TAKE A CITY
“The nation state has become an unnatural, even dysfunctional, unit for organizing human
activity and managing economic endeavor in a borderless world.” Kenichie Ohmae, Foreign
Affairs, Spring 1993
Last month, on the red-balloon- filled top floor of the W Hotel in Midtown Atlanta, mayor Kasim Reed spoke to a private audience of two hundred and fifty Millennials setting the stage for Breakout ATL. Reed explained how when he was thirty years old he gathered a group of ten friends, sat in a room, and planned out what it would take to become mayor. Eleven years later their intentionality paid off. Reed was surprisingly frank about his reaction to the phone call telling him that he had won the election—a combination of disbelief, pride, and imposter syndrome. Reed is disarmingly charismatic and during his talk (he was interviewed by GE Energy CEO Russell Stokes) a palpable excitement filled the room. It felt like being in that room with him twenty years ago, planning on doing something audacious.
That was in part because his talk had a central premise, a phrase he repeated several times. “Take
a city,” he said, lofting it over the heads of the eager audience like a military commander. It’s a
command that connotes not only the belief that a small group of dedicated individuals can
achieve just about anything, but also a cultural paradigm shift that may be coming, and coming
fast. While Reed clearly has big things in his own future, which was evident to everyone in the
audience, “take a city” refers to something bigger than Reed alone. Why did it get this crowd so
excited? As Reed repeated it again the end of the speech, like a mic drop phrase, it was met with
rapturous applause and cheers.
What Reed is saying with “take a city” is both a rallying cry and a strategy. Political power in the
Millennial generation is shifting from the national stage to the local forum. Cities will
increasingly stand up to state and federal power, rebelling against it as we’ve already seen with
the sanctuary city movement, and with cities offering their own socialized healthcare, like San
Francisco. “Take a city,” directs the attention of Millennials away from business and into
politics, and suggests that perhaps change can best be catalyzed on the city level.
While the political future of cities is still up in the air, that the economic balance of power is
tilting increasingly urban is a known fact.
“The Millennial generation is entering the workforce and they are demanding to live around
urban cores,” explains Kate Atwood, a Breakout attendee and director of ChooseATL, a project
charged with creating a new brand for Atlanta that will attract top Millennial talent. “Because of this you have large companies moving their headquarters into cities at an unprecedented rate, which only further grows these urban regional economies.”
The early twenty first century is proving to be an undoing of the suburban flight that occurred in
the post-war 1950s and 1960s. Millennials are obsessed with urban living, with rehabilitating and
re-inhabiting the industrialized zones of the past. As Atwood points out, culture, and large
employers, are following right on their heels, with politics sure to follow as it always does. This
means that power is shifting not just from national and regional governments to cities, but
between cities themselves.
“In the modern era, power and progress has followed the economic growth in America,” says
Atwood. “We have largely seen this happen with coastal cities due to the industrial age. Now in
the digital age, more cities are able to emerge that aren’t coastal, Atlanta being a great example.”
In some of these new power centers newfound assets are associated with certain risks.
“The hazard in this shift is the rate at which it is occurring, a rate faster than modern society has
ever experienced. We can look at San Francisco as an example. They grew so fast with an
economic development strategy centered on high wage jobs that their bottom fell out.”
On the other hand, many, like Atwood herself, believe that the key maintaining a progressive
society lies in the re-balancing of power to include more and different cities.
“The Boomers are trying to preserve what they built, and the Millennials are trying to carve out a
new mark. I don’t mean to oversimplify this, but when I look at the broad dynamics of who is in
power in the nation states and who is emerging in local civic leadership, you begin to see a
divide in priorities and values.”
Since cities are usually progressive, they are seen by some as the only potential engines of
progress in a reactively conservative country. Viewed in this light, Reed’s call to “take a city,”
takes on an even clearer meaning. It’s about making cities as sexy as Snapchat, shifting the focus
of talent towards urban entities that can stand alone, more autonomous than ever before. In 1850,
the largest city in the world was Beijing with only about 900,000 residents. That’s thirty times
smaller than Tokyo today. To put that in perspective, if New York City were thirty times larger
than it is today, it’s population would be roughly twice that of modern day Russia. We are very
familiar with nation-states, but, with a few exceptions, city-states are virtually unknown in
today’s world. That might be about to change if Millennials start believing its possible.
As the ideological divide between cities and rural areas becomes greater, and as rural areas still
maintain a power advantage both in congress and the electoral college, we may start to see a
“cities’ rights” movement arise. And there may already be an economic engine behind such a movement
that’s impossible stop. The American workforce has grown about 1% since a year ago, while
Atlanta’s, for example, has grown at a rate four times that.
Meanwhile, rural economies show no signs of rehabilitation. What major city today doesn’t have
an “innovation district,” designed to foster the sprouting of technology-based businesses? There
is no similar drive on the rural side of the spectrum—no replacement for huge losses rural
environments have suffered via technological advancement and globalization. Thus it seems
clear that cities will soon have the fiscal clout to demand substantially more autonomy.
Fiscal clout, however, is only part of the equation. In order to turn economic power into political
power, progressive Millennial leaders will need to wake up to civics. They will need to do what
Reed did with that group of ten friends, lay out a plan of intentionality aimed at achieving a
concrete civic goal.
“Entrepreneurs tend to be progressive, and if we look at the history of the world, economies and
societies have never survived by not being progressive,” says Atwood, describing the worldview
of many of her Millennial compatriots. “This is why we need entrepreneurs to step up in civic
leadership. Yes, its about new ideas, but its also about temperament and approach.”
If Kasim Reed has anything, it’s the “approach” element. In meeting with those with “new ideas”
like the Breakout community, and inspiring them, he is laying the groundwork for a new
generation of cities unlike any we have ever seen before.