It’s ironic that at a time when you can do anything from anywhere, more and more people flock to what amounts to a handful of cities across the world.
These cities are magnetic. They are self reinforcing. The more people, the more opportunity. They are more demanding of quality, but more open to newcomers. In these cities, it’s not as much connections from childhood or school or family influence that matter, but what you offer now.
You don’t have to serve your time as much as make the most of your time.
They attract risk takers. In turn, risk takers seek out opportunities. As they develop and grow they, in turn, actively seek out the fresh, the strange, the weird, to keep an edge.
Around all this are people who are deep into developing their talent. They don’t flit around, they hunker in and commit to craft. So the best musicians, performers, designers and so on form up into communities where they watch and learn, compete and collaborate. Communities bump up against each other. Talent notices talent. Serendipity rules. You are more likely to be able to introduce yourself to leaders in your field because at some point they will be there – in the street, at an event, or visiting a friend. They are more likely to take notice of you because you are there too, mixing it in a highly competitive place.
Years ago visiting New York, before the Internet boom, I was amazed that everyone I met introduced themselves as a writer, an artist, an actor, a film maker. Sure they worked a less glamorous day job, but that wasn’t their identity. They flocked to New York because that’s where people who identified as artists needed to be. Even if it was more a dream than reality, the city had captured an identity as a place where dreams came true.
These days individuals increasingly need to turn themselves into ‘brands’. What matters is the number of people who know about you, your followers, your ‘findability’, your influence. Where you live can do some of that work for you.
Silicon Valley is a great brand for a digital entrepreneur, beyond its practical advantages or disadvantages. London is a brand that has power across almost all areas – but particularly for people in design, media or creative industries. New York is the same.
You can live a very boring life in an interesting city, but your life feels interesting just because of where you are.
You can live a very interesting life in a ‘boring’ city but you may have to work harder to overcome the disadvantage of your city brand. That is not necessarily because others will think less of you, but because you may limit yourself.
You can be one version of yourself in one city, and another in another city. In one you can feel expanded, in another diminished. It’s not the city that does that, it’s your own beliefs. If you feel diminished in one city, it’s only rational to move somewhere that feels uplifting.
So moving to New York sends a signal to the world. The city brand does part of the work for you. It shows the world that you intend to mix with the best. Even if the best are scattered across the world, the perception is that they are there.
A friend lives in a very isolated community. It’s not really near anywhere. But for him it feels central because everyone who lives there works globally, flying in and out, coming back for respite. They are relevant on a world stage, up to date, engaged with the world, stimulated. So a high powered city brand isn’t necessary for them. They carry their own power.
But for those starting out it makes sense to find a city with the qualities you want to be associated with, and go there.
When cities try and find ways to entice people not to move to another city, they rarely get to the heart of the psychological challenge – or the very practical challenge. Moving away can feel like a life or death choice. It’s not just getting a new job or even a more interesting career. It’s about identity and community.
How do you create a place that feels central to something that matters?
Cities often try one way – attaching themselves to a grand mission. Something important and complex that signals the value they are trying to create for the world. But usually these grand missions are way underpowered. They don’t fire anyone up. They are not felt viscerally. They are easily disposed of when there is an election or even a change at the top of an administration.
Cities that are not large enough to contain rich, deep and diverse opportunities can stand for something – an audacious goal or a dream that aligns what they already do well with something that matters deeply to the world.
By doing this, cities can be the centre of something for a critical mass of people. But it needs serious intent. It needs to be multilayered. To be visible, not something owned by a few but expressed in the very fabric of the place.
The issue goes to the core of the identity of the city. A city needs to pay attention to its identity. This goes beyond superficial branding and promotion. How does the city make people feel? What does the city make possible? Does it offer a power boost to individuals as they carve out their identities?
Cities that see losing ‘risk takers’ and ‘opportunity creators’, or even the ‘weird’ and unconventional as inevitable, will inevitably decline. But just developing a marketing campaign to attract people back, will fail.
The city needs to ask much deeper questions. They need the courage to go ‘all in’ on risk taking missions and the political capital to take a long term view.