How to Develop an Innovation Placemaking Strategy in Five Simple Steps

Today I’d like to share some practical, down to earth tips on how to develop an innovation placemaking strategy, and why places should prioritize and structure their efforts in order to break through the clutter of an increasingly fragmented and digitized world.

Learn about:

  • How place branding can structure innovation efforts across sectors in the economy of a place;
  • Prioritizing messages in place branding initiatives;
  • The importance of generating authentic bottom-up ideas;
  • The need to stick with place brand messages over time.

One of the most valuable things your city, town or region can be recognized for is to be a place where ideas are implemented and communicated globally. In short, a place that stands for innovation. Not the status quo. Innovation!

That is, a place where people come to get ideas, implement ideas (create jobs and economic activity), and finally, communicate and build innovation.

And this innovation is not just tech – this could mean sustainability, a creative arts hub, a smart city, dynamic start-up space, global medical innovator, sports center, a center for innovative business and community initiatives, a university knowledge city or a zone for crazy ideas to happen. It’s up to you.

So many people limit their conception of innovation to tech, but in reality innovation can happen in any segment of the economy.

In my work for 2thinknow we defined 31 industry segments [link to Excel file], covering the whole economy of each place in the world. Kind of a Dewey system for economic development! 31 industries means 31 areas for innovation in placemaking – not just tech. Let’s broaden our thinking, which is something Lee Kuan Yee famously did in building Singapore from a fishing village to a global nexus for innovation.

Shortly I am going to share those segments with you, and some of my advice as well. First let’s look at the basis of a strategy.

Innovation placemaking: A strategy

I oversee the publication of the Innovation Cities Index, a ranking of 500 cities for innovation. We use indicators to measure cities’ innovation across the 31 industry segments I mentioned (not just tech). And then we classify and ultimately rank the cities.

Shortly the 2016-2017 Innovation Cities Index will be released. So I thought I would share this strategic thinking with you as readers of The Place Brand Observer, how to brand your place as an innovation economy. This Innovation Placemaking is what I would term a communication-led strategy to develop innovation in a place. There are many other strategic vectors for innovation, and communication is just one such vector.

In practice this type of Innovation Placemaking can be used in two scenarios:

Firstly, communicating and making people aware of pre-existing innovative segments (i.e. your place has become more innovative but has not branded itself so).

Or secondarily, for the more adventurous (like Lee Kuan Yee) Innovation Placemaking could be using communication to drive innovation, through communicating positives. Those may not yet offset the negative factors, but create a positive news climate to support emerging innovation in identified focus areas, which are in progress (and not yet fully realized).

Of these the first is easier, the second more difficult.

In both cases, you should never overestimate how much people know about your place. What may be ‘famous’ to you and your team is most likely known to less than half of 1% of the world’s population. And by communicating key strengths of innovation in your place, you can develop an innovation placemaking strategy that makes your place the envy of its peers.

Remember, marketing messages have to be repeated many times to ‘stick’, and it’s useful to know that many people may have no perception at all of why your place is innovative. Thus you will need to repeat key messages to ensure they are retained.

Now we will look at the 5 steps for developing an Innovation Placemaking Strategy.

1: Focus on relevant industry strengths

What industry segment could your place be known for being innovative in? Are you a sports and fitness innovator like Melbourne? Or a public transport innovator like Curitiba? Or a retail & shopping innovator like Dubai?

When selecting a segment, keep in mind that people can only focus on one idea about a city at a time. If a city is a tourism city, then it’s not an industrial city. A shopping city is not a manufacturing city (at least in perception, which is the crux of branding). It’s true that some cities can be many things to many people. Think of London or New York. But these are exceptions.

The smaller the city or place, the harder multiple messages are to sustain.

In general, here’s my rule of thumb to help you.

Select one segment or industry per 1 million (or part thereof) population. Places like Singapore therefore can have 5 segments – retail, technology, environment, urban architecture. Your smaller city, region or town under 1 million population gets one idea.

Try to cap this at 3-5 key segments for innovation (even for a larger region or city), especially if you are just starting to develop a strategy. A city that is maintaining a strategy like London can have more, but there are only a handful of these cities. And whatever you pick for the first key segment should be a naturally occurring strength.

As an example, Dubai then should promote Architecture & Planning and Retail & Shopping as part of its key innovation strategy. Wisely the city has chosen to promote these in its early strategy, although recent branding has blurred the placemaking focus of Dubai.

In perception terms, Dubai is a desert city (no matter how green the gardens in Dubai are), the movie MI4: Ghost Protocol has done more to cement an unrealistic idea of Dubai than can ever be reversed by marketing. Combine that with an oil message (although the oil fields are in fact in Abu Dhabi), and you have a message hard to build a place brand around. A city cannot be both an oil & resources and a sustainability hub in perception. And so much of marketing is perception – so the level of understanding of the recipients of your branding message must be able to decode your city branding efforts.

Forget trying to focus on contradictory segments. Also, anything too complex will not be understood in today’s digitally fragmented world. Chances are this will work out within your promotional budget (or non-budget!), as it’s easier to talk about something you already have some aptitude in.

2: Avoid ‘industry experts’ in early stages of ideas

We also engage too much in taking the view of an ‘expert’ with a PhD as ‘correct’. In reality, there only is what works, and what doesn’t. Many ideas that work are created by normal people (unless your field requires a great deal of study as the price of entry, such as medicine, law or engineering).

Great ideas in my experience often come from normal people outside the field, an observation which has also been documented in numerous studies. An expert inside a field tends to validate the existing knowledge, rather than disrupt. This is often true of many expert consultants. If, for example, you are thinking to brand your city as a foodie destination (using the Dining & Food segment), the best way is to come up with simple ideas, try a lot and keep what works. Not to hire a ‘food/hospitality’ expert.

The worst thing to do in place branding or placemaking is to hire PR consulting firm before you have a clear idea. You are outsourcing the ideas, and the best ideas come from within your unique place. Authentic ideas are what makes your place unique, that’s why they ‘ring true’.

Innovation Placemaking in the end must be authentic to the place. You cannot brand a city something it’s not, because you will just spend a fortune on marketing and achieve not even a dint in perception.

3: Develop multiple options

By definition, an innovative approach to city branding will not be ‘me too’. This is because ‘me too’ is not original or innovative. And many consultants (as well as city boards) will find a proven (or ‘me too’) approach, because this is the perceived lowest risk strategy. This is understandable, but actually higher risk than it seems.

Alternatively they may settle too soon on a single risky option presented with two conservative options. But never defer to a single opinion, or the best of three options.

The point here is to be open-minded and embrace a variety of opinions, then validate them with experience and data-based evidence. At this stage you want a suite of city branding options, that are hypotheses (which may be confirmed or denied later). A series of hypotheses is better than a firm opinion, or a three option set.

4: Stay with your focus industry segment

Consumers are not bored with Dubai’s architecture and shopping placemaking innovation, and the city should continue those strategies, as many people are unaware how innovative the city is in those spaces. They may have a vague perception, but further branding is needed to anchor the perception.

Places often get bored with brand messages before consumers are aware of them.

Once you have a segment, you will need to come up with some new communication ideas. Idea generation is a topic for another post, but there are plenty of resources online. The short version is that if you can’t do this well, then cheat – test three ideas and pick the one the market likes the most. These are the first three ideas for the segment. The key is that each idea should reinforce your strength in the selected segment in different ways.

5: Focus your innovation placemaking on practical aspects of the chosen segment

An example would be a city trying to focus on sport & fitness innovation, such as Melbourne. It should double down on promoting the world’s best sporting ground – the MCG, and bicycle trails along the Yarra river. Promoting also a series of related sports achievements further grows the brand.

For example, Melbourne does not promote golf enough. Melbourne has great golf courses, and this is a far more effective strategy than trying to promote day spas (which every city has). Day spas would be more effectively promoted as an adjunct to golf (which fits the overarching sport & fitness segment).

If your city is a technology hub, then try to avoid focusing on science. Science is more closely affiliated to the university & education segment. Yet most of the professorial advice on innovation keeps lumping science and innovation together. With the exception of medical and bio-related industries, pure science is also often not related to employment or development outcomes.

When using any science in Innovation Placemaking, avoid the esoteric images of chemists in lab coats. Focus on practical products, services or applications. Is the science used in bullet proof vests or lasers for eye operations? Focus on the practical, this attracts industry and creates positive perceptions of the city.

Hopefully these 5 steps will have you developing an Innovation Placemaking strategy for your place that brings out the soul of your place, and enables the innovators in your place to have a receptive audience for their messages.

Remember that by Innovation Placemaking you can create the seeds of your future economic development, with the right strategy.

Christopher HireAbout the author

Christopher Hire is Director Data at 2thinknow since 2006, and creator of the Innovation Cities Program and City Benchmarking Data service. He oversees the innovation and city courses for place branding, informed by insights from 2thinknow’s city data. He plays a mean game of Monopoly, and will connect on LinkedIn.

Connect with Christopher Hire on LinkedIn or learn more about his work in our interview.


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