Lessons from Seattle for place development and branding

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on August 5, 2011

I’m sitting in Seattle Center in the shadow of the nearly 50-year-old Space Needle. When it was constructed in 1962, the Space Needle was an engineering marvel, and since then has come to symbolize this thriving metropolitan area of 3.4 million residents. The free Wi-Fi I’m using is provided by the City of Seattle as a public service. The weather is perfect this end-of-July weekend, and the residents are out in mass awaiting the annual Torchlight Parade.

Beginning early next year, Seattle will launch “The Next Fifty,” a six-month celebration of the Space Needle and Seattle Center’s first half century and the 1962 World’s Fair that “put Seattle on the map.” From the short time I’ve spent here, it seems to me that Seattle has much to celebrate. Although most of the U.S. remains mired in financial and economic distress, in Seattle employment remains low, property prices high, and the economy flourishing.

As a result, it’s attracting bright people from other states and countries, straining infrastructure and government services. Government is rushing the development of a new public transport railway system, roads, and freeways and strengthening educational infrastructure.

The private sector is doing its part. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate is developing a 60-acre tract of rundown industrial property at the city’s center fronting Union Lake called South Lake Union. In the past decade and a half, much of the rest of Seattle’s downtown has been redeveloped. Seattle owes much—perhaps virtually all—of its good fortune to the commercial and entrepreneurial character of the city, and the loyalty of its residents.

William E. Boeing purchased Heath’s shipyard in 1910 and turned it into his first aircraft factory. This act marked the beginning of Seattle’s business culture developing revolutionary new technologies. Although Boeing is now headquartered in Chicago, the bulk of employment and R&D remains in Seattle. Gleaming, advanced 787 aircraft sitting outside the company’s hangers are testimony that the tradition of innovation lives.

Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft in Albuquerque, New Mexico with Allen but soon afterwards moved their revolutionary software company back to his hometown of Seattle. Microsoft was a magnet for bright, young software engineers and small software companies quickly sprang up to support it or try to compete with it. The culture of technology innovation was so compelling that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos set up his company in Seattle.

Starbucks was founded in Seattle. It transformed the concept of the coffee shop around the world.

These examples clearly show that the quality of investment a place generates determines the quality of its attractions and its capacity to support that investment and attract even more. Although Seattle is a relatively small city with just a few million residents, the principle holds true in larger places and in vastly different environments. Within Asia, every developed and fast-growing economy has leveraged it.

But to leverage this principle, a place must be able to attract and retain investors and people. Unfortunately for the Philippines, outside the thriving IT-BPO industry, the capacity for attracting investment and people is dismally low, even among the 10 million Filipinos who are working outside the country. In the past week, although I have been surrounded by Filipinos living productive lives in the United States, only one has expressed any desire to return.

Among non-Filipinos, the anecdotal evidence is just as disheartening, even when they may have Filipino relatives and spouses. One young Puerto Rican man—an artist married to a Filipina artist—told me he was afraid to travel to the Philippines. When asked why, he responded, “Because the news is full of kidnappings.” A young Filipina nurse who grew up in Seattle and intends to enter medical school couldn’t conceive of a life in Manila.

A certified public accountant who consults for software companies and high net worth individuals is active in Filipino associations in Seattle, helping organize events and activities. He’s looking forward to visiting the Philippines soon, but like these other individuals doesn’t see opportunity there. However, his wife confessed that they may eventually return when they retire and are no longer living productive lives so that they “have someone to take care of them.”

A young, former executive of a leading high-technology company left her former employer to obtain an MBA at Harvard Business School. Although she loves Asia and the Philippines and worked in the Singapore office of her multinational employer for several years, she plans to leverage her new credentials upon graduation to obtain a high-paying job in another multinational firm.

She may work in Asia again, but doesn’t contemplate—and can’t imagine—an opportunity in the Philippines that will provide her the challenges and lifestyle she aspires to. If the Philippines can’t inspire the loyalty and hope of its own, how will it inspire others?

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2011 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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