John M. Eger – Huffington Post

Lionel Van Deerlin Professor of Communications and Public Policy, San Diego State University

Posted: 08/16/11


Almost 20 years ago, when San Diego Mayor Susan Golding was just elected, she had the foresight to launch a “city of the future” committee. San Diego really didn’t know what a city of the future looked like, but knew then you had to have fiber optics — lots of bandwidth in the ground. So it was fiber optics and bandwidth that was on everybody’s lips.

Today, understanding the challenges of the new global economy and knowing what it takes to succeed in the workplace of the future, we know it is not bandwidth in the ground that is so important as the bandwidth in people’s heads.

Within the next several months there are countless mayoral races that present an opportunity to talk about a new path for the future of cities.

It is the worst of times to have such a conversation, many would say, with pension deficits looming, services being cut and unemployment at an all time high. Yet, as the Cheshire cat said to Alice in Alice in Wonderland, “if you don’t know where you are going any road will get you there.”

It is time Americans know the road they must take. It’s also time we talk candidly about the connections between art, commerce, education and economic development and importantly, what communities everywhere must do to be successful in what is being called “the creative and innovative economy.”

Many cities are struggling to redefine themselves or reinvent a strategy to jumpstart economic development, and to figure out what is happening to our economy. We know it’s global, and as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has told us, it’s “flat.” We know, too, it’s digital and that growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web is compelling development of a global economy. But it is creativity — simply defined as “the quality or ability to create or invent something original” — that best defines the characteristic most of us need to succeed in the new economy.

Do politicians, parents and people everywhere living and working in our region know how much our economy has changed, and how we must change our systems of education, land use, transportation, housing and even governance? Probably not. What is important is that we recognize that a whole new economy and society based upon creativity and innovation is emerging and that, as a consequence, it is of vital importance that we reinvent our communities, our schools, our businesses, our government to meet the challenges such major structural shifts are compelling. Our dilemma calls for new thinking, and new leadership at the mayoral level.

For example, although many people still believe that art and culture “are nice but not necessary,” it is becoming increasingly apparent that the arts and a vibrant culture are clearly one of the most important aspects of becoming a 21st century community. They lead to creativity and it is creativity and innovation that are, and will be, the hallmarks of the 21st century city, which, by the way, is not a city, but a larger metropolitan region.

As Kenichi Ohmae, author of The Borderless Worldsuggests, we are witnessing the rise and the rebirth of the age-old concept of the city-state or the “region-state.” Importantly, the new region-state has the power and authority to take ownership of its own future, enabling a new model of government for the digital age. Yes, we are concerned about what Washington does or doesn’t do, but there is much we can do ourselves.

As the economy turns once again in a positive way — and it will — creative thinking, creative products, creative services and creativity in all a city does will make our cities unique in the world. By recognizing the importance of creativity and innovation, we will attract, nurture or retain the bright and creative people that generate new patents and inventions, innovative world-class products and services and the finance and marketing plans to support them.

The task of reinventing any city — housing, transportation, roads and bridges, clean water electricity, schools etc. — is enormous. The task of creating a knowledge city, a creative and innovative community, is equally complex.

Yet cities must prepare their citizens to take ownership of their communities, build the broadband communications structures the workplace needs, and educate the next generation of leaders and workers to meet the new global challenges of this new economic age.

The upcoming mayoral races can be the time for this discussion.