The Starting Five, 2/3/2015


City leaders have been chided lately for their

ham-handed approach to public process in the renaming of a downtown stretch of

Georgia St. and the commissioning of a public sculpture by internationally

renowned artist Fred Wilson.

Complaints in both cases have focused on a perceived

lack of public input regarding these initiatives, the feeling that city

muckety-mucks have gone behind closed doors, cooked up what they think are some

Big Ideas and foisted these things on the citizenry.

There's some truth in this analysis. Indianapolis

movers and shakers have a long, by now wheezing, history of autocratic

behavior. To my knowledge there was never a referendum on declaring this town

the amateur sports capital of the world. Nor, for that matter, was there a

great deal of public consultation involved in the decision to devote a big gulp

of the city's resources to hosting a Super Bowl.

But while

an open and more participatory public process in community decision-making is

certainly called for, the notion that public input guarantees progress seems


The late Steve Jobs comes to mind. In the days since

his death, the former Apple CEO has been hailed as a transformational figure

who used design to change the way we relate to communications technologies and,

by extension, each other.

What seems to have most amazed observers about Jobs

was not his technical expertise or even his wonderfully elegant and intuitive understanding

of the power of aesthetics. What blew them away about Jobs was his seeming lack

of interest in what people wanted.

Unlike the vast majority of contemporary managers who

base their actions on polls and market research, Jobs proceeded from the assumption

that people couldn't tell him what they wanted because they really didn't know

what that might be. Therefore it was up to him to conceive and design products

that could speak in a way that turned people on—arousing and fulfilling

desires they didn't realize they had.

Viewed from a certain angle, this made Jobs arrogant

and a gambler. But it's a short step from there to an appreciation of him as

visionary leader. In any event, Jobs lived by the courage of his convictions.

Would that we could say the same thing about our

supposed movers and shakers.

In the Georgia St. renaming debacle, members of

Indianapolis Downtown Inc. and Mayor Ballard's office appear to have had the

not fully baked idea that pinning a new label on a redesigned, pedestrian-friendly

stretch of this downtown boulevard would somehow signal the place as a cool

destination. This, in itself, was not an unreasonable conclusion to reach. The

problem was not that city leaders proceeded to engage in a wobbly attempt to

get the public to help rename the street, but that they unveiled their idea

without a clear sense of what they actually wanted. This lack of creative

imagination created a jumble that left everyone feeling that no change at all

was the preferred solution.

In the case of Fred Wilson's sculpture, a depiction of

a freed slave entitled "E Pluribus Unum," appropriated from a figure

already appearing on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, leaders from the

Central Indiana Community Foundation and, again, Mayor Ballard's office, backtracked

on a plan to install the work on the plaza in front of the City-County Building

when this news provoked an outcry among some members of the city's

African-American community.

It's easy to write this setback off to a lack of

public process. But Wilson's work was designed to provoke a complicated public

reaction. Unanimous praise was not its intention. The question would be whether

the work's sponsors would have the courage of convictions that drew them to an

artist like Fred Wilson in the first place. Unfortunately, rather than defend

the work, the plan to put it in front of city hall has been abandoned and now a

series of focus groups is meeting to determine where the work should

be—or whether it should be created at all. Public process has become a

kind of reverse tyranny.

This is what happens when we get managers instead of

leaders. Without the political leadership to drive the discussion, we get

studies and commissions, editorials and public meetings, but nothing happens.

That's because elected officials aren't willing to stake their offices on

championing an idea not publicly pre-approved.

Given our current class of public managers, don't hold

your breath, for example, about ever getting a viable public transit system


Living in a city without good public transit is

similar to life before iMacs and iPhones arrived: We can't appreciate the

impact of the innovation until we experience its influence on our lives. Then

we wonder how we ever lived without it. Public process is necessary, but it isn't

the answer to everything. We also need leadership capable of asking, "What

would Steve Jobs do?"


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