Seattle is in the midst of a pivotal mayor’s race. Maybe not close and certainly not substantive, but very significant for the next four years. Do we take a sharp left turn, as may be happening nationally to the Democrats, or do we roll up our sleeves and try to move ahead on a piled-up mish-mash of projects?
For political/tactical reasons I explored in a previous article, we are not getting the public debate many cities are having. Coming out of the recession, America now has two models for successful urban regions, and we might be arguing about how to blend them. One is the Seattle/Boston/San Francisco/New York model: high cost, high tech, high regulation, high tolerance, creative economy, export-driven. The other is the Houston model (equally vibrant): low tax, low regulation, high tech, energy-based, highly diverse, affordable. What seems to work best is a mid-sized city with regional cohesion and blue politics but in a red state that serves as a corrective to keep taxes and regulations down. Examples are Austin, Denver, Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City, Raleigh, San Antonio, Charlotte, Omaha and New Orleans.
It may not be in the mayor’s race, but the debate about what kind of city Seattle should aspire to is a lively one in the business community. This debate is producing a third model for the coming decade in Seattle, to set beside Mayor McGinn’s model of a progressive vanguard and Ed Murray’s model of pragmatic results through consensus.
Naming this model is tricky. “Globally fluent cities” is a term used by the Brookings Institution, which is leading the discussion about metropolitan regions in the U.S. and abroad. "Global metrocities" is a possible term, with its emphasis on an export economy, global competition for talent and markets, sophistication. Note: not “world cities,” with the connotation of large size like New York and London. Mid-size (Seattle size), but cutting a big profile: That’s what our business leaders, and others in philanthropy, research and nonprofits have in mind for Seattle.
At one level, Seattle has long been this kind of a city, trading resources like timber around the Pacific and selling jetliners around the world. The new crop (Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, Costco, Gates Foundation) only intensifies one of the most export-driven regions in the nation. Time to coast? Not at all, say business leaders, since Seattle is playing in a very competitive global environment.
Four years ago, JPMorgan Chase, the banking giant that took over Washington Mutual's banking operations, gave the Brookings Institution $10 million for a five-year program to study and measure the global assets of such cities as Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Denver, Columbus, London, Sao Paulo and Mexico City. The study tried to isolate key factors of global fluency — such things as local leadership with world view, companies with global reach and that are centers of global supply networks, compelling global identity, knowledge infrastructure (patents, universities) and metrowide public-private cohesion that invests in infrastructure and business clusters by strategic priorities. (The last one is a particular weakness of Seattle.) Here’s some of what they found about Seattle. And here are the 10 top traits of globally competitive cities, as Brookings/JP Morgan Chase see them.
Studies were made, reports given to the cities, conferences held — and then not a lot seemed to happen. Seattle was not included in the study because it was already so far along this path.
That has now changed. For one thing, the chair of JPMorgan Chase in the Northwest since 2009, Phyllis Campbell, pushed hard to include Seattle as a test case for how to use this data and actually change things locally. Secondly, Boston Consulting Group, which bills itself as “the world’s leading advisor on business strategy,” was opening an office in Seattle and wanted to do a high-profile pro-bono project to announce its presence. They joined forces with the bank, with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Brookings to study Seattle and a new group of peer cities.
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