Go BIG: Jumpstart Amsterdam

(A slightly edited version of this earlier post from Nov 18 ,2011 “BIG”)

In a rare offline moment discussing my blog posts on AIDA and my resulting criticism of its inadequacy for the task at hand– economic growth, I was asked what would I do. Hmm, a fair question. It’s easy to loft rhetorically on aviation versus actually piloting and flying the plane yourself. So here goes.

I think we think too small. We need to think BIG. And we execute not all; instead we need to execute small and well. Here’s what I mean.

If you go back 5 or 10 years, it’s a fair question to ask exactly what and who has been tasked with growth in the city. I may be ignorant of details but an honest answer should point to a specific actor(s),strategy(ies) and plan(s) around that. Most importantly, we should look at specific metrics, or measures, by which we can validate said claim. How many jobs? How much revenue? etc.

Given that, we should then ask , what about the next 5 years? We should be able to know those answers as well.

I’m afraid I simply don’t see any measurable outcomes in either timeline. And the problem , I’m convinced, is that in a big way, we’re on the wrong trajectory.

The right trajectory IMHO is composed of an embrace of the following principles:

1) A livable, vital city

2) A sustainable, viable strategy

3) Think and act BIG

4) Disrupt and destroy

With that in mind, I see a 6 step approach:

First , create a newly chartered entity tasked around the following objectives. Let’s call it JumpstartAmsterdam:

1) Preserve existing housing stock and drive residential development in the city for the 20-34 crowd.

2) Develop the Southside as a residential and commercial mixed-use destination

3) Invest in alternative energy as a revenue driver for the city and attract renewable energy start-ups (leverage the locks on the Mohawk)

4) Create a digital arts and engineering (focus on alternative energy) charter middle school

5) Establish an incubator center around digital arts, alternative energy and nanotech

Second, establish a sound governance structure and organization for JumpstartAmsterdam. This is the most challenging and crucial part as local inertia will serve to undermine the governance to make it exactly like the failed agencies of the past and present. Governance needs to be public-private with an external advisory board. Also, JumpstartAmsterdam should have a charter of 5 years, non-extensible. It either swims or drowns at the end of 5 years.

Third, JumpstartAmsterdam will be funded with $3-5 million from public-private sources but with the bulk from a city bond fund. As such, it will not be subject to the tax cap but subject to referendum. Funding comes in yearly tranches ($500K to $1million) and only upon hitting specific goals.

I know such financial candor is shocking but I’m not delusional that we can accomplish big things with no funding or funding that originates from magical places. I know that is the usual way we think and act on economic development — free and easy!– but it’s not reality. Let me snarkily posit that there is no outrage at $1.2 million for demolition being bonded but likely my even raising a multi-million dollar proposal for bringing growth will be outrageous!! Still, to consider spending on growth, will cause massive pushback, just wait for it…

Fourth, JumpstartAmsterdam will distribute funds according to the following principles:

1) Many small pilot projects are better from a risk management perspective than one huge project. JumpstartAmsterdam will encourage competitive pilot programs across its 5 objectives. All initiatives must be exclusively geared to the city.

2) JumpstartAmsterdam will encourage competitive pilots for residential development. In other words, you have to pass a fairly high bar to receive funding. Yes, repurposing existing industrial for loft and urban living is the key. Not to say that other residential development or revitalization is excluded, just that emphasis will be on development geared toward 20-34 crowd along with a strong push for historic preservation and restoration especially in the at-risk neighborhoods that teeter on the edge of no-return.

3) Failure is an acceptable outcome if the upside warrants taking the risk. Or differently, the status quo and safe initiatives, that are truly anything but safe, do not get funded by JumpstartAmsterdam. Ever.

4) Where will companies come to occupy the incubator? They will originate from various venture and startup programs at local universities. The incubator will recruit firms from the surrounding area (even westward) as it will have what startups want: dollars to invest and space. The fact that funding exists acts as a big differentiator to other programs.

5) The charter school will be partially funded by JumpstartAmsterdam monies for 3 to 5 years. IF successful, the charter school will ultimately expand to high school grades. (At inception, charter only enrolls grades 6,7). If successful, another grade is added yearly. The charter school operates under innovative agile models intentionally unlike other educational programs in the Capital Region and will employ leading edge educational technology and approaches.

6) JumpstartAmsterdam invests in hydro and other renewable power as a revenue source for the city and also as a pilot bed for the products/services of its desired industries.

Fifth — execution.

It’s management 101 but every program, pilot and initiative is measured against impacts and outcomes. Governance must assure that JumpstartAmsterdam disrupts and destroys its own programs and managers if failing to meet their outcomes. By far, the most challenging aspect to this will be governance of JumpstartAmsterdam.

Finally, disrupt and destroy. In my view, the city cannot sustain its current course which basically revolves around doing nothing to bring growth largely due to a culture dominated by fear, loathing, negativity and a set of principles and institutions no longer relevant. Let me share a story:

Well before Global Foundries became a reality and was still in the vision stage, I was asked to join a panel on how Montgomery County could take advantage of the developments in Tech Valley. At the kick off meeting, it was more than clear that the approach and strategy for Tech Valley would be built around what I would deem ‘the usual way’ and with ‘the usual suspects’. What was more than clear is the lack of any notion of what Tech Valley even entails or requires from a development side due to a deliberate disregard for understanding the driving technologies. What was made clear to me, and why I only attended one meeting, is that we needed to enlist the ‘usual suspects’ who not only lacked the fundamentals of technology but deliberately dismissed the viability of engaging with Tech Valley. “That will never happen” is probably the best paraphrase of a common sentiment. Why engage with a group that is doomed from the outset?

Guess what? Global Foundries did happen and where are we in relation to that many years later?

So when I speak of disrupt and destroy, I literally mean to disrupt and destroy the current culture around economic development and strategy. That will likely ruffle some feathers but then, if you walk like a duck and quack like one, don’t take offense that I call you a duck. And frankly, I’ve watched the ducks parade a bit too long claiming to soon lay their golden eggs. It simply won’t happen. And that is why the ducks should be kept at bay– they will merely serve to act as agents counter to change. Let’s bring in the geese instead.

And there you have what I would do or better said, how I would pilot the plane.

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