This review first ran in The Hamilton Spectator on July 12.
Hamilton doesn’t need a hero.
We shouldn’t pray for a saviour to rise from our one-way streets.
And we shouldn’t pin our hopes and dreams on an elected or aspiring politician, captain of industry or civic booster with the vision, vim and vigour to singlehandedly steer Steeltown to the promised land.
What we could really use are more cruise directors – consummate networkers who know how to get and keep our city’s movers and shakers on board and all rowing in the same direction.
“The challenge for metropolitan areas is not whether they have leaders but whether those individuals work together in a concerted way to drive change,” say Jennifer Bradley and Bruce Katz in their book The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy. “Metropolitan areas are so big, so complicated and so diverse that they don’t need heroes, they need networks.”
This isn’t about slapping a new name on an existing clique or rounding up the usual suspects for another tour of civic duty. We need large and diverse networks that connect people who’ve yet to meet and work together. As Bradley and Katz point out, the strongest networks are held together by a multiplicity of weak ties rather than a repetition of strong ones.
The presence or absence of networks is one way to measure the health and future prospects of a city. Bradley and Katz have come up with a simple test to discern if a city is open or closed, collaborative or divisive. Talk with an elected official or appointed leader for 15 minutes. If she highlights the networks she’s leading and joining and sings the praises of her partners and collaborators, you have an open, functioning metropolis that has a fair shot at attracting talent, cracking hard problems and making key decisions.
“Collaboration and network building are the most important foundations for transformative action in a city and metropolis. Everything that follows – vision, strategy, tactics and impact – is derivative. Build and steward a strong network and you have set a platform for generational change.”
For Bradley and Katz, Northeast Ohio is a poster child for our post-hero economy and a test bed for building and stewarding networks. In 2003, foundations and philanthropic organizations from across the region joined forces to play a bigger role in rebuilding an economy that had lost nearly 200,000 manufacturing jobs in Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown.
The foundations created a $30 million Fund for our Economic Future and launched a two-year Voices and Choices project. They consulted with more than 20,000 residents through one-on-one interviews, town halls and workshops to identify the region’s assets, challenges and priorities. Ninety individuals and organizations were then recruited to move the yardsticks on four goals distilled from the consults.
According to Bradley and Katz, the Voices and Choices project had an immediate, positive and galvanizing effect on residents and leaders. “It helped them understand, as they never had before, the potential power in acting as a region and the need to work collaboratively to direct their economic destiny.”
The foundations created a model and culture for collaboration for others to adopt and bolstered a larger network of economic development organizations that came to include heavy hitters like the region’s universities, hospitals and research institutions. “Stewarding this network has been one of the Fund’s most important contributions to the region; it is doing what no other entity can do,” say the authors, who add that networks must be skillfully tended with intelligence and not managed to death. “People who run multimillion-dollar organizations are not going to join a network to be bossed around.”
It’s still very much a work in progress in Northern Ohio. They continue to grapple with how best to collaborate, communicate, build and maintain trust. Yet “Northern Ohio’s efforts to use networks to bring about a new economy – built on the foundations of its old economy – are aligned with powerful social, economic and cultural forces.”
Building networks is one of five steps for sparking a metropolitan revolution. The authors highlight revolutions already underway in Denver, Boston, Portland, Houston and New York City. These cities are taking control of their destinies and positioning themselves at the cutting edge of reform, investment and innovation. Pragmatic leaders with shared visions and commitments to their communities are working together to set ambitious goals, make distinctive bets and drive transformational change.
“Today’s metropolitan revolutionaries are not aiming to tear down an old regime or displace a tired clique of rulers. They are trying to build something positive that has lasting value for places and people.”
This should be required reading for anyone who believes Hamilton is overdue for a metropolitan revolution. And the chapters on how Neighborhood Centers does community consults in Houston and how Boston’s creating an innovation district on its waterfront are worth a close read.