The Messages Cities Send

Or, Stop Trying to Make Every City "The Next Silicon Valley"

Paul Graham has an excellent essay on Cities and Ambition. The gist is more or less that great cities have imperatives that make them attract different kinds of ambitious people.

Think of what is impressive in each great city you've visited — or think about why people move there. And the imperatives behind each.

People move to New York to make it big (“if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere”) and “big” is often a function of wealth. “You should be richer.”

People move to Boston to pursue academics (even the tech scene there is very academically-oriented in life sciences). “You should be smarter.”

People move to Silicon Valley for power (“changing the world” is a kind way of saying, “accruing power along my specific vertical”). “You should be more powerful.”

(I actually don’t think DC’s is also “you should be more powerful,” but rather, "people should perceive you as more powerful.” DC is often called, “LA for ugly people” for this reason. It’s also a reason why DC and Silicon Valley often conflict in their visions for power.)

And people move to LA to become famous. “You should be famous.”

(All Graham’s examples.)

This framework of why different cities attract different people has been helpful for me in trying to suss out why some cities take a certain direction and other cities take another direction. As Americans and westerners, it’s too easy to imagine that “great city” only means a place like New York or the SF Bay Area. The reality is that most American cities are “great cities” in the objective historical sense. They have clusters of human capital and governments that, while often dysfunctional, rival those of entire countries centuries ago. We can extend the “cities and ambition” model of the city’s imperative to any city people chose to move to (sorry, Gary, Indiana).

Why has Austin, for example, not become a tech hub in the sense of SF or New York? It’s a great city with talent, money, smart people, major tech offices, and plenty of land, so those factors must not be the only factors that determine the direction the city takes. Or what to think about Miami, which at least appears to be meme-ing itself into a tech hub on Twitter. Or all the other “rise of the rest” cities like Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Denver, etc.?

I’ve spent time in all of these cities — some more recently than others (e.g., Miami & Denver/Boulder vs. Austin) — and have tried to stay aware of what message a city sends when you visit or think about moving there. You can think about this as, “what message does the city call out to me?”

Miami’s is something like, “you should have more fun.”

Austin’s is something like, “you should enjoy yourself more.”

(There is a distinction between these two — think of alcohol vs. CBD or THC. Or think of South Beach or E11even vs. Rainey Street.)

Many “normal” American cities say something like, “you should settle down.” This is evidenced by the fact that most people who move to these cities do so to start or grow their families. There are different flavors of this settling down — some more like Austin’s “enjoyment” thesis and others like a more corporate thesis.

Cities’ Imperatives are a Spontaneous Order

Despite the best efforts of cheerleaders and economic development agencies, the messages a city sends are mostly a spontaneous order. The product of human action but not of human design, the messages emerge after years of different kinds of people selecting in and out of a specific city.

Even the cases where cheerleaders do get a city to embrace a specific imperative, whether or not that imperative sticks is usually a function of what imperative has spontaneously emerged over the last several years of immigration to and emigration from that city. This is why any old city trying to claim the title of “the next Silicon Valley” often falls flat unless one of the main reasons people move there is to become more powerful.

And these imperatives create a cycle. Ambition begets ambition. Whether that ambition is to become more powerful, richer, cooler, have more fun, smarter, or even to start a family and a good family neighborhood, people bring their friends and family with them.

I think of my friends, many of whom entrepreneurs owning or operating outstanding lifestyle businesses, who have brought their friends to Austin over the last decade. Or the founders who drop everything to move to the Bay Area and work from a garage for two years. Or friends burnt out and exhausted by lockdowns and crime in the Bay Area who picked up leases in Miami. Or others who move from these kinds of cities to raise their families in Pittsburgh with the in-laws and their parents nearby.

These imperatives emerge as people bring friends and family with them. They double down as other cities get worse or double down on opposite imperatives.

The Flavors of Imperatives

A friend and I were talking about the trite “make X city the next Silicon Valley” narrative that pops up any time a tech company opens up a big office in a mid-American city.

“The thing is, X city doesn’t have to be the next Silicon Valley. We can be something like the next Austin instead. People can and should move here to build great businesses for themselves and their families,” he told me (paraphrasing).

Something like the next Austin would make a lot more sense for this city than “the next Silicon Valley.” Silicon Valley’s pursuit of power is largely incompatible with the existing imperative of this city: you should settle down. The pursuit of power is often all-consuming and subsumes goals like starting and raising a good family.

(Power : Silicon Valley-style startups :: enjoyment : Austin-style lifestyle businesses)

But something like “you should enjoy yourself more,” is not incompatible with “you should settle down.” As much as some tech folks may like to deride “lifestyle businesses,” a lifestyle business provides a way for people to enjoy themselves while pursuing other imperatives, like starting a family.

Flavors of imperatives thereby emerge. These imperative a city sends can have multiple layers with it, leading it to compete with other cities that share imperatives somewhere in the layer stack. What means does somebody employ to achieve the imperative end of the city? One can settle down with a lifestyle business funding their lives, or one can settle down with a comfortable corporate job. One can pursue power through building a world-changing startup, or one can pursue power through political or financial means. One can pursue fun or enjoyment through a high energy means or a steadier means.

So what does this all mean for you? Listen to the imperatives you feel when you visit a city, especially if you are considering moving there. What goals do you have in moving there? Does your ambition blend with the imperative of the city, or will you be fighting an uphill battle by moving to a place that wants you to strive for different goals than you want?

Listen to what imperatives a city gives you.