What Global Cities Say: Reflections on the SXSW Cities Summit

April 25, 2018

By Tony DeLisi, Vice President

This year, the SXSW Conference in Austin hosted its first-ever Cities Summit – signaling the ever-growing importance of local leaders in shaping our common future. The Cities Summit convened civic leaders and urbanists from across disciplines and the globe to discuss, strategize, and form coalitions to address our most pressing issues. When Avalanche learned that our headquarters city was hosting the Summit, we were eager to participate in the conversation. It did not disappoint. Over two days, we met passionate thinkers and heard inspiring stories about communities stepping up to address the common issues of our time. Panelists included the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz, Adrienne Schmoeker from the New York City Mayor’s Office, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, and Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs. These and many other speakers covered topics spanning smart cities, public spaces, education, economic inclusion, climate change, open data, and much more. Speakers and topics were varied, and common themes emerged with relevant lessons for communities across the nation. Below are a few of our top takeaways from the SXSW Cities Summit.

  • Cities control their destiny. The days of waiting for the Federal or State governments to solve problems are over. Cities feel a sense of urgency and must shape their own future. The challenges faced may be daunting, but cities should not accept the status quo. Through collective action, local partners can work together, unlock a wealth of public and private resources, and invest in themselves.
  • Growth must be more inclusive. The nation is experiencing one of its longest periods of job growth. However, as most cities are keenly aware, many individuals and communities within their cities are being left behind. New jobs often require skills that may put them out of reach of residents. At the same time, employers struggle to find talent to fill open positions. Actively working to align training programs, reduce barriers to education, and share career pathways will help both sides in this dilemma. Economic inclusion must go further to address disparities and build trust – actively creating opportunities for those who may not have them.
  • Information is key to smart investment. Collecting data is not an end in itself but rather a way to support your mission. We may think we know our community, but may not have the full story. Examining your community through a data lens helps to better understand your relative strengths and challenges. This information should be used to educate residents and leaders about the state of a community and what it means to them. Communities can use data to tell a more effective story and prioritize strategic investments.
  • We must communicate better. City leaders – whether in education, economic development, or any field – must remember that they serve their community. Every community has different needs, and those needs change. Not all residents of a city are aware of what is happening locally and how programs may be addressing their needs. When we do not actively engage with our constituents, align our programs to their needs, and communicate with them regularly, we will lose their trust and struggle to support our own programs. To effectively do our jobs, city leaders must use “relentless transparency” as one speaker said. We can only hold ourselves collectively accountable and adapt our strategies by listening, developing a shared vision, selecting good metrics of success, and regularly communicating our progress.

These lessons can be applied in any city or region – big or small. They are drawn from challenges faced and overcome by individuals and organizations working together to meet shared goals. The world is changing fast, bringing new challenges alongside those that have persisted for years. If there is one big takeaway from the SXSW Cities Summit, it is that economic developers can make a difference. We are the agents of change in our communities and must get out of our silos, work collaboratively with our partners, and move our communities forward.