The placemakers’ confidence game

by Jeannette Hanna, Chief Strategist, Trajectory

The scene: The local Economic Development Organisation had worked hard on its presentation to City Council. It was a well-documented, good-news story about attracting new businesses, positive growth and projections of welcoming 10,000 new residents over the next decade to this former steel town of 75,000 souls.

One might expect that city counsellors would be overjoyed with such a rosy forecast and the realistic stats that supported this optimistic trajectory. But that is not what transpired. Quite the opposite: when the report was tabled and the presentations concluded, the response from elected officials was… shock and denial. This was not possible. The numbers must be wrong. This upbeat, optimistic picture stood in stark contrast to the deeply internalised local narrative of a dead-end, rust belt town whose best days were long past.

It’s a true story, and emblematic of how narratives define places and their collective sense of possibility.  Defeatist self-images can stick like burrs and become invisible barriers to growth. As Charles Landry - the renowned pioneer of the “creative cities” concept - notes, “the stories we tell ourselves are a big part of how we become us.” At a most basic level, Landry asserts, places can say “yes” or “no.” In other words, is this locale open to change and possibility or not?

Boosting confidence and ambition

While planners and governments weigh the benefits of a host of initiatives to amp up competitiveness, there is much evidence to support a more strategic and effective starting point - boost local confidence and ambition. Confidence is like oxygen for any destination. When it gets depleted, it saps both energy and momentum. From economic shocks and social upheavals to natural disasters, every city and region is subject to cycles of decline that can feel like collective body blows. Or alternatively, a community can feel marginalised and overshadowed for a variety of reasons: “We’re the armpit of [fill in the blank].” But when a majority of citizens internalise that kind of downbeat projection, as illustrated in our opening example, even positive wins can be difficult to embrace.

Ambition is a powerful antidote to a crippling lack of confidence. Landry describes ambition as, “a quality that generates energy, motivation and passion.” People who are ambitious for their place want more. For them, it’s not okay to be stuck, or worse, give up on the possibility of change.

A key dimension of the power of place branding is harnessing that ambition as a community-wide confidence builder. It can start with a small coterie of committed players. As Margaret Mead famously wrote, “Never doubt the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Re-writing history: the place branding success stories

Look at the great comeback stories of place branding. Washington, D.C.’s bankruptcy and notorious reputation as the “dull, dirty and dangerous” capital was the nadir of its brand. But a few passionate local civic leaders began a decade-long crusade to change that reputation. They rallied business leaders, neighbourhoods, city officials and influencers to tackle substantive issues and, simultaneously, reorient the messaging about D.C.’s potential and ambitions. It rallied to become one of the most prized business locations in the country. Amazon’s choice of National Landing, across the Potomac River from downtown, for its HQ2 underscored that D.C.’s transformation was fully realised.

What we know from the science of systems is that to change the current dynamics of an environment it’s essential to have a coherent story about new possibilities - something that’s both aspirational and realistic to ignite change. According to systems experts, successful change stories do the following: They simplify how the environment is changing in an easy-to-understand way. They ensure the story is plausible - with practical examples that demonstrate achievability - but also convey a sense of aspiration within which a broad group of stakeholders can envision their own futures. Most importantly, they must create a sense of “agency” - what can we build together - that supplants the habits of fatalism.

Instead of being slaves to a preordained future, use the future as an asset that can be leveraged to create a vision and then going through a process to make that a reality. Give people the wherewithal to imagine different futures. That very act gets people involved in the change process.

As Landry might argue, start with a “yes.”

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The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.