Urban Visionaries Don’t Just Happen

Indianapolis' longtime mayor worked hard at crafting a big idea for his city, and it paid off handsomely.

by / April 21, 2016
Indianapolis

Mayors make their way into office by inspiring the public to believe that a brighter future is in store. Every mayor wants to be a "visionary leader," but they don't just wake up one morning with a vision. To craft an original and feasible vision for a city -- one that holds the promise of effective, efficient government that builds a city and inspires its populace -- public officials need help.

For this reason, one of the first things that I did when I became mayor of Indianapolis was to spend a day with downtown economic development experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology working on the vision for Indy. Much of that vision had been set by my predecessor, Bill Hudnut, early in his the first of his four terms as mayor, and also with the help of MIT. His vision to make Indianapolis the nation's capital for amateur sports did not form by chance, and was eventually thought to be one of the most transformative in the country. Recently, I asked Hudnut how he came up with the extraordinary ideas he brought to the city, and I was struck by his response.

When he took office in 1976, the city was known at the national level for little more than the Indianapolis 500. Hudnut said that, to turn Indy's sleepy reputation inside out with a dynamic vision, one key step was to take stock of local assets in a creative setting where the conversation could be stimulated and moderated by experts. To develop a vision for the city's burgeoning downtown, he went to Cambridge, Mass.

He didn't go to MIT alone. Hudnut brought with him leaders in the Indianapolis business and philanthropic communities, all of whom would be vital partners in turning whatever vision they devised into reality. In a session led by an expert facilitator, the group listed the Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis' central geographic location and Indiana's collective affection for basketball as three core assets the city could leverage. "We combined those strengths and came up with the idea that we could make a name for ourselves in amateur athletics," Hudnut said.

The mayor took a big risk with this project, pushing forward the construction of a sports stadium without a professional team to compete in it. But with big risk came big reward. The stadium was built with a careful blend of aspirational vision and political management, which included a vow not to hike city property taxes. This combination led to several national governing bodies for amateur sports relocating to the city. By the time Hudnut left office in 1992, Indianapolis had played host to more than 330 events that brought four and a half million spectators and an estimated $1 billion to the local economy.

To execute a plan like this, a compelling narrative is indispensable. A set of ideas targeting certain outcomes is a strategy, but a vision is truly animated when a wide array of city stakeholders adopts the message as their own. To work, the story has to be both calculated and contagious. "It was not a vision of a single person; it was a collective discussion which led to the vision, which then as mayor I was given the opportunity to implement," Hudnut said.

Collective vision doesn't always begin with the mayor, though. Take another city, not far from Indianapolis, that is undergoing a major rebranding of its own. Just a few years ago, "Detroit" was shorthand for urban decline. But today, three years after it dominated headlines for being the largest city in American history to file for municipal bankruptcy, Detroit is drawing national attention to its vision of a promising future.

I recently heard Rip Rapson, the CEO of the Kresge Foundation, talk about the catalysts required to drive a city vision into real progress. Kresge, which is headquartered in the Detroit suburb of Troy, was one of the nonprofits that helped orchestrate the Motor City's "Grand Bargain" -- the 2014 plan that aggregated $800 million in philanthropic and private funds to help bring Detroit out of bankruptcy without making significant cuts to retirees' pensions or auctioning off city-owned art.

Kresge and other key stakeholders remained invested in the city at a time when the municipal government was largely paralyzed. Because of the vision of leaders like Rapson, when current Mayor Mike Duggan took office he could draw on the groundwork laid by the public stewards in his own backyard. Vision needs to be prompted, but those prompts can be local as well.

Municipalities are racing to brand themselves as "smart cities," but true vision comes out of something less generic. Vision happens when a mayor allows him or herself to be stimulated by outside forces, configures what's best, and then connects it to the distinctive character of his or her own city. In Hudnut's words, "The key is not to try to imitate someone else's success. The key is to analyze your own strengths, your location, and the spirit of your community -- and to build on what you have."

Craig Campbell, a research assistant at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School, contributed research and writing for this column. This story was originally published by Governing.

Stephen Goldsmith

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.