This week, the nonprofit organization CEOs for Cities will be facilitating a national meeting of business and community leaders from across the country to explore cross-sector innovations and learning about how to significantly “move the needle” on urban issues. And it’s not a small gathering — 400 people from 75 cities is nothing to shake a stick at, and CEOs for Cities has a long history of research and sharing around issues that range from the role of anchor institutions and clusters to urban art and wayfinding. In its own words, CEOs for Cities views its role as “the cross-sector, cross-generation city success learning network.”
Given the size of the cities that make up most of its membership and the fact that what we read about these cities in general media is either “holy crap what a mess they’ve made” or “look at this big huge giant thing City X just did,” I though it was particularly intriguing that CEOs for Cities’ own CEO, Lee Fisher, described the purpose of this gathering to Livability.com as follows:
Livability: What will we be talking about at the conference?
Fisher: The theme is “city dividends.” We have developed a concept, which is basically the return on investment for achieving a measurable goal for your cities economic growth and success. We have found that there is great power in small wins. The best way to motivate and sustain action in your city is to have goals that are achievable and measurable, and mobilize cross-sector leaders in achieving those goals. We call them city dividends. We’ll be looking at this in four different ways. One of our signature pieces of research is called “City Vitals,” and we say there are four dimensions of city success, and they are easy to remember because they spell out “City:” The Connected city, the Innovative city, the Talented city and Your distinctive city. [emphasis mine]
Those of us who work with communities often feel this enormous pressure to do Big Things — big projects, big programs, big building projects, Big Stuff. And as you read in the Local Economy Revolution, we should know by now that a Big Stuff approach can cause as many problems as it solves. Whether we’re generating unintended consequences, failing to get a decent return on our investment, or simple shutting out the people who are impacted the most by the Big, it’s becoming increasingly clear that meaningfully addressing the tangled and many-layered creature that is a city requires a fundamentally different approach — one that focus on small wins that reach across boundaries to create demonstrable impact on goals. If you’re asking yourself how to make a difference on the tough issues facing your community, you might want to think about how small wins toward a big goal could increase your capacity by yoking more horses to the plow.
I’ll be interested to see what comes out of CEOs for Cities this week.