[Originally posted on Forbes.com.]
In our ever more digitized and virtual world, the centers of power are shifting. It’s not about establishment capitals anymore but innovative up-and-comers, where a critical mass of creativity is bringing about rapid-fire change, along with a good quality of life and a sense of like-minded community.
Some cities have been smoking hot for a while now; others are just recently catching fire. They share a lot of DNA, generally having universities, an investment-friendly culture and political will to support innovation. But perhaps most important is the human factor.
Palo Alto, Calif., is aflame, partly because of Stanford University, but let’s also count the Steve Jobs factor; Apple mania (led by Jobs) was what really stoked the fire, as did the arrival of the face of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, in 2004. Even now that Jobs is deceased and Zuckerberg married and IPO’ed, young tech entrepreneurs still move to the town Jobs called home since the mid-1990s in hopes of living the same dream: making a corporate brand and a name in a place (population: 65,000) where everyone comes to know your name.
What really strikes me about this trend of people making places, though, is the new crop of cities that have made it thanks to leaders whose names remain unknown. These leaders have succeeded in juicing their city’s brand without really enhancing their own—at least not yet.
Pittsburgh shook off its rusty old steel-town identity and became a center of youthful hipness and digital cool, no doubt a reflection of its 32-year-old mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, who first became mayor when he was 26—one of the youngest mayors of a major city in American history. But that certainly didn’t stop him from launching ambitious, innovative endeavors right from the start.
The first was the Pittsburgh Promise, a program created to revitalize the city by making higher education accessible to all public school students regardless of income or need. As of June, the scholarship fund had grown to $160 million in four years. Then Ravenstahl trained his sights on technical, environmental and economic innovation—and did it so well that in 2009 the Obama administration opted to host the G-20 in Pittsburgh, citing its “industries that are creating the jobs of the future.” It’s a place with “world-class culture,” says Forbes, that transformed itself after the collapse of the steel industry. And that was before Ravenstahl embarked on his 11-point plan to solidify Pittsburgh’s Third Renaissance, which includes initiatives to boost the healthcare and education industries, use the best technology to improve government, finish riverfront development and enhance public education.
Perhaps because of his millennial mindset, Ravenstahl focused on community and collaboration throughout. A prime example is his servePGH initiative, designed to help achieve the goals of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. Its goal is making the most of human capital by focusing on volunteerism around his top priorities: neighborhood revitalization and youth.
Ravenstahl had precedent. As mayor of Providence, R.I., for 21 years starting in 1975, when he was 33, Buddy Cianci turned the boarded-up city into a mecca for entrepreneurs and weekend tourists—so much so that it was named Best Place to Live in the Northeast by Money and Cianci was reelected five times and voted Most Innovative Mayor by the Association of Government Officials.
Cianci couldn’t focus on high-tech back in the ’70s, so his emphasis was on historic preservation and neighborhood revitalization. He gave new life to the downtown area with the ambitious River Relocation Project, which uncovered and redirected three rivers to form Water Place Park. This renaissance, in turn, led to the development of fashionable hotels, a high-end shopping center, a convention center and a sports venue (with a new hockey team inside); once things reached a tipping point, they took on a life of their own. Cianci’s revitalization extended to the zoo and to neighborhoods, with new schools, recreation facilities and beautification projects. Even after stepping down as mayor (and into a radio host chair and onto the lecture circuit), he remains a towering figure in city history.
San Antonio is newly on my radar—partly because it’s one of those midsize cities in a warm climate that boomers are flocking to in order to reinvent themselves and embark on second (slightly slower) acts—but also because of its mayor, Julián Castro, who turned heads as a speaker at this year’s Democratic National Convention (the next Obama?). He has injected personality and verve into a city that never used to command much attention. His vision includes making the power-hungry Sun Belt city into a leader in the new energy economy through initiatives like the largest municipally owned mega solar project and the Decade of Downtown inner-city revitalization program. It’s probably not a coincidence that he’s also under 40. (Nor this: Castro and his brother were both educated in Palo Alto at Stanford, where Steve Jobs’ son Reed is now a junior and his widow Laurene serves as a trustee.)
Of course, it’s not just the rising stars and wunderkinds who are masters at place making. It’s undeniable that California took on a certain swagger with the Governator in the Capitol (notwithstanding how the state’s—and his own—fortunes turned out). And related, in Providence: How much did the city benefit from a congressman with the golden last name of Kennedy, and would its Brown University have gone prime time without John F. Kennedy Jr. following his older cousins there?
Innovation, creativity and power shift around the country because of so many factors, but we can’t deny that city brands could not be made without the ever important human element: the people brands who make the place brands.