September 10th, 2013
How do you overthrow a successful city? Making Portland the next great Portland
I contend that the best days here in Portland have come when Portland stops trying to be San Francisco or Seattle or Boulder. Those best days come when Portland focuses on being the next Portland. That’s why I was so honored and amazed to be around for Alan Webber, cofounder of Fast Company, and his vision of Portland’s potential future at TechFestNW.
This speech originated from a conversation that I was luck enough to have with Alan at the Mesh Conference, this year. When we had the opportunity to chat about Portland, Alan pointedly questioned me about what we were doing to move Portland forward.
I stuttered and stammered a bit. Until I realized that I didn’t really have an answer. And then I had to admit, that in all honestly, we were coasting.
And I took this to heart. In my mind, we’ve been coasting on the work done by amazing and thoughtful folks who took risks 40 years ago. Who were subjected to ridicule by their peers. Who managed to have a vision for something amazing that no one at the time thought plausible.
That stuck with me. And so I invited him to pose that question to the TFNW crowd. And he did. With incredible aplomb. Alan challenged the crowd to rethink Portland. And to disrupt our existing success so that we can be successful in the future.
I’ve often heard people refer to “this being Portland’s time.” Like Paris in the ’20s. Full of expatriate creativity. And interesting bohemian thought. Okay. That’s probably an exaggeration, but it holds merit.
So how do we get there? Well, in Alan’s opinion, we have to overthrow and disrupt our current success:
How will you overthrow a successful city? How will you take the heritage of Portland as it is now, and do the hard disruptive, urban entrepreneurial work to take this good, livable city and take it forward to make it a great world-class city?
That’s the ultimate “what’s next?” question that stands before the Portlanders of today. And it’s a much harder, and a much easier, task than the one we faced 40 years ago.
It’s harder because success is such a seductive trap.
Success breeds its own kind of complacency. It’s why so many old and successful companies stop innovating, loose their creative spark—and stop asking challenging questions in the service of disruptive answers.
But your task is also easier.
You have success to build on. The success of the original Portland strategy should lower the barriers to experimentation; you have a sound basis from which to try new things—knowing that the fundamentals are in place, the values are sound and the underlying framework makes sense. Portland works. And now the question is how to make it work even better, for even more people, in even more ways.
And you have more tools with which to work. Forty years ago, infrastructure investment was more or less limited to the hardware of the city—housing stock, transit lines, parks. Today, you have the software of the city with which to experiment—social media, the rise of the sharing economy and the evolution of the city not as a bunch of buildings, but as a platform, an operating system.
And you have the benefit of perspective—a way of looking at and evaluating the two largest issues confronting the whole country: the challenge of fixing public education and the need to address the growing gap between the rich and the poor—our current national crisis of the missing middle, the middle class.
You have something almost no other city in the country has: the social and political capital with which to work, to grow, to build, to create—yes, to disrupt—your way to greatness.
Portland has become a punch line in Portlandia. That’s not risky. That’s digestible. For middle America. If we are truly going to build a great city—in the true definition of the word, an epic city—we still have a great deal of work to do.
But we can do it. I know we can. And hopefully, Alan’s words can inspire us. To do more. And to create an even more amazing town. See Alan Webber complete speech at Willamette Week.
(Photo courtesy of Ben Amstutz. Used under Creative Commons.)