Note: This article appeared originally in the February 13, 2010, edition of The Oregonian. Forgive any anachronistic references.
These are tough economic times. Although economists tell us the recession is officially over, a double-digit unemployment rate tells us something different. The bruising battle over the economic consequences of tax Measures 66 and 67 underscored deep disagreement — and uncertainty — about Oregon’s economic future.
What will we do for a strategy? I think you can find the answer hidden in plain sight. Keep Portland Weird. You’ve seen the bumper sticker around town. It’s funny and controversial. It’s spawned imitators (Keep Portland Beered, Keep Portland Wired) and competitors (Keep Vancouver Normal). But it’s not just a bumper sticker — it’s an economic strategy.
In a turbulent economy, being different and being open to new ideas about how to do things are remarkably important competitive advantages.
The bumper sticker may not be original — apparently the idea was imported from a buy-local campaign in Austin, Texas — but it is popular, with more than 18,000 of the stickers sold. And make no mistake, Portland is weird, at least compared with other major U.S. metropolitan areas.
We developed a weirdness index for the national organization CEOs for Cities that measures the differences in behavior based on 60 different indicators of what people do, watch, read and consume.
We used this data to rank the 50 largest metro areas, based on how closely their patterns tracked the overall national average. Portland ranks 11th of the 50.
The most normal places in the country are in the Midwest. Consumption patterns, attitudes and behaviors in St. Louis, Kansas City, Cincinnati and Columbus almost exactly match national norms.
Trying to summarize weirdness in a single index is, of course, a contradiction in terms. Every weird city is weird in its own unique way. San Francisco and Salt Lake City rank among the weirdest — most different from the U.S. average in attitudes, activities and behaviors –but are nothing alike. So it makes sense to drill down to find out what makes each place distinctive.
In what ways is Portland weird? As you might expect, recreation, environmentalism, and great food and drink figure prominently. Compared with the U.S. average, Portlanders are twice as likely to go camping, 60 percent more likely to go hiking or backpacking and 40 percent more likely to golf or hunt. Portland has the highest per-capita ownership of hybrid vehicles of any city, and more people belong to environmental groups. We also rank above average in consumption of alcohol, coffee and tea.
Another way to track local weirdness is to look at what terms people are searching for on the Internet. According to Google over the past year, Portland ranks first among U.S. metro areas for the search terms “sustainability,” “vegan,” “farmers market,” “cyclocross,” “microbrew” and “dragonboat,” and second — after Seattle — for “espresso.”
But aside from winning bar bets or playing Trivial Pursuit, what’s the economic importance of being weird?
As it turns out, a lot.
When it comes to economic success in today’s economy, the key is to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter counsels businesses that “competitive strategy is about being different.” And the late, great urbanist Jane Jacobs told us, “The greatest asset that a city can have is something that’s different from every other place.”
Practical examples of how distinctive local behaviors translate into economic activity are right in our own backyard.
Back in the ’60s, at a time when most adults didn’t sweat in public if they could avoid it, people in Oregon started the trend of jogging and running for health. One guy started selling these people Japanese sneakers out of the back of his station wagon: Phil Knight. The company he founded is a global powerhouse.
A similar story could be told about two avowed ex-hippie home brewers, who as soon as it was legal to do so, started selling kegs of their beer to local restaurants out of the back of their Datsun pickup. Kurt and Rob Widmer, and a host of other amateurs turned entrepreneurs, ignited a trend that is even today reshaping the brewing industry.
The conventional business wisdom of the 1960s or 1970s would never have forecast that Portland would become a hotbed for two industries that were either in steep decline (shoes) or increasingly monopolized by giant corporations (beer). But with local consumers who were willing to take a flier on something new — and whose tastes anticipated a much larger shift in global attitudes — athletic apparel and microbrewing both became signature industry clusters in metropolitan Portland.
True entrepreneurship is about deviant behavior: starting a business that makes a product that no one else has thought of or thinks there’s a market for. Entrepreneurs and open-minded, experimental customers go hand-in-hand.
Openness to change isn’t just about new products or services; it’s about community and government as well. Oregonians’ willingness to test novel or untried ideas of all kinds — urban growth boundaries, modern streetcars, vote-by-mail, death-with-dignity — is both representative of a widely held attitude towards change and a powerful advantage in a fast-moving world.
And in many cases, innovative public policies are essential to growing new industries. Microbrewers owe their early start, in part, to Oregon’s decision to be one of the first states to legalize craft brewing. Many Portland businesses are exporting the knowledge gained from the region’s pioneering work in urban planning, streetcars, green buildings and cycling.
Openness to new ideas also is critical to attracting and retaining mobile, talented young people — the college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds I call the “young and restless.” Our in-depth national study of migration trends showed that over the past decade, Portland has seen a 50 percent increase in this group, the fifth-fastest growth of any large metro area.
Portland’s special character, and the sense that one can live their values and make a mark, are key to this migration. As one interviewee put it: “This place communicates to newcomers that it ‘isn’t done yet’ and that there’s an opportunity for me to contribute to what it will become.”
To be sure, the Keep Portland Weird mantra has spawned detractors and wags: Keep Vancouver Normal. Keep Portland Sanctimonious. We shouldn’t do things just to be different, but we should never be dissuaded from trying something simply because it is different or would make us different from other places.
Decades ago, Gov. Tom McCall understood and gave voice to this sense of Oregon exceptionalism, when he famously said, “Come visit, but don’t stay.” Our pioneering spirit runs deep. Remember, the state’s motto is “She flies with her own wings,” which in today’s parlance would be translated as marching to the beat of a different drum.
Keeping Portland Weird ought to be the theme of our economic strategy. Especially today. As Hunter S. Thompson advised, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. We can be reasonably certain that the U.S. and world economies will need to change dramatically to meet the challenges we face in coping with climate change, providing health care and building livable communities. In the days ahead, being weird can be a competitive advantage.
Making weirdness your marketing slogan turns the usual logic of boosterism on its head. The conventional wisdom prescribes emphasizing a “good business climate” — usually consisting of the same things you find everywhere else, just cheaper. Traditional strategies chiefly involve clinging to the past or shamelessly clumsily copying what everyone else is doing.
If one buys into the view that the “world is flat” — the metaphorical reference to a level playing field in a global market — the temptation is to focus on making yourself “flatter.” In reality, the world though smaller and more tightly linked, isn’t flat. There are giant spikes of industry, creativity and inventiveness in particular places. So the key is to understand what your “spikes” are and capitalize on them. The alternative strategy — make Portland flatter — is a recipe for mediocrity and failure in a global knowledge-based economy where the ability to generate new ideas and turn them into businesses and better communities is the only source of sustainable competitive advantage.
No one can predict what will be the industries of the future. They have to be invented and created through trial and error — lots of trials, and almost as many errors. A place that is open to new ideas — especially weird ones — is by its nature better positioned to generate the kinds of trials that lead to these new industries.