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
"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
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
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
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
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
Tech Town Entrepreneurs
Next Energy Complex
Kid Rock Screen from a Create Detroit Event
Hipsters at Slow's BBQ in Corktown
All Photographs Except Carol Coletta Copyright Dave Krieger