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What I heard at the CEOs for Cities Conference
After a multi-hour flight delay at O’Hare, I am finally situated and in the air; finally heading back to Boston. For the past two days, I’ve been in Chicago at the CEOs for Cities conference. With Lee Fisher at the helm, the organization brought together civic leaders from across the nation for two days of discussion about the challenges faced by our cities.
The panels ranged in expertise and scope: we heard from the Secretary of U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Shaun Donovan, about how the federal government is supporting cities; we learned that Chicago’s public-private partnerships were generating a bottom-up approach to the city’s revitalization; we discussed the metrics needed to measure exactly what makes a city successful (interestingly, a city’s “weirdness” was a factor!); we heard from thought-leaders like Henry Cisneros and Ed Glaeser on the future of our American cities; and Bruce Mau joined led a provocative conversation about the design of our urban environment.
Throughout these (and others, to be sure) discussions, I noticed a few general themes to what panelists were discussing. Despite the nature of the panel, speakers harped (and, deservedly so) on the following topics:
1) Anchor institutions (think: ed’s and med’s, corporate HQs and cultural institutions) are too often an untapped resource that, when leveraged, can lead the way in a community’s revitalization. Paul Grogan, Secretary Shaun Donovan, and Henry Cisneros were just a few who emphasized the importance of anchors. Specifically, Chris Kennedy singled out research institutions’ ability to generate economic prosperity for cities. As Boston College graduate himself, he singles out the Boston university infrastructure: throughout Boston’s history, it’s had boom and bust eras; each time it looked like Boston was about to die, the research institutions led the way in innovative research that resulted in job growth and prosperity once again. He says that other cities need to find a better way to create partnerships between university leaders, civic leaders, business leaders, and politicians – in doing so, they can collectively fight for additional funding in Washington and bring home the bacon to their city’s research institutions.
2) Education is the single-most important factor in driving economic growth. While others may disagree (often we hear that rates of entrepreneurship and number of small businesses are also “number one” indicators of a city’s economic vitality), those in the room came to an agreement that without improving our education system – starting with K through 12 education and continuing through advanced degrees – we will be unable to improve our economy. Some sobering statistics included: only 1% of the world’s population holds a bachelors degree; 58% of a city’s success is dependent on number of residents with a college degree; if the 51 largest metro areas each increased their college attainment rates by just one percent, the nation could realize $124 billion in additional personal income (talk about a stimulus!). Clearly, if cities had a stronger education pipeline, the economic benefits would be vast.
3) All cities are fighting for the “creative class” – or the innovative, energetic and increasingly mobile recent college graduates. Recognizing that (without the aforementioned improvement in education) cities must compete for these residents, we heard civic leaders talk about the varying ways they seek to seduce the creative class. In Oklahoma City, Mayor Cornett explained that he needed to rebrand the city to create a new image: to do so, he began by bringing a professional sports team to town in order to attract young, passionate professionals. In Grand Rapids, Mayor Hartwell is investing in infrastructure. He believes that without transit, creative young talent will be hard to capture. As such, the city is developing its first street car and investing in a 12.8-mile bus rapid transit system. Jim Dunlap, also of Grand Rapids, claimed that “talent first chooses where it wants to live,” then what it wants to do (jobs); therefore, city leaders must build a place where young people want to move. Cities must learn to say “yes” to Millennials—what they like, matters.
You can build transit, art museums and riverside cafes; but just doing so doesn’t spur the settlement of our nation’s young, innovative minds. Indeed, there is a reason why talent seems to congregate in places Silicon Valley, New York City, Boston, Durham and Austin. An entrepreneurship competition in Cincinnati will not suddenly divert the creative class to Ohio (especially, if after the competition is won, the winner takes their business and prize money to San Jose).
Given these themes, I would have liked to have heard more of two things at the conference:
First, it seems like trying to attract the creative class from the nation’s thriving urban centers is an up-hill battle. Instead, it seems to me that creating a home-grown creative class would be a more viable option for many of these cities. How are struggling cities trying to cultivate their own young, innovative creative class—and then retain these bright minds in to the future?
Second, with the heavy focus on the three themes above, there was little discussion of how these themes can improve the lives of our inner city residents. During the brainstorming session with Bruce Mau, group manifestos all envisioned the future as a just, equitable and prosperous place for people of all backgrounds, ethnicities and skill-sets. With the heavy focus on college graduation rates and attracting young talent, there seems to have been a lack of discussion on how to improve life for our most economic disadvantaged urban residents—aside from hoping that cities were successful in capturing the creative class, who would then be so brilliant and innovative, that they could then solve problems of workforce development, minority-owned businesses’ lack of access to capital, and other social ills (think: poverty, unaffordable housing, etc.) facing our cities.
Admittedly, these are tough questions—questions that I certainly do not have all the answers to.
There is only so much a group can cover in two days of discussion. The challenges faced by our cities are numerous, and the topics covered at the CEOs for Cities conference are a fantastic place to begin. There are myriad, exciting initiatives happening in our nation’s cities, and this conference was a great platform for civic leaders to share the work happening in their own cities. I’m grateful that I was able to take part, and look forward to collaborating with these leaders in the future.
Congratulations on a very thoughtful posting. I live in the Chicago area. I appear to have missed a vey good meeting. My loss.
I have a somewhat different approach to the problem of creating businesses that can compete in international markets, create jobs, promote education and rebuild inner city neighborhoods.
The first priority is to create “new economy” jobs. This is the work of experienced and successful entrepreneurs, ideally serial entreprenseurs, who have successfully created businesses already - the sort of people that “Start Up America” would like to engage.
They need incentives to get active in these uncertain times. One way to get them interestsed is to develop a new tax provision for “new economy businesses” where all expenses can be deducted as they are incurred, and there are no capital gains taxes for “new economy businesses” that are sold within four years. This is a 2012 need.
Second, we then need to determine the skills that are necessary to do the work in these businesses as they are brought to scale by a combination of the entrepreneur and the companies to which they are sold.
Third, then we need to set up education outputs that tie to the employee work skills needsd by these new economy businesses, and then develop the K-12 and community college curricula that are necessary to the sustained success of these new economy businesses.
We need fewer lawyers, accountants and bankers and more people to can create, operate and work effecfdtively in producing goods and services that can compete effedtivelyo in new economy markets.
We cetainly need to focus the purposes of our K-12 educational system so that American students are excelling internationally at the development of new economy skills, whatever they turn out to be (among them the creative uses of the Internet).
But the immediate need is to create new economy businesses that can create jobs and in the process define the types of skills that we need to be developing in K_12 education, community colleges, worker retraining and in the development of telework skills among seniors who will soon find our need to reduce entitlement costs wil require that they work longer to satisfy their retirement income need.
By on Samuelson on 10/15/2011
BY Amanda Maher on October 13th, 2011
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