The Make Something Edmonton Rope

What’s a rope? "A rope is a linear collection of plies, yarns or strands which are twisted or braided together in order to combine them into a larger and stronger form," according to Wikipedia. I like to think of Make Something Edmonton (MSE) as a rope. As such, it’s made up of a number of different strands that had to come together. There are three strands that I want to highlight.

strand

The first started with a wall.

In the spring of 2011 while still working at the Edmonton Journal, Todd Babiak wrote a series of stories on what he called "interventions". It began with the blank, unattractive wall that he saw every day when looking out the window. Todd wanted to do something about it, so he wrote about it. And he encouraged readers to email him with their suggestions.

A few months later at the downtown-focused Pecha Kucha 10, Todd spoke about the interventions project. He stole the show that night with a hilarious, entertaining, and thought-provoking presentation. Todd called Edmonton "a magpie town" and shared with us a lesson he learned through the interventions process: "I should have asked people to do something, then email me."

Six months later, Todd had a new startup called Story Engine, and he found himself pitching the City of Edmonton. "I had worked on the City Vision for 2040, and I had noticed — in community halls all over the city — that citizens were obsessed with the Edmonton story," he later wrote. Todd wanted to help tell that story. He was persuaded to start a blog, appropriately called magpietown, and he used it to explore the ideas that would form the groundwork for Make Something Edmonton.

The second strand is a long one. If you follow it back far enough, you might find yourself at Edmonton’s beginning.

Like most cities, we aspire to be recognized and loved on the world stage. We want our city’s image to be positive and well-received. Branding is a part of forming that image, and over the years there have been numerous attempts at identifying or creating our brand. We’ve always had this inferiority complex, and many Edmontonians have tried to do something about it. Most recently, the City of Edmonton embarked on a project called Edmonton Stories. By most accounts it was a disappointment, masked only by the repositioning of the project as a tool for recruiting rather than as a tool for emboldening Edmonton’s image.

Last year, the issue once again came up at City Council. One of the outcomes of The Way We Propser was a desire by those involved to better define and communicate our city identity. So in July 2012, Council decided to strike a task force. It got off to a rocky start due to significant differences in approach, but by the fall everything was in place.

That’s when Brad Ferguson, the new CEO of EEDC, spoke up about the issue. "On a scale of one to 10, we’re a one and a half. I’m not going to sugar-coat it," he told Council. All of a sudden, the new task force on image and branding became even more important.

The third and final strand I want to highlight is probably pretty boring to most people, but it’s highly intriguing to a City-watcher like myself.

Since 2006, the "big C" City (the City of Edmonton) has been undergoing a significant transformation. A new City Manager, a new approach to visioning and planning, and a progressive Council working cohesively to move things forward all contributed to a very different mood around City Hall.

One of the side effects of that transformation, in my opinion, has been an expansion in the kinds of things the City is willing to take on. Whereas in the past certain things may have been ignored because they were not seen as central to the City’s mandate (such as establishing a Food Council), today there’s almost an expectation that the City tackle such endeavours. On the whole this has probably been a good thing for citizens.

I think the City has gone back-and-forth on who should own the image and branding piece. Should it be Communications? Should it be a new City-led office? Should it be a partner, most logically EEDC? If the expansion trend continues, I would not be surprised to see some within the City push for MSE to remain a City-led initiative.

These and other strands all came together to form Make Something Edmonton. How exactly the strands came together, I don’t know for sure. But I like to imagine that the committee was sitting around trying to figure out how to get from being 1.5 out of 10 to something better, and Todd said, "I have an idea!" He pitched Make Something Edmonton and everyone declared, "our work here is done!" That’s probably unfair to everyone who put some significant volunteer time into the project, and I don’t mean to belittle that effort. But I also think it’s probably not far from the truth.

The initiative, or movement, or experiment – take your pick – officially launched in March of this year with a splashy party attended by the same people who always show up at these sorts of things. It was a good start, and the launch party was energizing and created a certain amount of momentum. There have been a number of really successful projects added to the website, and the Twitter hashtag remains as popular as ever. It’s a great way to showcase the many exciting things happening in Edmonton.

There is, however, a certain amount of spin surrounding Make Something Edmonton. It was evident at the launch party, and has become somewhat more evident in recent weeks.

Is MSE a grassroots movement, by the people for the people? The funding and committee structure behind it would suggest otherwise. There’s a big MSE committee, and a number of smaller sub-committees, all made up of the same 300 or so people who get involved in most things. Furthermore, that committee is expected to submit a report back to Council. It is, after all, just an expanded form of the task force that Council struck.

Is MSE a new approach to city branding, because traditional branding doesn’t work? The process would seem to suggest otherwise. The City hired a firm to design the MSE logo and identity, and another firm to build the website. There was Brand Camp a few weeks ago, but the only element of it that didn’t resemble a traditional branding exercise was that it was called Brand Camp. It was a bunch of people in room talking with no clear idea about what the outcome should be. Pretty typical consultation piece for a branding exercise if you ask me.

Does MSE tap into a fundamental truth about Edmonton? I feel it does, but many others dispute this point. "Can’t I make things in Winnipeg?" they ask. "Maker is too exclusive," others will say. If MSE isn’t resonating with the smaller group of the same 3000 people that are already hyper-engaged, how can we ever hope to get to 30,000? Or to 300,000?

Since March there have been a number of smaller MSE-related events (like Brand Camp), but the big success has undoubtedly been the creation of the website and its listing of hundreds of projects. I think "maker" is absolutely the right word, because otherwise we’ll end up with the lowest common denominator and that’ll get us exactly nowhere. It needs to be aspirational. Seeing all of the projects on the website and thinking about all of the people behind them gets me incredibly excited about our city.

But as great as that website and all of those projects are, thinking about them inevitably leads to the question that I’ve been hearing people ask more and more: what’s next?

The City of Edmonton has funded MSE so far (by way of the task force on image and reputation) which means they not only feel a sense of ownership, but need to be careful about how they spend the money. It also means that MSE is going up against everything else the City does for resources. And practically it means there will need to be a report that goes back to Council.

Another thing is that while our current Mayor and City Council support the initiative, they’re gone in October. There’s no guarantee that the next Council will be as supportive. So you can almost certainly expect the report to come out before then.

Beyond that, I’m not sure anyone knows what’s next. Maybe there’s not even a correct answer. Let’s phrase the question differently: what are we going to do with this rope?

Are we going to have a tug-of-war to see who hangs on the tightest? Are we going to give up and let it collapse into a pile on the ground? Or are we going to keep using it to climb ahead?

I hope we can use it to keep climbing ahead, but to do so we’ll need to know what outcome we’re moving toward.

Here are some suggestions on how we can establish that:

  • Let’s figure out where Make Something Edmonton will live. Right now I think it should be EEDC, because if it remains City-led there’s too great a risk that politics and/or bureaucracy will cause it to fail (or at least to hold it back). (And if we’re going to give it to EEDC, let’s ask them to drop something that doesn’t align as closely with their vision and strategic plan as a consequence.)
  • Let’s recognize that there’s a difference between the organization that funds & supports Make Something Edmonton, and the people who lead it. EEDC can provide meeting space, coffee, and administrative support, but it doesn’t need to be EEDC staff setting the direction.
  • Let’s identify the gaps between the successful projects and the ones that haven’t gotten off the ground. That’ll help us seed opportunities and remove barriers for makers, hopefully resulting in even more great projects for our city.
  • Let’s clearly define our desired outcomes. We want the language, tools, and confidence to be able to talk about Edmonton. From there, we want the City of Edmonton, EEDC, the University of Alberta, Northlands, and everyone else to make use of that toolkit.

Thoughts?