Lessons From One of America’s Most Inventive Cities

Seattle has a history of being a magnet for both entrepreneurial success and creative thinkers. What can we learn from it?

Seattle starbucks
Perhaps out of jealousy, perhaps out of awe, many city leaders and politicians find themselves wondering: What is it about Seattle that yields so much invention, innovation and creative activity? Maybe it’s the still-futuristic Space Needle, a legacy of the 1962 World’s Fair, which remains the city’s most recognizable landmark. Or maybe, as the birthplace of Starbucks, it's all that caffeine.

But the creative environment really goes back further than that – take Boeing, for example. Founder William (Bill) Edward Boeing came to Seattle as a young man prior to 1910 when the city was already bustling. Even then, Seattle had 100,000 citizens, with the youngest average age in North America. The creative spark that turned Boeing, who had already made his fortune in timber, into an aeronautical entrepreneur was a daredevil ride he took on an early bi-wing seaplane taking off from Seattle's harbor on July 4, 1914.

So maybe the bigger question is: How did a rather remote and unusual fishing village became a mecca for artists and daring entrepreneurs that every city wants to call its citizens?

Industry players have not been shy about reminding policymakers that it was that entrepreneurial drive that made Seattle what it is, lest public officials be tempted to take credit. I have been told of a conference in the mid-1990s, at which the chief counsels for Boeing (when it was still headquartered in Seattle) and Microsoft (when Bill Gates was still at the helm) put a fine point on the matter. Said one, “Boeing and Microsoft are here because both Bills were born here. Period.” And you can add to the list men named Howard and Jeff – Schultz and Bezos respectively.

I say all this with great admiration while viewing the city through squinted, envious eyes. Chattanooga took one of its earliest intercity leadership visits to Seattle back in the 1980s and it was obvious even then that this was a place with special energy and flair. It seems Seattle has always been a city of ideas, a city to watch, a city to copy.

For that reason, I was pleased when two site selectors showed up in Chattanooga during my second term as mayor. They were traveling under a code name – very secret stuff – but it took only a few probing questions before they confessed they were from Amazon. They were looking for a site for one of their large fulfillment centers and Chattanooga had the enviable position on the map (approximately equidistant from Knoxville, Nashville, Birmingham and Atlanta) to make it convenient for serving large southern cities, plus Chattanooga's not insignificant metro area. Suffice it to say, I was thrilled to meet with representatives of one of Seattle's most recent success stories in person.

This meeting led to trips out West to see existing fulfillment centers. The inside of a fulfillment center reminded me of a gigantic version of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory – it was all conveyor belts and whirring machinery tended by countless employees moving at a furious pace. I had expected something like a warehouse, but this was a model of bustling efficiency. I was impressed. More recently, the focus of national media has made the inner workings of such wonders of commerce more familiar to everyone – particularly at Christmas time when news crews go inside to talk about this modern version of Santa's workshop. We then went to Seattle and visited the company's headquarters. Once again I was dazzled, even though the white-collar environment was different. Instead of a machine, it was really more like a very large computer – with people sprinkled around as part of the essential infrastructure.

Just a few weeks prior to my Amazon experience, I had an opportunity to visit the Googleplex in California and also had a tour of eBay and other innovative companies often thought of in the same entrepreneurial vein as Amazon. The comparison was rather startling. At Google, I saw something far different from my youthful experience with blue-collar employment at textile mills. But it was even farther removed from familiar white-collar staples like banks and insurance companies – those desirable employers of the past century. Walking across the sunny, well-manicured campus of Google, wandering through the buildings, sampling the free food and observing all the smiling young faces, I immediately thought of Logan's Run, which depicts a future where everyone is young and happy until you learn the real reason for this: They get “renewed” before they turn 30.

The work environment at Google was, to put it mildly, quite relaxed. The work environment at Amazon headquarters was … not so relaxed. Everyone had their heads down and fingers on the keyboard. In recent weeks, Amazon has endured a brutal public flogging following a lengthy New York Times article criticizing its working conditions, which has led to follow-up articles with individuals both defending and attacking the fantastically successful enterprise. It's a “he said, she said” war of words, but even after my experience, I still sympathize with the company and feel they are on to something important. Hard work is almost always the price of success.

Inspired by this public debate, I reviewed a few of those lists of great places to work and not-so-great places to work. Where are today's young people happy? And does that tell us something about the environment that contributes to idea generation and entrepreneurial success? In December 2014, Mashable published a list of the 10 Best Companies to Work For in 2015. Google was at the top, followed by a string of the usual suspects in any list of what's young and hot – Facebook, Apple and the like. Escape the City, a British organization which helps young, unfulfilled corporate professionals leave the conventional path, recently surveyed 1,000 individuals about their careers. Fifty percent of them don’t see themselves working for the organization they’re working for now and half of them want to start their own business. They say their work lacks a clear sense of purpose and they have physical and mental health issues as a result of their job. They would also like to make more of a social impact.

This brings me back to my original question: What makes Seattle so inventive, innovative and creative and how can other cities get some of that pizzazz? I've given it a lot of thought and study, and I've reluctantly reached something of a conclusion – reluctant because it's not an idea that other cities like mine can easily steal. It's the fact that Seattle started with a young population and they have maintained a youthful, energetic outlook on life over the years. Young people still are attracted to Seattle. This is reflected in the ideas that have become big business and when those businesses age and move along, the youthful environment is inventing something new to fill the gap. Nothing seems impossible in a place that has always looked to the future, always looked up into an expansive sky and always westward to a waiting world – sparing relatively little time for what was taking place in that other Washington and eastern centers of commerce.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it is the coffee.

Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.