Job #1: Building confidence

By Jeannette Hanna, Chief Strategist, Trajectory

In March 2020, Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood, like many downtown districts hard hit by pandemic closures, quickly devolved into a “no man’s land” of shuttered store fronts. “When you see everything boarded up, it makes you feel like the world is going to end,” artist Will Phillips stated. Phillips was one of a phalanx of creative locals who swung into action as the Solidarity Project, transforming the streetscape into an open-air gallery of 55 dramatic murals celebrating the heroes and spirit of Canada’s pandemic response. “If you see art everywhere,” Phillips explained,” it gives you the perception that this is a different moment and people are still living.”

The dizzying transformations wrought by COVID-19 lock-downs are not simply economic and social shocks. They are also profound blows to the psyche of places – their sense of identity, purpose and sustainability. It’s a crisis of confidence. And confidence is one of the most critical resources any locale needs to move forward. The Solidarity Project is just one of tens of thousands of examples of creative interventions by individuals and organizations who are mobilizing to shift the zeitgeist and narrative of their places. In times like these, seeing is believing… that we have the moxie and imagination to subvert a crisis into something purposeful and productive; that we can shift perceptions to create a different moment. 

As place “activators,” shifting perceptions among residents and local businesses is as vital as focusing on external audiences. Whether we’re focused on economic development, local businesses, social and civic experiences or tourism – confidence-building is Job 1 today. The rise of place branding is often positioned as a way to enable places to compete for investment, talent, residents, visitors and more. But reinvigorating a sense of genius loci – what the Romans called the essential spirit of a place – is not simply an exercise in gaining market advantage. It’s about building psychological resilience, the most important fuel for any future economic and social wellness.

Charles Landry, the renowned place strategist, argues that one of the most essential ingredients for any place is a “strong, visible, shared narrative for its future rooted in local identity and culture.” For destination and place proponents, this statement contains a powerful recipe for planning any comeback initiative:

  • reinforce authentic strengths that have shaped your place;
  • create highly visible expressions of confidence, solidarity and courage (e.g. celebrate inspiring local art and culture);
  • identify a diverse cross-section of stakeholders who can mobilize different networks for support;
  • identify and explore a range of short and mid-term opportunities that reflect local values, character and examples of past resilience;
  • harness a sense of collective ambition – what can we build together that will be stronger and more resilient than ever?

For Landry, “the stories we tell ourselves are a big part of how we become us.” He distils the challenge of place psychology down to a simple equation: Is this a place that says “yes” or “no”? In other words, is it open to change and adaptation? Places naturally move through cycles of growth and contraction. What matters most, especially today, is how effectively a destination can harness the collective imagination and insights of citizens in addressing immediate challenges and help shape the future. Engaging citizens is acknowledged as a vital role of place management yet research1 suggests that less than fifty percent of place-management organizations feel they engage citizens effectively. 

How do you take the psychological pulse of your communities and engage locals in shaping their future? Many places are using online citizen engagement tools to foster large-scale community conversations about future opportunities using techniques borrowed from Appreciative Inquiry and other strengths-based change management strategies. A tool like the VUCACanvas® is designed specifically to enable communities and organizations to assess how they measure up on six capabilities that researchers have identified as hallmarks of those who weather complex uncertain times successfully: adaptive, sensitive, resilient, connective, diverse and cooperative. These traits are vital for "future-proofing" organizations and places facing unpredictable circumstances.

Places – whether they are small rural communities, neighbourhoods, major urban centres, or regions – are never static. They’re always in the process of setting the trajectory of their collective future. What matters is how actively and creatively people engage in shaping what comes next. The big reset ahead starts with a mindset that we have what it takes to succeed. Playing close attention to the psychology of your place is a vital first step in shifting perceptions to create a different moment that’s a platform for co-creating more sustainable, resilient places for tomorrow. 

For further information:

1 Place branding for the 2020s. City Nation Place / IPSOS Global Reputation Centre research, March 2020


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