What Makes Cities Smart

Innovate or fail.

It's the lesson hard learned by many successful companies — so why not cities? In today's world, where the global economy is reinventing the rules, cities face altogether new challenges. So it stands to reason that new and creative strategies are called for to reinvigorate them.

"Cities," says Smart City Radio host Carol Coletta, "are the economic engines of the nation. The question now is what our cities must do to keep America competitive and innovative in a global economy."

As CEO and president of the nonprofit CEOs for Cities, an idea lab made up of mayors, business execs and urban leaders, Coletta's goal is to help answer that question. In her weekly public radio show heard in a dozen markets and available for downloading online, Coletta interviews scores of urban experts from mayors to urban designers. While she's wary of trends — "So much of the trend discussion is so faked up, about an inch deep and a mile wide," she says — she is exceptionally well versed in a multitude of urban issues, drawing on 30-some years of experience. And she is highly regarded for her insightful interviews. One guest, who has been interviewed countless times over her career, says her interview with Coletta was the best ever.

That helps explain why the aptly named Smart City Radio show, based in Chicago where Coletta lives, has become required listening for those invested in revitalizing cities. "The goal of the show has always been to help people who want to make a difference in their city understand the opportunity to do so," says Coletta, who as a single mom raised her daughter in downtown Memphis.

"We think the factors that make cities successful today are changing. In the knowledge economy, there's a new set of success dimensions, four of them, that cities must work on to be successful," she says. Providing the framework for CEOs for Cities, the four dimensions are talent, innovation, connections and distinction.

The talented city

Of all the contributions a city has to offer, what is the one indispensable asset? If you answer correctly, you're one of them: Smart people. It's all about attracting and retaining desirable talent, especially the mobile, college-educated, highly sought after 25- to 34-year-olds, Coletta says. Without them, cities won't thrive. Period.

The groundbreaking CEOs for Cities study called "The Young and the Restless in a Knowledge Economy" showed in Dec. 2005, for the first time, where educated (four-year degree) 25-34-years-olds are moving in the country, and how cities can attract them. (Click here for the full PDF version of the study.) Four decades of sustained growth in the job market — due to baby boomers, a doubling of the number of female workers and an explosion in the number of college-educated adults, from 10 million to 50 million — led many cities to grow complacent. No longer. As more sectors face predicted shortages of workers, cities can't afford to take this growth or their talent for granted.

One way cities can attract the Y&R by providing what they want, such as walkable destinations, well-designed streets and lively commercial business districts. The report found that 34% in this group prefer "close-in" neighborhoods, that is, within three miles of urban centers, a significant increase from past generations.

The 64-page report is one example of the kind of research that CEOs for Cities compiles to inspire new thinking among urban leaders. The challenge for every city, says Coletta, is to decide what it wants to be. And that calls for innovation.

The innovative city

Why are ideas and knowledge more valuable today than ever? Because the global market offers so many more communities, consumers and businesses that can use them, argues Joseph Cortright in the booklet City Vitals, a newly-released CEOs for Cities publication (download a copy at ceosforcities.org). The essence of success is being able to tap into the global market, writes the author. He ranks the performance of 50 metros in the four areas of talent, innovation, connection and distinction.

One way to judge the level of innovation in a city is by the number of entrepreneurs, small businesses and patents, along with the amount of venture capital. All indicate a population that not only has ideas but also acts on them.

The connective City

Once defined more by physical connections such as airports and highways, today the connections that matter the most are between people: Linking talent, capital and markets, including global markets, to make things happen. Research on networking suggests that those who serve as 'brokers' are critical to a city’s innovation, Coletta says.

How to measure connectivity? Through local activities such as voting and community involvement, as well as global connections like rates of international travel and the number of foreign students in a city.

The distinctive city

There's no place like home. Every city has its own vibe and unique sense of place. The paradox is that even as our increased connectivity renders cities increasingly the same, it's more important than ever to be distinct. No longer is being competitive a matter of being the same as other cities, only cheaper. Today it's imperative to "capitalize on local differences to build local economic opportunity," as they say at CEOs for Cities. Size, climate, topography, industry and architecture — the dimensions of distinction are wide-ranging. The key for cities, says Coletta, is to play to one's strengths.

Putting it all together

With these four dimensions providing the framework, the goal of CEOs for Cities, says Coletta is "to speed innovation in cities. We're trying to uncover actionable insights for urban leaders in each of those areas and help them to think differently about how to be successful."

While all four elements are important and interconnected, there are different paths for different cities, she says. "It's important for cities to understand their assets," says Coletta, "and then have the confidence to act on that. I can't emphasize that enough. A lot of it goes back to having the confidence negotiating from a position of strength."

One example? Portland. "There was nothing much to recommend Portland 20 years ago," offers Coletta, who is a big fan of the city. "But they have a real confidence about who they are. On the one hand they're very tolerant of the human side of things but they are certain of what's important to them, spelling out clearly, "If you want to be here, here are the rules."

The key is getting a clear vision of what success looks like. That vision of success is changing in Pittsburgh and Detroit, as well as in other cities, she says. Cities that have had great success in the past, as these cities have had, slip into the mode of being self-deferential and referring to the past, she adds. "But we want to be aware that the future's not going to look like the past."

In her dual role as radio host and leader of CEOs for Cities, Coletta is helping to prepare urban leaders across the country for a different version of the future.

Tracy Certo is editor of Pop City, Model D's sister publication based in Pittsburgh.

Carol Coletta Photos Copyright Tracy Certo

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