By: Justin M. Bibb & Ian T. Brown
Your city is on display right now. Your city is one startup at a bustling expo, pitching your idea to a crowd of venture capitalists. Your city is one food truck, parked with a dozen others in a once-unused parking lot, vying for the attention of lunch-goers. Your city is one dot on a spinning globe, hoping to catch the eye of entrepreneurs looking for a new place to call their home.
And I am your customer. I am one of America’s Millennials. My generational cohorts and I are moving from the suburbs back into the city at a faster rate than our country has seen in decades. We are in search of cities with 21st century job markets. We are in search of cities that embrace our active, educated, and socially-conscious sensibilities. Sell us your cities, and we will contribute to them, both economically and socially.
But how does a city sell itself? Cities sells themselves by carefully and deliberately crafting an image – one founded in their unique resources – that will ultimately attract the talent, entrepreneurs and visionary leadership that will drive global competitiveness.
Cities across America are poised and positioned to transform themselves. A few are already success stories. Take Seattle for example. Seattle has become synonymous with technological innovation, with coffee shops replete with its young residents, with dreary but generally tolerable weather. For the second year running, the Economist Intelligence Unit named Seattle to its list of 150 global cities that will shape the world in the coming years. Continuing to attract talent is one of the most important factors in Seattle competing at the global level. Talent drives innovation and makes a city more adaptable when faced with ever-changing world markets. Thanks to its highly-educated population, Seattle’s startups are on par with New York, San Francisco and Boston in terms of securing venture capital.
Austin is another city enjoying economic boom. Like Seattle, this boom has been fueled by 21st century jobs. While Austin benefits from a steady supply of state government and university jobs (making it somewhat recession-proof), it has also attracted numerous tech firms in recent years. As Forbes noted in 2009 – in the midst of America’s recession – Austin was experiencing a dramatic employment growth of 34% over that decade, way ahead of its other tech rivals. This means job opportunities for those graduates coming out of Austin-based universities that might otherwise have sought employment elsewhere. And the Texas policy climate – low taxes and low regulation – makes for a more business-friendly environment. But even more than jobs and policy, Austin has done all it can to preserve – and actively market – its quirky city character. In Austin, weird is still king. Recently, the city opened up a string of unused parking lots to Austin’s army of food trucks and overnight turned the area into a profitable hotbed for culinary entrepreneurs.
Seattle and Austin sell themselves. They have carefully crafted their images, and in doing so are attracting a steady supply of Millennial talent that will drive innovation and competitiveness for years to come.
Rust Belt cities also have a wealth of resources to position themselves as destination cities for Millennials. Excess land on the Great Lakes can be converted into word-class waterfront space. Under-utilized high-rises can be transformed into mixed-use residences that would put residents within walking distance from shops, cafes, and art galleries. Tap into your existing urban housing stock, preserving single-family homes that are within walking distance of hip urban streets. In short, make your urban core a cool place to be single and to raise kids.
And for those Rust Belt cities who moan that harsh winters scare away new residents, it isn’t just about weather. Anyone who had suffered through a dreary Seattle winter or a grueling Austin summer will tell you there’s more to their love of city than climate. And as the Economist argues, size doesn’t matter either. Factors such as good environmental practices, good institutions, and good education are more significant drivers to economic competitiveness.
Yet city leaders shouldn’t think of themselves in competition with just their neighboring towns. Or even just American titans like New York or Boston. Your city is in competition with cities all around the world. Cities are the new unit of global competitiveness, and cities leaders must proactively manage their growth strategies. Economic drivers once reserved for conversations at the national level (such as exports) are now being discussed at the city- and regional-levels.
So what does your city export? For one, it exports its image. Look at Cleveland. Once a symbol of urban decline, Cleveland is ambitiously trying to shed its rust belt and become more global and competitive. One way it is doing that is by looking to attract more international talent to its universities with the hopes that employing them in high-skill jobs will ultimately have a multiplier effect of the local economy. Some cities are referring to these as “welcome-world” campaigns, or campaigns organized to attract promising foreign nationals to their areas.
Cleveland can already claim a more international vibe. For the third straight year, the city will host 30-35 international Fulbright students for a “Cleveland is awesome” weekend before the students go on to their respective universities. And once again, Cleveland State University ranks second in the nation for producing Fulbright scholars of its own. Cities that choose to accept innovative and socially-conscious entrepreneurs – in whatever form or color they take – will ultimately be the best positioned.
Sell us your city with authenticity and vigor, and I promise you will attract the kind of talent, entrepreneurs, and visionary leadership that will help you build and sustain economic prosperity.