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Issue Media Update: The City as a Startup

Every month we run an Issue Media Update, an article from one of the many writers and editors across the country who contribute to the nineteen online publications of Issue Media Group, our parent company. These pieces look at trends and topics of interest to Twin Citians from a national point of view.

What if you were to view your city as a startup?

"The ingredients for a successful startup and a successful city are remarkably similar," wrote Jon Bischke, a guest blogger on 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.

Case is the chair of Startup America Partnership, which unites entrepreneurs with leaders from other sectors to spur the creation and scale of high-growth firms.

Wanted: Talent. Preferably Fearless

In answer to a question about the most important thing cities can do as business generators, Case said, "Recruit for talent and find ways to connect people.

"It's the role of the government to set the stage for innovation to flourish," he said, and one way to do that is to "attract the best and the brightest to establish companies here." The problem 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 (science, technology, engineering, and math) jobs in this country are going unfilled. Half of all PhDs in this country in math, computer science, and economics are being awarded to foreign-born students, many of whom are forced to leave because they can't get H-1B visas.

For our country to stay ahead in a world where the newest ideas are increasingly being adopted elsewhere, "we have to reinvent ourselves," said 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 reversal of what's happening now.

Songdo, Korea: Startup City

In this city located 35 miles from Seoul, 1500 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 via programmed lights. Street cameras will monitor the number of pedestrians, turning off streetlights when the street is empty. Garbage disposal will be through pressurized network of pipes, eliminating the need for pickup. 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, school design is world-class and education is not just for the young. Songdo promotes the concept of continuous learning to nurture the talent of all ages while creating the optimal living/working/playing plan to attract talent.

The boundaries and limitations were ours, said the American business leaders and Songdo's mayor on a panel on the "Smartest City on the Planet." While big thinking on a big scale drove the development, Songdo had the advantage, the panel pointed out, of the strong leadership of a fearless mayor who saw the vision and created conditions to make it a reality.

The Cost of Risk-Aversion

There are far more communities that are risk-averse and will focus on why an idea won't work but transformation builds on the fearless notion, as Case said.

And while major success requires certain risk, "when most people focus on an idea, it's ways it can fail." Silicon Valley, the model of innovative thinking, always looks at the upside, not the downside, he added.

While that's true startup thinking, "there is an aversion to change in most cities," said Shannon Spanhake, deputy innovation officer of San Francisco. She suggested 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 okay 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.

Where 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, said Joe Cortright as he introduced 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-borns 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, said Cortright, who authored the study.  

Be True to Thy City

Bring in the best talent and make sure to connect them to your city in deep and meaningful ways, said Josh McManus of Little Things Labs, an innovation lab on city issues. His thinking? 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.

The Cincinnati human-resources firm BLACKBook HR was featured for a technology program that helps companies invest in talent. BLACKBook's program runs the gamut from assessing a person's "flight risk" to helping hires achieving a greater sense of bonding to the community. That "embeddedness," BLACKBook believes, has three components, and the company assesses them 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 he or she has 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," said Spanhake, the San Francisco innovation officer. "How do we create more supply? Better universities. More demand? Creating users and buyers of technology." ANd an equally important question, she said, is "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," noted Spanhake who then made a comment that was the most re-tweeted of the two-day event, "Vitality in a city is about bringing diverse groups of people together and letting them have sex."

Summing Up

"Want to change the world? Start with your city," suggested 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 asked. "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 said.

Cities, he offers, are big enough to make a difference but small enough to make things happen quickly and effectively.

"Darwin's theory has never been more relevant," said Fisher. "Survival isn't about strength; it's about the ability to adapt, reinvent, and be responsive to change."

Tracy Certo is publisher and editor of The Line's sister publication in Pittsburgh, Pop City.

Photo: Steve Case, Jean Case, and Don Graves at the CEOs for Cities confab

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