Audacity in Edmonton

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?


43 thoughts on “Audacity in Edmonton

  1. Great article..I love how you’ve hit the nail right on the head, regarding our pioneer ‘can do’ spirit. Edmonton is a city of self starters….but Disraeli, a serial overdresser? Awe common….they all over dressed in those days…look at our own John A. Wools, and velvets, lace and bombazine, all over done and over starched..yeesh!

  2. I find it interesting that you first belittle the idea of a brand, and the proceeded to describe the brand of Edmonton so eloquently. While I agree that a fancy logo and slick slogan are never the foundation of a brand, these are merely shortcuts to the deeper story behind a brand, whether than is a city, a company or a cup of coffee. I’ve lived in Edmonton and I think the story you shared is accurate and exciting. It’s a story the could entice people to work, live and visit a great city, investing time and money. A logo won’t do it; a story people want to share will. A logo—or something iconic, like our country’s flag—is simply a good way to remind people they are there.

  3. Great post. As one of those life-long Edmontonians who has never been able to quite articulate why I choose to stay here instead of leaving for Montreal or Vancouver, this rings true to me.

  4. I’m developing a program to put Edmonton on the map for all the right reasons! , I use the streets as a venue! I have a strategy to nurture this community, a community that has more potential then most understand! How can you help? I would appropriate help form people in Edmonton’s Nouveau Aristocracy (that’s you) We are the future! Lets put us on the map for the right reasons! There is a renaissance that we need to be better prepared for. I have a plan to nurture it from the streets up!

  5. Hey Todd – have you met Ben Gorodetsky? You should I should introduce you… some similar themes here. You guys should get together and change the world… well, the City for starters.

  6. I think the key is to defeat the enemy! The enemy of Edmonton in my opinion is not complacency.
    It’s this character I will call the Jobber. There are lots of people busy doing things. They want to make things. They do make things. Then they want to do it bigger/ better/ or share it.
    And they run into The Jobber. The Jobber is usually a chicken, concerned with their own position within a large structure. I’ve heard them say things like this:
    a) the rules/ bylaws/ boring things do not permit this. So we can’t do that ______ (audacious thing).
    b) what is the business case for this ________ (audacious thing). What? It is fun/ interesting/ meaningful/ culturally significant/ mind-blowing? That’s great but not a good enough business case. That doesn’t work for my supervisor to approve it. It doesn’t align with our mandate.
    c) that has a big risk to it. What if it fails? We (I) can’t be responsible for _________(audacious thing).
    Until you use reverse psychology/ donuts/ the “Calgary already did it” argument to basically give them no more options to say no, once the logistics and budget issues are all satisfied.
    I think that lots of people run into this Jobber and then just retreat. Which isn’t exactly complacency… ?

  7. Your point about The Jobber, Stacy, it’s very good. This is why I had mentioned “What are you making? How can we help?”

    If this IS WHAT THE CITY GOVERNMENT DOES… if it becomes a key component of the culture, you can imagine it changing. I may be naive and dreamy, but I hope it would make our jobs and our lives more fulfilling to HELP MAKE THINGS rather than get in the way of it.

    Of course, asking tough questions about what is a good (Edmonton) idea and what is a not-so-good (not-so-Edmonton) idea is crucial.

  8. Yep, agreed – there are lots of enablers for making rad things – but it does take a team sometimes. Or it hinges on one person’s decision.
    e.g. recent closure of Miranda Seyer’s pop up exhibition “Capricious!”at Londonderry Mall
    So it’s also about helping people see what can be done, to brainwash the Jobbers or just move around them, and for the people making things… to continue to MAKE MAKE MAKE

  9. Good post. But… what’s your idea to battle the complacency?Personally, I actually don’t think that’s the problem in the city. But I do think that’s an easy way for EEDC to place blame rather than taking responsibility. Bottom line is I read far too many good posts, and hear far too many good leaders that ask good questions. Really good questions, which in this post you have done. I think now we have to start talking ideas… great ideas. What separates leaders from the pack are those that answer the questions… solve the problem.

    • Thanks for this provocative comment, Jay. You’re absolutely right. I intend to answer it – or at least begin to answer it – in subsequent posts. Can’t reveal everything all at once, after all.

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  11. What I get out of this is the difference between building something and selling something. Recently, I think the distinction between the two processes has been blurred as businesses like Katz’s, first sell the idea in order to gain sport to build…whatever. They spend so much time on selling that we experience buyers remorse even before we are actually sold on the idea. After all salesmen will say anything to get the sale and we all have felt ripped off before by a sales job especially in the political arena.
    In a sales pitch situation the role of government becomes that of evaluation and fact checking. Wouldn’t it make more sense if the city was able to focus on expediting the building process and then becommming the salesman for it and the resulting advantages to those of us living here. Then we become partners in a building process rather than adversaries or impediments to truly entrepeturial idea.

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  13. Again, I must say this blog is pure gold, Todd. Good on you. And I am glad to see all the great comments and thoughts by readers.

    An encouraging Call to Action is just what this city needs! The brand and City should be the Wise Old Man, encouraging each and everyone’s Hero. What many don’t recognise is that a brand is defined by its people, whether its the customers or users of a service. The very people of Edmonton define its brand. And I agree, so I am ok with you ridiculing traditional branding all you want. It warrants no respect if it’s hollow. To contrast, hallowed branding helps people become—become something, anything—usually informed by a clear vision.

    Creation is close both economically necessary and a understated spiritual endeavour. It would be a bold move that encourages each and everyone to explore their innate nature to create.

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  33. thoughts from another forum (albeit mine so they aren’t being stolen):

    ” our city tag line should be changed from “edmonton – city of champions” to “edmonton works” because that works on all levels regardless of the specific topic (personal ethos, roads, education, business, government, arts and culture, health care etc.

    “everything i do here is lower case so there is some consistency to that but edmonton’s “e” in the city logo always looked to me more like a truncated lower case letter than upper case so i think that’s consistent. it’s also easier to use it or insert it as a tag line in a sentence etc. if it’s not capitalized (no confusing it as a proper noun or place) although emphasis could still be added by bolding or italics or quotation marks. it also makes “edmonton works” work regardless of the type face (something that needs to be maintained with most logos/branding but which is too restrictive for the uses and places i think this tag line could get)…”

    the initial exercise was to complete the question “i want to go to edmonton because…” in six words or less. my suggestion was “i want to go to edmonton because edmonton works”.

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