A sense of urgency.
If you want to succeed as a city or a business, you need all three.
Two out of three, just won’t cut it. All three traits are non-negotiable.
Unless of course, you don’t really want to succeed; if you want to pay lip service you can skip one or more of the aforementioned and you’ll fool a few people but you won’t get anything done.
Vision is a big word, but it can be as simple as an idea or as complicated as a breakthrough innovation. I think it also requires a particular mindset: you have to be aspirational and you have to know where you want to take things.
Examples of vision, courage and urgency abound.
Dollar Shave Club sold this month to Unilever for $1 billion.
Fueled by a clever viral video, Dollar Shave Club took a simple idea—make it easy to buy cheap razors and solved a painful problem. Razors are expensive and they are often kept under lock and key in the pharmacy. Blades are inconvenient to buy and ridiculously priced. But Dollar Shave Club made it easy, they had the courage to go up against industry giants and they had a sense of urgency to make it happen.
A small (but growing fast) hot sauce company I’m involved with also has a simple idea. We think the market leader is old, tired, vinegary, watery and doesn’t taste good. So we created Tabanero, using premium ingredients and a complex recipe that we believe tastes great. We are a long way from a billion dollar exit, but we just gained placement at Publix, Sprouts, Lucky’s and all the big food distributors. We are on our way. We have a vision, we are fearless and we are peddling as fast as we can.
Same with another company we are heavily involved with; Celsius which seeks to disrupt the beverage industry which is filled with iconic giants such as Coke and Pepsi. But Celsius is a healthy alternative to sugary soft drinks and seeks to capture a market that doesn’t want aspartame, sugar, corn syrup, artificial flavors or preservatives. The Celsius team has courage, belief and a tremendous desire to seize the day. Working with people who exhibit these traits is an energizing experience; pun intended.
That mindset translates to cities as well.
Delray’s vision was simple: revitalize a town that had good “bones” and make it a desirable to place to live, work and play.
Now mind you, ‘live, work and play’ is not a revolutionary idea. Thousands of communities have adopted that mantra—but if you look closely only a few had the courage and the sense of urgency to make it happen.
But you can bank on resistance to progress, long lines of protesters, lawsuits and election challenges if you try and make change.
Delray had the courage to do it anyway. And leadership also had a sense of urgency and a desire to take advantage of good economic cycles. Some may call it making hay while the sun shines.
Boca had a vision too. Consider Mizner Park for example. They were challenged, but they persevered and got it done.
Pittsburgh saw its steel mills close but had a vision to reinvent their economy around medicine, education and robotics. Their sense of urgency in doing so was important because without a wholesale reinvention, the Burgh would have sunk into the ooze.
Last week, I got a call, (I won’t say from who) other than he was a property owner who is concerned that Delray has lost its vision and sense of urgency. The guy is not a household name per se in Delray, but he’s owned some strategic pieces over the years. His identity is really not important.
It’s not the first call of this nature that I have received. Mostly, the calls are laments that complacency has set in, political divisiveness too and that the economic cycle may be closer to the end than the beginning and that we didn’t make hay, in fact we chased the hay away.
Yeah, I know development is controversial. And for good reason a lot of times. Some of it, maybe even most of it, can be generic, lacking in imagination, poorly designed and more of the same old, same old.
But that can be fixed. Architects, developers and designers can be and should be challenged to do better.
It’s possible to make places people friendly and to design spaces that complement or improve their surroundings.
Some cities have created design studios to help ensure that projects are the very best they can be.
When famed new urbanist architect Andres Duany came to Delray for a town hall lecture, one of the first things he said was that cities should never make developers and architects guess—they should engage with projects early in the process and shape them so that they enhance the built environment.
Legendary former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley felt that mayors were the primary architects for their cities and had a responsibility to make sure that each project was as good as they could possibly be. Now, truth be told, there are limits. After all, most mayors, including Riley, are not architects or designers, but if they take the time they can learn enough to help make projects look and feel good.
FAU’s Abacoa campus used to have what they called a Florida Public Officials Design Institute, which sadly became a victim of budget cuts. It was a great program; it helped me a lot on the original vision for the Congress Avenue corridor and ideas for the four corners of Military Trail and Atlantic Avenue.
Nationally, there is a Mayor’s Institute for Civic Design which has a stellar reputation.
But there are limits too, I admit. There are property rights and if a developer, with his or her own risk capital wants to build a certain building they have a right to do so—as long as they follow the rules.
Still, most developers I have met are open to being challenged and open to design ideas, if as Duany notes, you engage them early– before they spend big bucks on plans they will be reluctant to toss in the trash.
Mix is important too. I agree with the lament about endless condos, even though I am a firm believer in the need for– and wisdom of –downtown housing if we are to have safe and sustainable urban cores.
But charmless boxes are just that—city codes should encourage good design, varied styles and features that please the public.
But talking about design is a very different conversation than the ones we typically have, which is usually about chasing development away or pretending that we can prevent change. We shouldn’t do the former and we can’t do the latter, even if we wanted to.
We should be talking about design and the very real challenge of how to allow cities to evolve without losing their essence, uniqueness and charm. We should also be talking about mix—how can we encourage cool uses and what’s missing in our community—i.e. workforce housing, co-working, boutique theaters, studio space etc?
That would require vision.
In order to achieve the vision, you need courage.
And in order to drive change, you need a sense of urgency.
If nobody’s waking up every day with a burning passion to make a difference, it tends not to happen. And those communities, businesses and organizations that do have a burning desire will clean your clock before you even know what happened to you.