The Myth of Innovation

Remarks given by Sarah Iannarone, Assistant Director, First Stop Portland to 1000 Friends of Oregon Tom McCall Gala, June 20, 2104.

I want to debunk for you what I'm calling The Myth of Innovation, the idea that anything other than the relentless hunt for the next best game-changing idea is synonymous with complacency, stagnation, and decline. As Wayne Gretzky put it (please forgive the hockey reference in the midst of the World Cup), the mandate that we must "Skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it's been." Don’t get me wrong, change is inevitable and we must continue looking for creative solutions to problems that arise. However, I’m here to tell you that--based on the feedback I’m getting--we’re doing something right here and we need to keep our eyes on the puck at our feet.

So, who am I to tell you this?

What I’m sharing with you is based on 5 years hosting over 5000 visitors who’ve dropped by Portland to see what’s so special about this place. As the Assistant Director of First Stop Portland, I occupy an interesting position in an important conversation--learning what matters to leaders from around the globe, hearing the questions they’re asking, the answers they’re getting, and capturing their sometimes very frank feedback about how things are working here.

Debriefing visiting leaders from DaNang, Vietnam

Like it or not, we’ve become a model for the world.

As I speak:
  • 6 Oregon mayors are in Dallas, Texas presenting to a conference of mayors from around the country on the transformative power of collaboration…. spreading the message "There are no republican forests to protect; no democratic jobs to create."
  • Brookings economist Bruce Katz is applauding how "weird and crunchy" Portland just happens to be one of America's most global regions with the third-highest export intensity in the US
  • College educated individuals under 40 (the ever desirable "creative class") are migrating here at remarkably high rates--in good economic times and bad--along with affluent empty-nesters and retirees
  • The New York Times' love affair with our artisan culture continues week in and week out they gush over our "rules-be-damned style…divorced from old-school notions of propriety, service and polish"
  • And I stay extremely busy at First Stop Portland hosting the hundreds of people—from the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to the Planning Czar of Auckland, New Zealand—who visit each year to see for themselves whether what's really going on here lives up to the hype
So, does it?

The answer--from these visitors at least--is a resounding yes. From the moment people touch down here, they experience active transportation networks, a vibrant city center, connected neighborhoods, and an engaged citizenry.  And it’s true: we are unique. Through smart land use planning, collaborative governance, and citizen activism we’ve come a long way the past four decades toward creating the quality place we want to inhabit.

Despite these efforts, though, we’ve still got a long way to go. So, what aren’t these visitors seeing at first glance?
  • Our lack of affordable housing
  • Racial disparities in home ownership rates
  • Increasing income inequality
  • Limited transit access to family-wage jobs
  • Intensified gentrification
  • Increasing poverty, especially in outlying counties and rural areas
  • Limited access to parks and natural areas for youth,
  • And even toxic air quality around our neighborhood schools
What our visitors see, then, is a place that is much stronger at its center than its fringe.

Before I tell you where I think we should go from here, I want to share a story with you about a recent delegation we hosted from Laikipia, Kenya.

In 2012, 50 years post-independence, the people of Kenya called for a more democratic system. They convened and rewrote their constitution. They transferred power from their federal government to local governments to realize the principles of democracy, revenue reliability, gender equity, accountability and citizen participation. In March 2014, the men and women who rewrote this constitution and now serve as the first-ever elected Assembly of Laikipia County, Kenya crossed the globe to Oregon --the only stop on their trip. 

Impressed? I certainly was.

The delegation came here explicitly to study land use planning. They gracefully donned rain jackets and set out to learn from our history and our wisdom gleaned from 40 years working to protect and develop this amazing place. But before we could share our smart growth policies and practices with them, we needed to drill down to the core values of participation, conservation, and collaboration underlying our efforts in our state and region.

The first conversation we had was with Former Secretary of State now PSU Professor, Phil Keisling, who shared the story of 1970s Oregon in transition and the establishment of our then innovative land use system through Senate Bill 100. They key, he stressed, was Tom McCall's courageous leadership and ability to communicate that intentional, across-the-aisle collaboration was essential to Oregon’s future livability.

Traversing the region, they spent the week meeting talking with local experts from across sectors--government employees, lawyers, planners, non-profit directors, marketing experts, elected officials, and community members.

At the close of their study tour, the delegation debriefed with Congressman Earl Blumenauer who, drawing on decades of experience as a livability advocate, advised Kenya’s emerging leaders to be very intentional about their future:

"There is no place on the planet that has worked harder on the planning problem or attempted as many strategies as we have," he shared. "We'd like to think we've done something a little different. Now you have the opportunity to carve out a future that works for you. Achieve your goals incrementally. Keep your projects close to home and affordable. Improve and enhance your places, don’t re-create them. Know what you have to offer and be proud of it. Don't do anything phony. Your plans should reflect your heritage and your dreams."

Which brings me to back to the myth of innovation. While many of us are debating whether we’ve become too complacent or how we’re going to maintain our edge, our time-tested ideas are being successfully implemented around the globe. If intentional, incremental, inexpensive, inclusive strategies are what the Kenyans and thousands of other visitors are taking home as “innovative,” then they’re certainly worth continuing to practice ourselves.

Oregon is a model, I’ve come to learn, because we innovate only when necessary and the rest of the time we focus on working really hard to get things right.

I caution: our greatest challenge ahead lies not in coming up with better best practices or more effective strategies but rather in continuing the work we know needs to be done, such as:
  • equitable implementation of existing policies and practices,
  • focus on vibrant communities and healthy economies, in both urban and rural areas, and
  • development of the next generation of land use experts and advocates
Our greatest challenge lies not in innovating, but in maintaining our day-to-day commitment to getting it right.


My afternoon with Auckland's Regional Planning Czar

Submitted by: Soleil Rowan-Caneer
First Stop Portland Student Ambassador

We meet in the lobby of the Marriott Waterfront and hit the pavement. I'm with Dr. Roger Blakeley of Auckland, New Zealand. We stroll down to Tom McCall Waterfront Park, seat ourselves on a bench overlooking the Willamette and open a window into the street level experience of Portland. After a quick intro about our interests and concerns, we walk south along the river towards the South Waterfront District, enjoying the teeming life and vitality of the park and the activity along the boardwalk on a beautiful, sunny day in May. Perfect Portland spring weather.

Roger came to Portland after participating in New York RPA's World Cities Regional Planning Workshop. He was one of 13 experts that were invited from around the world to advise on the most recent iteration of their regional plan. Roger tells us their goals were to “share world best practices on Regional Planning, give advice on the preparation of the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut Regional Plan, and be an ongoing international peer review group as the plan is prepared, and prepare a global manual on Metropolitan Regional Planning.”

In 2010, the Auckland region boldly merged all of their local governments into a single entity, The Auckland Council. Roger Blakeley is the Chief Planning Officer on the council, and one of his main roles is to develop a 30-year “Auckland Plan” before the end of the year. This is a visioning plan, similar to Metro's 2040 Concept Plan, that will guide future development for Auckland.


Oregon’s 'One Tough Mother' shares wisdom, humor with FSP students and Lanzhou MBAs

Submitted by Soleil Rowan-Caneer
Student, Community Development
Portland State University

“Work hard. Always tell the truth so you don’t have to bother remembering the lies. And always trust that if you have your heart and soul in it you will be successful,” Gert Boyle tells us. She is speaking to a crowd of Chinese businessmen and women who are hanging on her every word. “Old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill,” she advises with a wry smile.

Business leaders in the MBA Executive Leadership training program from Lanzhou University in China have returned for their annual trip to Portland. They come to experience first-hand executive leadership in practice and to learn more about collaborative models of governance and sustainable business practices in cooperation with the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University.

EMBA Leadership Training Program is a partnership between Lanzhou University and Portland State University's Center for Public Service in the Hatfield School of Government.
On the final day of their two day tour with First Stop Portland,we were fortunate enough to meet Gert Boyle, the businesswoman behind the successful Columbia Sportswear Company. When the company faltered after the death of her husband, she refused to sell it for the $1400 that was offered, saying she would rather run it into the ground herself. Today Columbia Sportswear is worth over $2 billion. Scott Welch, Corporate Outreach Coordinator for the company, explains that it is largely through her bold leadership that, against all odds, Columbia became one of the most successful businesses to ever come out of Portland.


First Stop's "fine-grained" approach informs Thailand's Smart Growth efforts

Submitted by: Edward "Cody" Kent
PhD Student, Urban Studies and Planning
Portland State University

The pressure put on natural resources by the increasing human population and rising standards of living is the defining challenge of the 21st century. This challenge is both local and global in scope, specific and universal in nature. The new and shifting character of these challenges means no single group has a monopoly on solutions. We are all learning from each other to solve our own local problems and the global issues. I recently became involved with First Stop Portland as a course requirement for PSU Professor Charles Heying’s "Green Economics" class. As a term project, students are required to step out of the classroom and work with a business, non-profit, or public agency to develop a solution to a sustainable development problem. I was immediately interested in working with First Stop Portland on their task of assisting with the sharing of sustainable development knowledge between Portland and other cities around the country and world.

Although I’m currently a first year PhD student in Urban Studies at Portland State University, I started as an undergraduate studying geology. As clichéed as it sounds, there are two kinds of geology programs: those that focus on field methods and those that focus on computer modeling. My program was one of those programs which focused on field methods and I spent a refreshing proportion of my undergraduate education hiking over the country side to map geologic structures. The value of feeling the texture of different sizes of mineral grains between fingers or the distance between features by how long it takes to walk from one to another cannot be overstated. This is the same kind of experiential knowledge provided by both the community-based learning project and First Stop Portland. For my project, I helped plan and lead a tour for a delegation of public officials and representatives of companies from Thailand, primarily from Koh Samui City.


Portland's own "Emerging Young Leader" connects with ELEEP Delegation

Submitted by Lauren Patton
Student, Masters in Urban and Regional Planning
Portland State University

My first experience with First Stop Portland gave me a glimpse of what cities need to be successful: individuals who care about true progress. Organizations may proclaim their green inclinations, but the everyday actions of individuals who make up those organizations are far more important. The Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy Network (ELEEP) is a self-selected group of leaders who want to influence policy within their organizations. The delegation I worked with consisted of Americans and Europeans living all over the world who have taken it upon themselves to push for a green revolution within their organizations. I met a lawyer working for the EPA, an Austrian working on transportation in Mexico City, and a dozen other professionals from a variety of locations and organizations.

While riding the Yellow Line MAX train with them, I realized that the world needs people in every profession looking for game changing solutions. Getting off at the next stop, we came across one small example. We learned that the chains that act as a barricade at the MAX stations are actually made of recycled milk jugs instead of metal. The practice saved the project a ton of money, not to mention conservation of resources. The ELEEP delegation wanted to know where that idea came from-- at what point in the development process did someone think of that?  It was not an order from someone at the top of the project, our tour guide told us, but rather someone involved in the construction process in touch with the day-to-day details.

It all comes back to discrete actions taken by individuals; we can all continue to do our jobs as normal or we can find ways to incorporate innovative green solutions. 

The ELEEP delegation was in Portland to learn about our successes, but in reality there were just as many things that we could learn from them. Their time in Portland was really a two-way dialogue: they spent a day giving presentations to Portland's leadership at City Hall and spent another day hearing from our experts. I was fortunate to spend a day with them, because now I have a better idea of what it takes for cities to succeed. Cities need professionals who will take it upon themselves to innovate because bottom up solutions can mean just as much as top down ones.


Spotlight on China: Portland seize opportunity

Submitted by: Nancy Hales
Winter 2013

When I travel to other cities I count two things 1) building cranes and 2) bikes.  To me, building cranes mean economic activity, and bikes livability.

I know, it’s an imperfect measure.  But by this metric the bustling Chinese cities I visited recently as part of a diplomatic mission from Portland--Shanghai, Suzhou, Kunming, Chenggong, Xi’an, Changsha and Huangpu River District--are exploding with activity... and opportunity.

Street market, Shanghai


Uzbekistan observes Portland's "Habits of the Heart" on Whirlwind Study Tour

Uzbekistan lies at the heart of the Central Asia. One of only two doubly-landlocked countries in the world (the other is Liechtenstein) and a gateway to Iran and Afghanistan, this country is of strategic importance to Russia, China, and the United States. An independent nation since 1991, Uzbekistan’s emergence on the world stage compels it to think independently about the long-term effects of its decision-making.

This, we learned, after we received a request from a TV producer with the US Department of State and the
Office of Broadcast Support. He would be hosting three TV journalists from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, for a two-week study tour of US to document stories on "ecological advances in the US." The delegation would be attending the Better Living Show at Portland's Expo Center, he explained, and wondered if First Stop might be able to share some of Portland's sustainable innovations with the group. It wouldn't be enough to talk about what's happening in Portland, he insisted. First Stop would nee to help the crew bring Portland's policies and best practices to life for 30 million cable television viewers in Uzbekistan--in a single day!

Despite the threat of heavy rains and 40 MPH gusts, the crew started the day early on the Hawthorne Bridge for the morning commute. They met with BTA Executive Director Rob Sadowsky who shared the story of America's first bike counter with the visitors. It collects all sorts of data that helps us make the case for bicycles, he explained. When asked how groups like Cycle Oregon and the BTA are connected to Portland's government, Rob explained the important role that Portland's citizen activists play in the city's sustainability innovations.

(Click the images to view full size.)