into buildings, schools, roads, traffic and parks.
Sensors in streets and on licenses of every car will provide a snapshot of traffic throughout the city and redirect traffic flow through programmed lights. Street cameras will monitor the number of pedestrians, turning off streetlights when the street is empty. Garbage disposal will be through a pressurized network of pipes, eliminating the need for pick-up. Fiber optic Internet will run through every office building and home for a wholly wired city.
In a city that believes that education is critically important, its school design is world-class and education is not just for the young. Songdo promotes the concept of continuous learning to nurture its talent of all ages while creating a living/working/playing plan to attract new talent.
American business leaders and Songdo's mayor were on a panel on the "Smartest City on the Planet" at the CEOS for Cities conference, and said the boundaries and limitations they encountered were their own.
While big thinking on a big scale drove the development, Songdo had the advantage of strong leadership, they say, in a fearless mayor who saw the vision and created conditions to make it a reality.
Look at it this way
There are far more communities that are risk-averse and that will focus on why an idea won't work--but transformation builds on the fearless notion, Case says.
And while major success requires certain risk, "when most people focus on an idea, it's ways it can fail," he says. Silicon Valley, the model of innovative thinking, always looks at the upside, not the downside, he adds.
While that's true startup thinking, "there is an aversion to change in most cities," says Shannon Spanhake, deputy innovation officer of San Francisco. She suggests the need to mimic the disruptive behavior of startups to blast through the destructive patterns of risk aversion. In her two-person office, for example, they "make innovation ok across all city offices. We have political capital now, turning parking lots into parklets, and creating a culture where failure is ok and disruption is cheered."
To engage residents and encourage innovative ideas, they recently launched ImproveSF
, an online platform from the city and county to connect--and reward--citizens who participate in civic challenges.
How to start? How about here?
While every city is figuring out how to either get ahead or stay ahead, the logical first place to start is to capitalize on your assets.
Figure out what you are first, best and only at to be vital, says Joe Cortright, who authored the second and latest version of City Vitals 2.0
, a benchmarking report on 50 cities across the country. Divided into four categories, the report ranks cities in terms of connectiveness (such as Internet searches), innovation (number of patents), talent (number of foreign-born residents among population) and distinctiveness, (number of ethnic restaurants versus chains).
From these rankings it is easy to spot a city's strengths and weaknesses and know what to capitalize on, and what to work to improve, says Cortright.
Be true to thy city
Bring in the best talent and make sure to connect them to your city in deep and meaningful ways, says Josh McManus of Little Things Labs
, an innovation lab on city issues. His approach? Think small. A lot of small ideas can lead to big change in cities. One idea of McManus' is to pay connectors to make connections day in and day out.
was featured for its technology program that helps companies invest in talent. It runs the gamut from assessing a person's "flight risk" to achieving a greater sense of bonding to the community. That so-called "embeddedness" has three components that examine home and work life to predict who has a higher probability of staying:
1. Fit: how compatible the person is with the organization and community
2. Links: the positive connections they have with both; and
3. Sacrifice: the perceived pain associated with leaving the job and community
Your best asset
"We see people as an asset. First and foremost that is what we do," says Spanhake. "How do we create more supply? Better universities. More demand? Creating users and buyers of technology." Just as important, she asks, "how can we reduce barriers to working with startups?"
In theory, it all sounds workable. While many agree on the strategies that could flip thinking in most cities, they also agree on the imperative for strong leadership to create the right culture for these ideas to flourish.
"Figuring out conditions of innovation is very hard," notes Spanhake, who then made the most re-tweeted comment of the two-day event, "Vitality in a city is about bringing diverse groups of people together and letting them have sex."
You get the idea.
"Want to change the world? Start with your city," suggests Lee Fisher, chief executive of CEOs for Cities in his presentation. "Want to change your city? Act and think like a startup.
"Have you wondered why MySpace didn't create Facebook? he asks. "Why Microsoft didn't create Google? Why Blockbuster didn't create Netflix?" One reason is that at some point they stopped acting and thinking like startups, he says.
"Darwin's theory has never been more relevant: survival isn't about strength; it's about the ability to adapt, reinvent, and be responsive to change."
Cities, he offers, are big enough to make a difference but small enough to make things happen quickly and effectively.
Tracy Certo is publisher and editor of Pop City.