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Cities and regions competing on
fitness and sex-appeal

Today, more people than ever have the freedom to do whatever and go wherever they want to. We have spent the last 50 years or so deregulating life for our kids and ourselves. In effect, there are now in the excess of 200 million migrants on our planet. And some of these individuals control the most critical resource of today’s business world – their own brains.

There’s more. Also companies enjoy the power of choice. Thanks to a deregulated economy, new information technologies and advances in supply-chain management, these multinational organizations can move activities from one location to another. Think Lego bricks. Think in the blink of an eye.

This development represents a true challenge for all regions and cities. Whether we like it or not, they are all players in a great global attraction game. The future belongs to the talent magnets. Also remember that stars attract stars, while losers pull in more losers.

Fit for the future

To survive in a deregulated world, “leaders of space” will have to work hard to become more “fit” in a Darwinian sense. You adapt to the new realities by ensuring that your place meets the following criteria that matter to most modern carriers and creators of competence:

  • Connected: Both the infrastructure and the infostructure available matter. For these knowledge-workers, time is of an essence.
  • Constancy: Talented individuals prefer transparency and stability of rules and regulations. They like to be in control of their own destiny.
  • Competence: When the half-life of knowledge comes down, learning becomes life-long. Great universities and other organizations with the ability to develop competence must be plentiful. Plus, talent needs talent to thrive. Or as Jung put it; I need we to be fully I.
  • Care: When you are your own working capital and active 24/7 you need someone to take care of the kids, your aging parents, and yourself. (Whether this arrangement produces the prerequisites for a good life, however, is more questionable).
  • Climate: You can’t do that much about the weather. Yet, environmental friendliness matters. The place (air, water, soil, etc.) has to be clean, and with plenty of places and spaces for recreational activities.

Dream a little dream with me…

Here’s the bad news. This fitness regime, I claim, has become necessary, but is no longer enough for a place to be hyper-competitive and attract the best of the best. To find out why, let’s revisit nature. The peacock did not survive because he is extremely fit – can’t run, can’t hide, can’t fly, etc. Instead, he thrives because he’s sexy. Already Darwin wrote about sexual selection, based on courtship and attraction. The sexiest cities and regions are not merely places, but spaces with a purpose.

To control your destiny and truly thrive, create a dream aimed at the future. As I see it, there was probably a good reason for why Reverend Martin Luther King once proclaimed “I have a dream”, and why at some point in time he decided not say “I have a five year plan”! Dreams are inspirational and lift us up where we belong.

Consider the United States of America. The US is not a nation state or country in the traditional sense. Rather, the United States is a big, hairy, audacious idea – BHAI - just like Israel is an idea called Zionism. Also Dubai is increasingly a BHAI. It is currently the 224th largest city in the world, but ranks as number one in terms of construction cranes per capita. Dubai is adding enough office space to supply a major European city – every year. If it is a good or bad idea remains to be seen.

The fact that the United States is an idea is interesting, because it means that each and every one of us who is not already American can become American. I know that this is a ghastly thought for some people, but it’s still a fact of life. The US is a movement – a club - you can join it. We can choose to be American. How long do you think it takes to become Swedish? About 243 years – if you are born in Denmark. French or Japanese? Short answer: don’t even think about it. But we can all become Americans. Even if you are born in Thal, Austria, by the time you turn 21 you can move to the US, become Mr Olympia, a D-actor, a C-actor, a B-actor, and then the Governor of California. You know who we are thinking about – Arnold – from Terminator to Governator.

But since some people can love the idea called the US, others can of course hate it. The natural law of really big ideas; you can be for or against them – it’s a love or loathe situation. I have found it a little bit more difficult to find a couple of friends who Friday evening gather to share a few bottles of red wine and end up having an extremely heated debate on the topic of… Belgium! Great ideas attract and repel, but never leave us indifferent. If you want to say yes to a certain group of talent or customers you must also be distinct enough in your dream for this to imply a strong NO to others. To be meaningful, plus needs minus.

Dreams that provide people with meaning are rooted in the past, but aimed at the future. As the old saying goes, “if you don't have a sense of where you come from, going backward looks like progress.” Therefore, the first step in the process of building a competitive city or region means revisiting and re-creating the BHAI. Corporations do it all the time. Even BP did it. The firm embarked on journey from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum. And if a 100 year old oil company can do it, so can you.

Copyright © 2010-2015 Jonas Ridderstråle