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
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
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