Andy Cutler: Providence’s Future Is Linked To Its Past

Friday, June 21, 2013
Andy Cutler, GoLocalProv Guest MINDSETTERâ„¢

If Providence can harness the greatness of its legacy, it has a very promising global future indeed.
In celebrating my 10th anniversary of living in Providence, it’s given me time to pause and reflect on my experiences living here. What’s changed? What’s on the horizon?

Upon moving to Providence in 2003, I found myself meeting up with talented artists, designers and entrepreneurs almost daily, and began asking the same question during the course of my first year here...

Why doesn’t the world know more about what is happening here?

The question seems to be a bit ironic given the history of Providence (and Rhode Island) not just the home to the American Industrial Revolution, but even more importantly, as home to the concept of religious tolerance and freedom as stated in the state’s charter dating back to 1663. Rhode Island College Professor Emeritus, Dr. Stanley Lemons described this historic document by stating, “Its principles were subsequently written into the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” That’s our legacy—leaders of industry; generations ahead in thinking related to humanity. That’s not hometown hyperbole speaking. It’s a simple fact. I wouldn’t equate the fall of the Roman Empire to what has happened here over the past five or six decades, but as newbies and natives alike, we shouldn’t lose sight of this in light of the 350th anniversary of Rhode Island’s State Charter, which is known and revered the world over.  

So what, if anything, has changed?

Perception for one thing! One of the reasons I, and so many people like me, decided to stay in Providence for more than a year, or two, at most is simple—we all saw the potential of this place. Two P’s kept most of us here during this time—Potential and People! Since migration patterns usually follow opportunity patterns, we need to leverage both our potential and people in order to create even more opportunities.

So, many of us rolled up our sleeves and willingly gave our money, time, blood, sweat and tears in order to launch things like Betaspring, The Steel Yard, A Better World by Design, Pecha Kucha Night Providence, Providence Geeks, The Business Innovation Factory, EdChatRI, Buy with Heart, Wooly Fair, Farmers Markets, Clambake, Providence Flea, DesignxRI, The Uncaucus, #Learning401, I Heart Providence, EdTechRI, Providence Cyclovia and the SEEED Summit. Now, those ventures alongside our prestigious colleges and universities as well as acclaimed arts and cultural organizations such as AS220, New Urban Arts, Trinity Repertory Company, Roger Williams Park Zoo, TEDxProvidence and WaterFire, tell a newer, and quite different, tale of one of the oldest cities in America. What I have witnessed over the past decade is nothing less than a story of resurrection, reclamation and rebranding!

Call me sentimental, but it brings me joy in seeing the wide range of things going on here as of late from the first conference on food tourism in America, Taste Trekkers, choosing Providence as the host city of this historic event to Rhode Island becoming the 10th state to embrace marriage equality; albeit the latter example, we weren’t first, but at least a “top 10” finisher in the “race to equality.” We did best when we were the first in the nation (and sometimes the world) to do things. Reclaiming that legacy of “firsts” may be our single greatest challenge (and opportunity).

Restoring a sense of pride is paramount!

It was two years ago when I came to the conclusion (and pardon the band metaphor) that Providence needed to stop playing in its parents’ garage and start playing more gigs on a global stage. Taking all that is great, innovative and creative about this place and sharing it with others in an inviting way for them to join us (and for us to join/help them in their endeavors) is the foundational principle of Smaller Cities Unite! Simply put, it is a program that was designed to connect smaller cities (about 1.5 million, or less, in population). First stop on the “connection train” is Copenhagen, but not its last. I see this being a consortium of smaller, cooler cities (i.e., like the “Little Ivies”) connecting, sharing and collaborating in unprecedented ways.

Smaller cities understand and work within the confines of their size each and every day. Size matters, and smaller cities have the power to enlist professional (and personal) networks in order to bolster ideation and ultimately create meaningful change quicker than their larger counterparts. Cities with complementary resources, experiences, and challenges can work together if they view what they do well as “exportable,” have an underlying environment of learning and teaching, and are seeking active ways to engage citizens.

  • The Solutions Summit, a conference where cities can suggest what they need in coming up with solutions and where another city may have key learnings or success. In other words, it’s substantive sharing at its best, where knowledge and assistance can lead to expedited solutions (and savings) being implemented. The agenda would be set by the challenges each city faces;
  • Digital Storytelling initiative (DSI), where we would be able to send members of our digital media world (in particular, those expert at capturing images and video) to another city like Copenhagen to create whole new digital assets to be used in promoting/marketing their city (through the fresh eyes of someone who doesn’t live there, but who is able to connect with locals while there); and in turn, they would do the same for us. We need find new ways to see our city and what better way than engaging the best talent to do so, while our city’s digital arts community will have its work featured globally.

 

Both of these projects are ripe with opportunities to engage our respective student populations; and

  • #OurPVD. Created as a way to communicate locally and globally about what creative developments, cool events, and innovative new ventures taking place in Providence. On June 7, the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau hosted the first #OurPVD event with 20 or so social media mavens who huddled in a conference room on a rainy day to pin, post and tweet about interesting things happening here; we ended up trending on Twitter that day talking about Providence! On June 9, I launched the Twitter handle for this effort @OurPVD and in less than 10 days we have become aggregator and disseminator of positive developments here; from hashtag, to handle to movement being developed.

 

Activities such as these need support and encouragement from the public and private sectors in a long-term approach towards re-branding our city, which should be viewed as a long-term effort.

After traveling to Copenhagen recently, here were my key learnings:

1) No one really knew who we were, where we were located or anything about our history.

Now while that may be vexing to some, I see it as a great opportunity. No reputation is better than having a bad reputation, because you can change the former but altering the latter is a lot more work;

2) We have a special gift to share with the world.

That’s our world-class talent (i.e., entrepreneurs, academics, artists, designers, students) and the way we go about networking. Think all of the examples I listed earlier in this piece. They were done not because people had deep pockets, but because people here leveraged their networks in extraordinary ways to get these done and prove proof of concept first. Contextualizing their work done chronicling the design talent in 30+ cities in North America, the founders of CitiesXDesign once told me, “Providence stood out to them as the city that did the most with the least.” While a great compliment, it does highlight our innate ability to get these done without the infusion of large capital resources. This has evolved our skills of craftiness not unlike that of an “outdoor cat” vs. that of an “indoor cat.” Our professional mentor community is among the best anywhere, and we should be harnessing the power of leveraging networks and share that lesson with world; and

3) We need to find new ways to engage with the communities around the world in order to extend our artistic (as well as economic) reach.

I would rather be the place known for having vast amounts of creativity residing there as well as having the ability to attract and retain the type of talent, which isn’t afraid of rolling up its sleeves to get things done than the city with the “best hamburgers” (although we are proving you can have all of these things simultaneously).

If political leaders, policy makers, and esteemed members of our business and higher education communities should take anything away from these past ten years is that a lot of good has happened in spite of not having lots of resources to create new (and successful) ventures, but now is the time to get behind many of these activities to ensure their long-term sustainability. They have proven too valuable to our brand, and we can no longer risk falling behind, while the world is moving forward. Our place, and our legacy, is at the front of the pack, not bringing up the rear.

Andy Cutler is a partner in Cutler & Company and Founder of Smaller Cities Unite! He lives and works in Providence.