Thinking of the City as a Startup

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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 make your ideas a reality and create a culture that attracts the best people.

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 Jeans Case’s clarion call to be fearless and think big.

Case is the chair of Startup Partnership America, which unites entrepreneurs with leaders from other sectors to spur the creation and scale of high-growth firms. In March, it launched regional initiative Startup Maryland.

In answer to a question about the most important thing cities can do as business generators, Case says “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 says, and one way to do that is to “attract the best and the brightest to establish companies here.”

Supporting risk 
Government has to create an environment that will foster talent, says Julie Lenzer Kirk, co-chair of Startup Maryland. You need an educated workforce, top-notch universities and a great place to live.

You also need to create a culture that embraces risk by offering support to budding entrepreneurs. To that end, Startup Maryland is going on a two-and-half week statewide bus tour starting Sept. 11. It kicks off in Ocean City and wraps up in Howard County offering startup hopefuls a chance to pitch their business in a video and enter it into a contest. Investors and a host of experts at universities and incubators will offer feedback and mentoring and the public will get to vote on a winner.

But 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 says. Silicon Valley, the model of innovative thinking, always looks at the upside, not the downside, he added.

“There is an aversion to change in most cities,” says Shannon Spanhake, deputy innovation officer of San Francisco.While that’s true startup thinking, “there is an aversion to change in most cities,” says 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.”

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.

How 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, says Joe Cortright as he introduces 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 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, says Cortright who authored the study.

How does Baltimore fare? The report ranked the Baltimore-Towson area No. 28 for Wi-Fi hotspots; No. 27 for the number of patents; No. 22 for venture capital; and, No. 40 for entrepreneurship.

Your best asset

“We see people as an asset. First and foremost that is what we do,” Spanhake says. “How do we create more supply? Better universities. More demand? Creating users and buyers of technology.” Just as important, she asked, “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.”

You get the idea.

“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 says.

“Darwin’s theory has never been more relevant: 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 Pop City, a sister publication in Pittsburgh.