“When all think alike, then no one is thinking.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about ol’ Wally’s observation ever since our city government embarked on the much-ballyhooed pitch to bring Amazon’s second headquarters to Philly. Winning the reality TV-like sweepstakes would no doubt be a game-changer for our city and region, and not just for its addition of 50,000 jobs to the local economy; the psychic benefits of becoming Amazon’s second home might be just as crucial. Perhaps it would be the final piece we need to get our swagger back, to once and for all bury the last vestiges of Negadelphia.
But, in the last week or two, the whispers have grown louder: Are our elected leaders—so accustomed to playing small ball, so wedded to incrementalism—up to making the bold case demanded of a moonshot moment?
The first red flag came when it was reported that Harold Epps, the city’s Commerce Director, and John Grady, President of PIDC, the city’s public-private economic development corporation, would lead the effort to win the Amazon windfall, with help from Select Greater Philadelphia, the region’s business attraction nonprofit. This isn’t a knock on Epps, Grady or Select’s Matt Cabrey; they’re all highly competent, and local patriots.
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But is this just the recruitment of a company to our region, or is it something more akin to public spectacle, something that requires an approach that deviates from business as usual, and that differentiates us from the way all other cities may respond to Amazon’s challenge?
The latter is how Pittsburgh seems to see it. Steel city stakeholders—city government, foundations, nonprofits—immediately ponied up $248,000 to hire Maya Design, which is owned by the prestigious Boston Consulting Group, to honcho the city’s bid. Maya helped Pittsburgh apply for—and almost win—a $50 million Smart City Challenge transportation grant last year. The face of their bid will be a team of executives and civic leaders.
Now, given the conditions laid out in the RFP, it seems clear that we stand a better chance on the merits than does our western rival. But shouldn’t we match their boldness in our approach? Instead of governmental paper pushers, shouldn’t the faces of our bid be, I don’t know, Penn President Amy Gutmann? Startup pied piper Bob Moul? Comcast’s Brian Roberts? (There’s been some media speculation that Comcast doesn’t want Amazon invading its turf; I don’t buy it. Surely the town is big enough for both, no?)
You like turnarounds, Jeff Bezos? (See Post, Washington.) How’d you like to be the guy who brings back the city that gave birth to American Democracy, and in the process strikes a blow for the transformative effect of business?
Instead, it seems the city’s approach is decidedly top down. An email went out earlier this week to many of the city’s bold-face name innovators and entrepreneurs from Lauren Cox, the Commerce Department’s Manager of Communications and Press Relations. “As leaders of the Philadelphia tech community, each of you will play an important role as we develop a proposal and pitch our city as the home for Amazon’s HQ2…” she wrote. “…I will be your main point of contact for all things Amazon.”
Cox goes on to ask recipients to “contribute some ‘big ideas’ that could potentially be incorporated into the comms plans and/or proposal,” before asking: “Do you think we should involve drones?”
The entrepreneur who forwarded me this communique had this to say: “You have the city controlling this, as opposed to the city saying, ‘This isn’t what we do. Let’s hire the best that does this and say to them, What do you need?’” He contrasted our approach with Pittsburgh’s: “They said to themselves, ‘We think we have the ingredients to be a global city. Let’s hire the Boston Consulting Group to help us craft that story.’”
But it goes even deeper than that. It’s not just about who is making the pitch—it’s also about what that pitch is. Remember Wally Lippman’s advice, uttered some 50 years before Steve Jobs implored us to Think Different. Here’s where you wish the Kenney administration would set itself apart from every other city in the Amazon competition by thinking more creatively.
Every city seeking the Amazon nod will try and sell Jeff Bezos on an array of inducements targeted to his bottom line. An orgy of tax breaks will be thrown his way. As will a list of attractive demographic and cultural amenities, as Drexel President and Chamber Chairman John Fry so ably laid out in an Inquirer op-ed.
How about this: Let’s stipulate that we’ll match all the inducements others are sending Amazon’s way, but that the heart of our pitch isn’t what we can do for you, Amazon. It’s what you can do for us.
You like turnarounds, Jeff Bezos? (See Post, Washington.) How’d you like to be the guy who brings back the city that gave birth to American Democracy, and in the process strikes a blow for the transformative effect of business? In the New York Times, Ross Douthat argued in favor of an Amazon Detroit:
“The political backdrop, the growing suspicion on right and left about whether big tech serves the common good, raises an interesting question: What if Amazon treated their headquartering decision as an act of corporate citizenship, part public relations stunt and part genuinely patriotic gesture?” Douthat writes. “What if it approached the decision as an opportunity to push back against trends driving populist suspicion of big business…the sense that the New Economy creates wealth but not jobs and that its tycoons are loyal to globalization rather than their country?”
“You have the city controlling this, as opposed to the city saying, ‘This isn’t what we do. Let’s hire the best that does this and say to them, ‘What do you need?’” says one local entrepreneur.
Douthat is right on the argument, but wrong on the city choice. Detroit already has Dan Gilbert leading its charge of reinvention. But why not say to Bezos: How’d you like to be our Dan Gilbert?
Look, we’re already the center of social impact entrepreneurship, even if the city, still wedded to Ben Franklin and cheesesteaks, doesn’t market ourselves that way. Philly invented the B Corp revolution thanks to the nonprofit B Lab —whose local founders, Jay Coen-Gilbert and Bart Houlahan, should be in on the pitch. What if our presentation to Amazon wasn’t a sales pitch, per se, but an invitation to come here and fuel a new American Revolution? One built around the transformative effects of conscious capitalism?
Hell, we could say, we’ll throw tax breaks your way like all the other cities, but we’re also asking something big of you, something bigger than your bottom line: Come here and help fix our schools. Maybe that involves donating to them, or adopting them, or mentoring at-risk youth. But providing jobs isn’t enough. We’re responding to your challenge, Amazon, by challenging you: Come here and make all of us better.
Now that would be some different thinking.Header Photo: Jason Redmond