Last week, I had the honor giving a keynote on Data-Driven Citymaking at Nordic Place Branding Conference in Stockholm, Sweden. I have to say, this was the first conference on place branding I have ever attended. And it got me thinking, what comes first, the place doing or the place telling? Normally, the answer to this would-be riddle would be a no-brainer. Well, there’s nothing to brand if there’s not a place first, right? But after listening to the stories of several places, which had previously not been on the map, successfully use place branding to create people-first places, I started to wonder…could you create a place, or at least put the forces in motion needed to do so, simply by telling its (authentic) story?
Well, let’s take the case of the Faroe Islands in the Nordics. This country was literally not on the map - or at least not on Google Maps! And certainly not on Google Streetview. So they took action into their own hands and created a campaign in attempts to get Google’s attention. Given its rough terrain and lack of resources, not to mention their desire to do something attention-grabbing, the tourism board decided to mount 360 degree cameras on sheep in order to capture their own, well, “Sheep View!” Not only did this get Google’s attention, the whole campaign went viral! And not just because the sheep are so darn cute! Their placebranding campaign worked, despite not having a specific, traditional placemaking project to promote, because of the same reasons successful places work - it was steeped in authenticity, it was people-powered (although yeah, the sheep literally did the heavy lifting!), and it was a lighter, quicker, cheaper fix that paved the way for even more impactful places. Today, not only does the Faroe Islands have Google Street View (which is awesome because now we can calculate their State of Place - or State of Sheep, either way! ;)), it has caught the attention of the world and attracted more tourists than locals (now they’re just learning how to manage the victim of their own success conundrum - but that’s a better problem to have than, like, literally not being on the map!)
I also happened to love the story of Edmonton, Canada. While most decidedly on the “map,” they felt figuratively left out and forgotten. But rather than start simply by creating a place, they started by getting to know the people that made up their place - who they were, what they wanted, what their story was…so that their story would shape the place, rather than the other way around…because while they knew that the physical places in Edmonton needed some work, they knew that its people, its people’s values, its people’s stories were already incredibly valuable and unique and deserved to be lauded. So they started with some simple design-thinking strategies to discover the “why” behind the City of Edmonton and asked over 250 of its people, why Edmonton? From that, they distilled the “why” to four key themes - open, courageous, inventive, and cooperative. And they eventually translated that into physical placemaking strategies, from people-led, simple strategies, like painting the city’s new motto: “Take a risk, it’s the most Edmonton thing you can do” on the side of a building, to more awesomely elaborate city-led strategies, like building a ginormous LED-lit skating ramp meets track meets, I don’t know what to call it - I’m from Miami! I seriously loved how they started with crafting an authentic story first and then used that to organically create places that told that story.
Finally, I was particularly impressed by the story of Mia Kemppaala, founder of Polar Bear Pitch. The City of Oulu had been home to Nokia, but after the company fell on hard times, the city was struggling. They needed a new identity - one built on hope, energy, and innovation, but also one that was uniquely Oulu! So turns out Oulu is like one of the most northern cities on the planet (no wonder this Miami-Cuban native had never heard of it). That remoteness had previously been perceived as a weakness. But they flipped that script and created a new story, promoting that as a unique strength. And man did they take a true leap of faith in that regard - quite literally a deep plunge! They turned the culture of no into a culture of yes by creating the first ever Polar Bear Pitch competition. Yup, you read that right. The City of Oulu now hosts an annual startup pitch competition - 2 minutes to pitch your concept while waist-deep in - I can’t even imagine what degree that is - below-freezing water! Once again, the spirit of the place, its story, its brand, helped create an authentic place, neither of which took themselves too seriously (those are my kind of people - and places!).
Bottom line, stories can shape places, and places, of course, can (and should) tell stories. I’m so thankful for this (I guess, now, rather obvious) lesson! Of course, we’ve always been a fan of the data-driven story about the power of placemaking ourselves, and clearly we are firm believers that data can also inform both the story (like with the City of Edmonton) and the place. We’d certainly love to both help you use data to shape - and tell - your story! Find out how we have helped nearly 30 cities and real estate developers use data to create - and promote awesome places people love, while unlocking value and maximum ROI, across the triple bottom line below! :)