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I recently visited the city of Chongqing, the fourth largest city in China, with approximately 15 million inhabitants. The somewhat infamous Chinese politician, Bo Xilai, is credited with having turned the city around within a five-year period.
He and his team successfully stimulated economic growth and, just as importantly, they managed to alter the mindsets of the people that live there.
They now see their city differently and consequently approach business differently.
The city, like Beijing, is spotless, and they have planted thousands of rare trees along the curbs and exquisite gardens in all the public spaces. I believe Bo was heavily criticised for the amount of money spent on beautifying the city, but he was undeterred, because he was building a new image and he knew what a significant role it would play in attracting the right kind of investment.
As we rode around Chongqing, I noticed that the foundation statements on which they set out to build this new image are on branding all over the city. For example, where there is construction, the sites are boarded off and there are huge banners saying: “Chongqing, a growing city” and along the beautifully planted streets are banners saying: “Chongqing, a liveable city.”
It is very powerful because it reinforces the vision and shows that they are certain about who they are and that they are achieving their goals. They don’t just say that they are a growing city, they prove it. It isn’t only impressive for potential investors and visitors either, it helps to cement the vision for the local people.
I noticed a similar thing when I was in Atlanta in 2006. Everything that the city is doing relates in some way to their vision. If they are monitoring air quality, then they are making the city liveable, if they are putting in more infrastructure, then they are growing the city, and so on.
To my mind, this is great leadership. Having a strong vision, selling it successfully so that people buy in and then visibly delivering.
This is where we often fall short. There is very little joint long-term planning and a lack of shared vision. We may spend a disproportionately large amount of money on consultants and have endless public engagements to tick the buy-in box, but the reality is that there isn’t real engagement and there isn’t real buy-in.
Someone was telling me that if you go into the city halls in cities in Singapore you will see a model of the city with all the existing buildings shown in one colour, buildings that will be erected in the short term are indicated in another and developments envisioned in the long term are shown in yet another colour. This creates a level of confidence for citizens and investors.
It creates certainty about the direction that a city is taking regardless of whether there is a change in leadership, and it makes it easy for everyone to promote the vision. It makes ambassadors out of ordinary citizens. Can you imagine the effect of 15 million ambassadors?