If you are fretting the fact that your city didn’t win the unprecedented and frenetic economic development Super Bowl to land Amazon’s HQ2, you might have lost the battle, but by no means have you lost the war. If you are doing some soul searching on what went wrong instead of asking yourself why you failed to attract Jeff Bezos, I have a better idea: Ask yourself what you’re doing to grow the next Jeff Bezos in your own community.
Consider the humble acorn from which mighty oak trees grow. Then consider what it costs to move a giant oak tree. The simple fact is that you can plant thousands of acorns for the cost of moving just one giant oak tree. Cities are always going to be better off planting entrepreneur acorns than moving giant oaks. Growing entrepreneurs has a higher ROI, can better integrate with available resources, and allows you to place hundreds of small bets throughout your community instead of just one large bet with a winner-take-all (or half) prize. In this light, consider the resources you pulled together to attract Amazon’s HQ2 and ask yourself, “How many entrepreneurs could be inspired, or how many startups could we launch with even a fraction of those resources?”
There are only two kinds of cities in the world today: cities that embrace the geek and cities that don’t. The ones that do are thriving. The ones that don’t are dying. So you also need to ask yourself, “Does my city embrace the geek?”
When I use the term geek, I don’t just mean tech geeks. The real question is, does your community embrace people that don’t fit the mold? Has class structure, hierarchy and multi-generational wealth limited the ability for anyone in your community to succeed? Geeks shine in places where everybody can shine. If geeks in your community are relegated to the basement and the High School AV Club, you have already failed. Geeks like everyone else need to find their sense of belonging. A thriving ecosystem of tech meetups, software user groups, and hacker/maker spaces contribute to that sense of belonging. If they don’t find their sense of belonging, geeks will never find their entrepreneurial calling.
The real risk for cities that don’t embrace the geek is the high mobility of geeks today. When geeks leave your city, you are not just losing talent. You are losing critical mass — best appreciated by understanding the Diffusion of Innovations theory.
Diffusion of Innovations, pioneered by Everett Rogers, explores how new inventions and technologies spread across populations. The theory ultimately divides a population into five categories: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. Ideas must spread in order, starting with innovators, and in each case, the idea must reach critical mass before it can tip into the next group. The ultimate test comes when it must “cross the chasm” from early adopters to early majority. Cities that don’t embrace the geek have effectively boiled off the natural distribution of innovators and early adopters in their communities to a point that makes it almost impossible for new ideas to achieve critical mass or cross the chasm. So embracing the geek is not only about giving them a sense of belonging, it is about maintaining a critical mass in order to allow innovative ideas to spread and flourish.
So lick your wounds, but please reframe the question and ask yourself, “What are we doing to grow the next Jeff Bezos in our own community?”
Scott Phillips, a self-proclaimed geek, was the Team Lead for Day 1, Oklahoma, a proposed new greenfield city billed as “The World’s First Amazon Go City Built To Support HQ2.” He is also Founder of Civic Ninjas, a national organization dedicated to solving community and municipal problems through technology and was recognized by President Obama as a White House Champion of Change in Civic Hacking.