New Ideas, New Markets, New Insights
All around the country, Americans are dreaming big. Their boldest ideas are changing their communities--and having a ripple effect throughout the world.
In early 2010, students at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter were charged with devising a new brand for the entire city--a task all the more daunting given that Richmond, Virginia, has long had a strong, deeply embedded identity. This is the former seat of the Confederacy, the heart of Colonial America, the place where you go to learn about battlefields and founding fathers and early U.S. history. That sepia-toned legacy, though, in many ways sits at odds with the portrait of a cutting-edge community that Richmond’s innovation champions now want to project.
Venture Richmond, a downtown booster group, wanted something that would instead convey creativity, dynamism, and innovation. The city had quietly been transforming into a more creative place, a hub of eclectic interests from indie music to mountain biking to biotechnology. But hardly anyone outside of Richmond, it seemed, knew anything about this. And then it turned out that plenty of locals in Richmond weren’t convinced the city needed a new identity anyway. “There are some people, very significant leaders in the Richmond area, who felt like, ‘No it’s not about creativity, it’s about history,’” says Kelly O’Keefe, professor and former managing director of the Brandcenter, the university’s top-tier advertising school.
His students eventually decided it was better to co-opt Richmond’s historic narrative rather than try to ignore it. They came up with what the Chamber of Commerce’s Chrystal Neal calls an “anti-campaign,” an idea so malleable and unobtrusively grassroots that it sounds as if it couldn’t possibly have been dictated by the mayor’s office. The campaign, “RVA Creates,” is built around a familiar acronym that serves as both a tech-forward hashtag and a blank canvas--one on which Civil War re-enactors and startup entrepreneurs alike are invited to project their own ideas about the city’s creativity. The Brandcenter created an online generator that allows anyone to upload into the “RVA” logo images from the local music scene, or the river-rafting community, or the downtown streetscape--or a nearby battlefield. Running throughout all of these scenes is the idea that creativity takes many forms and that, in fact, Richmond’s history has been defined by examples of it.
“In fact, every place in America is the same age, it isn’t about how old we are,” O’Keefe says. “History is about stuff that happens. And stuff that happens that we know of in history is generally either tragic or pretty darn innovative. We have our share of both in Richmond.”
Thomas Jefferson wrote America’s earliest statute for religious freedom here in 1786. That was a pretty innovative thing to do at the time. In 1903, Maggie Walker, a black woman, became the country’s first female bank president. She was an innovator. Richmond was also the first city in the South to have telephone service (1879) and the first in the nation to have an electric streetcar system (1888). Both of those were game-changing, creative innovations of their era. The RVA campaign has tried to weave all of these civic memories into the contemporary idea that creativity isn’t just for artists--that it is the building block on which successful “Creative Age” cities will take hold. In making this case, the campaign’s website and promotional videos have all taken care to first nod to the city’s history.
“That’s maybe the story that will help people get their minds around a graceful transition, rather than a sudden abandonment of tradition,” says Russ Jamison, the dean emeritus of VCU’s school of engineering. That sense of tradition runs throughout Richmond, including its business community. The “movers and shakers” here, Jamison says, come out of generations of old Richmond families who are equally conservative in their investments. He tells the story of one local blueblood who declined to invest in biotechnology (one of the growing creative industries in Richmond). Eventually, Jamison realized this man would only put his money in what he could understand. He went on to make a fortune in golf carts.
“There’s an old saying among our friends in Northern Virginia and the [Washington] Beltway that Richmond is 90 miles south and 100 years in the past,” says Steve Hutcherson, who has partnered with Jamison to create a non-profit “idea refinery” called the InnoVArium. “Erase that from the popular commentary when the word ‘Richmond’ comes up. If what we do here can begin to erase that or dim that, make that an irrelevant statement, we will have done something.”
Today, “RVA” is plastered all over the city, on the rear windows of hundreds of cars, on city fire trucks, downtown banners, highway billboards, T-shirts and arts festival names. O’Keefe eschewed any kind of accompanying slogan. Slogans never work in municipal branding, he says (quick: try to name two off the top of your head!). A city is too complex an organism.
The whole idea was to both change Richmond’s perception of itself, and to begin to in the process encourage more of the kind of creative output that would change perceptions of Richmond outside the city. At nearly the exact same moment, the local Chamber launched a program called the i.e.* initiative designed to foster innovation and entrepreneurialism in the city, with a focus on Richmond’s weak links: patents and venture capital invested per capita. And then just this spring, the InnoVArium opened shop inside the Chamber office building to help entrepreneurs hone ideas to the point where they can succeed in a startup accelerator. The Chamber’s big first-year push will culminate June 21st with a public startup competition, a kind of American Idol for entrepreneurs. 143 companies--all less than a year old, some no more right now than a bright idea--entered to compete for $10,000 that will be given to the most promising, scalable idea.
The InnoVArium, which is coaching the contestants, is focusing in its work on five areas in which Richmond is well primed to succeed: financial services, life sciences, cyber security, creative media and logistics. Fort Lee, the command center for all of the U.S. military’s worldwide logistics, is located just south of the city. The Brandcenter has also fed a number of local creative media companies (the Martin Agency, which has been an Adweek Agency of the Year, is based here as well). In that sense, the ability to smartly brand itself is an asset Richmond has that many cities don’t. And this is particularly useful in a town that isn’t naturally self-promotional.
“I lived in Southern California for a long time,” says Neal, the Chamber’s new (and first) director of creativity and innovation. “And if somebody gives $500,000 to a startup there, they want to drive up in their red Ferrari, jump out and have their picture taken, and have it on the front page of the paper. In Richmond, that isn’t the culture. People quietly invest but they don’t want their name in the paper.”
That is also part of the reason why the city has had a hard time getting noticed nationally for innovation. As if right on cue, Jamison modestly declined to announce that Richmond had arrived anywhere yet. “I think it’s going to take us a year or longer to have even one good example that we have got our act together,” he says. He wants all of this to amount to more than “civic hucksterism,” of the kind that’s now in vogue among cities everywhere trying to wrap themselves around “innovation.”
“Not to overstate this, but this is a golden moment for the nation,” Jamison says. “Because if we can do innovation in cities like Richmond, then the hope for an innovation economy is real. If it can only occur in tiny elite slivers of the country, I’m not sure what the implications of that would be.”