Flywheels: A book review by Bob Morris

Flywheels: How Cities Are Creating Their Own Futures
Tom Alberg
Columbia Business School Publishing (November 2021)

How to build flywheels that promote economic development and solve urban social problems in all cities

Jim Collins introduced his concept of “The Flywheel Effect” in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t (2001). No matter how dramatic the end result, good-to-great transformations never happen in one fell swoop. In building a great company or social sector enterprise, there is no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no miracle moment. Rather, the process resembles relentlessly pushing a giant, heavy flywheel, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough, and beyond.

In the Foreword to Tom Alberg’s latest book, John Stanton explains that Aberg describes two types of flywheel: “A business growth flywheel that has worked miracles, and a second system Tom describes as a livability flywheel. This livability flywheel has taken up ever-greater importance in his vision of the future — of Seattle and all [other] cities that experience comparably explosive growth. Despite Seattle’s astounding economic growth, Tom points out its painful failings in public education, transportation, and homelessness.”

In essence, Aberg asserts that standard of living and quality of life are NOT mutually-exclusive. Rather, they are [begin italics] interdependent [end italics] even in the largest urban areas. As he explains, “In this book, I advocate policies in which businesses and cities support each other in building robust economies that provide employment opportunities for everyone, and each is supportive of the others’ use of technologies and old-fashioned civic engagement to solve major social problems…I intend to point out ways that technology will be able to help and advocate for businesses, nonprofits, governments, and individuals to each make contributions for our benefit.”

In or near the central business district of most large cities, there is a farmer’s market at which — at least until COVID-19 — merchants would offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that same spirit, I now offer a representative selection of other brief excerpts that also suggest the thrust and flavor of Alberg’s thinking.

o “In its simplest form, a livability flywheel  consists of talented residents who provided leadership for successful local governments and civic institutions. At the same time, talented entrepreneurs, inventors, and executives of new and growing businesses create jobs and wealth for the community. Together, governments and businesses are responsible for creating and preserving livable downtowns and solving civic problems. In turn, this attracts more  talent that accelerates the flywheel.” (Page 21)

o “Five technology trends — wireless connectivity, internet, AI, quantum computing, and biotech — will change everything about our lives, from healthcare to transportation.” (79)

o “Cities should ask themselves how best to attract talented people and engineering and other creative offices. My answer, in addition to making their cities more livable,: work with businesses to speed up their economic flywheels. Launch initiatives specifically designed to appeal to remote workers, such as Tulsa’s networking program for bringing remote workers together to share experiences and opportunities — and just possibly starting companies together.” (137)

o “Since the eighteenth century, America has embraced the belief that universal education is essential to the country’s success. That philosophy is as true today as it was then. It is also the one means for addressing income inequality that all citizens can agree on — no matter their politics.” Alberg then quotes Rahm Emanuel: “Education reform…is the key to putting us on the path to solving what is perhaps the most pressing issue in the United States and maybe even the world today…That issue is inequality.” (169)

Comment: I agree with both Alberg and Emanuel while remaining skeptical that there will ever be equality insofar as standard of living and quality of life are concerned. Enterprise that is indeed “free” will never allow it. One man’s opinion….

o Finally, “Our cities’ economic and social systems are interdependent. Government and local economies need flywheels that are aligned and each generating energy that benefits the other. Eventually, the failure of one will harm the other. That is why we need to build flywheels promoting economic and civic goals simultaneously. But when local governments are not sufficiently responsive and innovative, business and nonprofit leaders need to implement their own independent efforts.” (225)

Here is Alberg’s vision: “The best outcome for cities, large and small, is for them to work together with businesses and individuals to energize their economic flywheels for providing innovation. jobs, and wealth, and to strengthen their livability flywheels for solving problems of education, public safety, segregation, homelessness, housing, and transportation. Businesses, nonprofits, and individuals can do a lot, but ultimately successful cities will also depend on the political decisions of city governments and their voters.”

He adds, and I wholeheartedly agree, “Nothing should be more exciting than the idea of aggressively applying our human ingenuity to improve our world.”

I congratulate Tom Alberg on a brilliant achievement. To the best of my knowledge, a more important book has not been published during the past decade and won’t be published during the next decade. How much impact it has, obviously, remains to be seen….


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