I have romantic attachments to Benjamin Disraeli, a failed novelist and serial over-dresser who became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1874. He said many clever things. Among them: “Success is the child of audacity.”
Once, it would have seemed audacious to develop a city identity the same way Proctor and Gamble brands toothpaste. Today it’s banal. We throw some nouns on a wall, point to a copywriter and a designer, test some phrases in focus groups, and choose something. We slap it all up on our website and use it in our commercials until it seems old and then we spend a couple million to do it all over again.
Personal hygiene product, truck, politician, city: same solution.
This may work if our role as citizens is to buy our city, our province, our state, our country — to passively consume our place. I don’t think it works for much of anything, anymore, but I’m convinced it doesn’t work for cities. There’s a reason Edmontonians don’t have a hat or a mascot, or a few nouns. You resist and distrust it.
As I said in the last post, people have always come here for a reason. The ones who have stayed understand it more poignantly, even if they can’t articulate it at dinner parties in Toronto.
Today, thanks to a bit of luck and a series of calculated risks, Edmonton is one of the most prosperous mid-sized cities on the planet. It’s an unusually open city: open to ideas and open to change. It doesn’t matter if your family has been here since 1895 or if you arrived three weeks ago. There is no aristocracy in Edmonton: everything we’re most proud of has been built up from basements and bar tables and garages and small offices. When someone, anyone has a good idea, leaders listen. You can just phone up Ralph Young, the CEO of Melcor, if you want to pitch him. This builder’s spirit, this spirit of collaboration, urban barn-building, is in our culture and in our heritage.
Thanks to our natural resource wealth, today is the best time to activate this spirit in our citizens so we can build on and better transcend our natural resource wealth. It won’t be there forever. What will be?
What common theme binds the Fringe Festival and the theatre scene, Stantec and PCL, BioWare, the Alberta Avenue revitalization, Startup Edmonton, waste management, farmers’ markets, steel fabricators, Oilers and Eskimos fans, and everything else our interviewees said they were most proud of?
When we interviewed Edmontonians, no matter who they were, one theme came up again and again: this is an unusually good place to make something, from the ground up. The festivals, events, institutions, businesses, and initiatives Edmontonians love grew from idea to reality here.
One moment I won’t forget is speaking to a group that included electricians, boiler makers and a steel fabricator. One man told us the story of Daryl Katz, about how he grew up in a little house in the west end loving the Oilers to death, how he and his father remortgaged their house to buy a little drug store in the eighties.
It was a failure at first but people helped them, their friends and neighbours, and then it was a success. They used the profits to buy another drug store, and another. Now they have thousands of drug stores all over the world. If Mr. Katz would apply this “let’s build it” spirit to the downtown arena, the electrician was sure the work would already be underway.
What’s important about this story is it’s factually untrue. It isn’t the true story of the Katz Group. It’s the Edmonton story, applied to one of its most important companies. It’s mythology.
How can we challenge and invite Edmontonians to make this spirit, this mythology a more crucial part of how they live their lives and talk about the city? The city’s enemy, as Brad Ferguson, the new CEO of Edmonton Economic Development Corporation recently put it, is complacency.
If you have the courage to make something, Edmonton is your city.
This is already true.
It’s our mythology and our reality, the source of our pride, the story that binds our white collar workers, our blue collar workers, our artists and our executives, our students and our seniors, aboriginals and new immigrants. This is an honest and enduring answer to the question: “Why Edmonton?”
Ever since city manager Simon Farbrother told us about the city manager of Austin’s singular focus, we had been looking for a version in Edmonton. What if Simon Farbrother were to ask, even on his business card, the Edmonton question: “What are you making?”
What are you making? How can I help?
Could this be the focus of the municipal government, its Transforming Edmonton theme? Could it be the thing we ask each other, in this city?
Instead of engaging a traditional advertising agency to build us a tagline and a logo, a brand pyramid, what if we launched a Make Something Edmonton campaign? Not just Make Something but Make Something Edmonton… mindful of what has succeeded here and what has not. We could celebrate what we’re already proud of, by folding anecdotes about city successes into the story we tell about the city.
Neither Make Something Edmonton or Edmonton: what are you making? are slogans. They would be part of a campaign to encourage action in the city and to fold anecdotes about Edmonton successes into the story we tell about the city.
How do you encourage action in the city, with a campaign? And then share what Edmontonians DO? Is it possible to inspire grassroots audacity? How would this work?