How can we rise from the ashes?

2011-09-01 00:00

FEWER situations are more tragic for the residents of a city, than to witness its demise. Yet this is precisely what has been happening in Pietermaritzburg. The citizens of this once fine and beautiful city have looked on in disbelief. and with a feeling of helplessness as their home has sunk to a level of unprecedented decay. As a result of the gross mismanagement, incompetence and politico-financial shenanigans on the part of those entrusted with our municipal affairs, the City of Choice has become an embarrassment.

Those of a phlegmatic disposition put a brave face on the situation, hopeful that the current state of affairs will soon end, and that better days lie ahead. After all, what responsible government, either­ at provincial or national level­, could possibly sanction the status quo? As things stand at the moment, many are asking if Maritzburg can rise from the ashes of the Phoenix. Will we ever witness a revival of our city’s fortunes, and watch its regeneration into a vibrant, exciting and dynamic environment? This is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Neither is it too late to engineer a turnaround. The global trend indicates­ that cities of all shapes and sizes throughout the world are looking to become more competitive, and to do that they are chanting the mantra of world-class thinking. However, time will not always be on our side. Pieter- maritzburg­ needs to become part of this trend now, or risk being left behind.

To be world class, one has to think world class. To think world class, it is important to learn, understand and speak that language. In much the same way as a business relies on its chief executive and senior­ management team for growth, so too does a city rely on its managers to guide it into a prosperous­ future. Poorly qualified, inexperienced and/or incompetent managers will produce a substandard environment. Managers who display visionary thinking with the commensurate attitude usually create prosperity. The correlations are both startling and obvious­.

The good news is that a city does not have to be either large, or the capital of a country to be world class, but it does require that its managers think and act in a world class manner. Helen Zille is a prime example. In 2008 she beat Elmar Ledergerber of Zurich to win the coveted World Mayor award for the work she had done in Cape Town. What’s more, the tagline for the World Mayor organisation is My City. My People. My World., something our local city managers would do well to heed.

I am often heard to quote the well-known phrase first recorded by Bernard of Chartres in the 12th century, but popularly attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, who, in a letter to his fellow scientist Robert Hooke in 1676, stated that, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Assuming that our municipal leaders have the courage, will and resolve to take Pietermaritzburg­ on a successful journey to become world class, what lessons can they learn from some of the world’s most successful and dynamic cities?

The Spanish city of Seville, capital­ of Andalucía in southern Spain, with a population of approximately 1,5 million in its wider metropolitan­ area has a carefully thought-out strategic plan called Sevilla 2020. The success of the city’s previous 2010 plan forms the basis of its current strategic endeavours, as the municipal authorities seek to build continuity in their city’s growth. The strategy has not only been carefully thought through, but it also boasts a sound implementation plan, feedback infrastructure and stakeholder involvement. Likewise, Sydney, the state capital of New South Wales, in Australia, has built an entire strategy around sustainability to take it to the year 2030. With the tagline “Sustainable Sydney” it has three legs. Firstly, it aims to have minimal environmental impact, and to ensure that city residents and visitors enjoy trees, parks, gardens and plenty of open spaces. Secondly, it identifies the need to keep the city global in outlook and connected to the global economy, seeking to encourage knowledge exchange and a culture of open – mindedness amongst both city fathers and citizens. The final leg of this forward thinking strategy is that of connectivity. To quote from the strategic plan: “Connected physically by walking, cycling and high quality public transport, connected ‘virtually’ by world-class telecommunications, connected to communities through a sense of belonging and social wellbeing, and connected to other spheres of government and to those with an interest in the city.” The Sydney strategists also ensure that the proper infrastructures, both physical and strategic, exist to support these three legs.

World-class cities also leverage what they already have. For example, Salzburg, with a population of 210 000 in its wider agglomeration, and boasting three universities, is capital to Austria’s federal state of the same name. It has leveraged its internationally famous baroque­ architecture, its Unesco World Heritage Site status and the fact that it is Mozart’s birthplace, building these into its very successful holistic strategy. While Pietermaritzburg could easily leverage the Comrades and Duzi marathons and its own Victorian architecture into a strategy of world-class development, it will need to create both physical and strategic infrastructures to support them. While these events already have their own successful promotional strategies, they need to be integrated into a broader city strategy, one that adds value for all parties, and creates powerful marketing synergy with profitable returns.

Just like products, cities have customers looking to buy a particular experience. The citizen, tourist, and investor, to name just three broad customer segments, look for specific experiences. The citizen invests his family’s future by living there. The existing business needs confidence in their chosen city to remain, and not relocate elsewhere. The potential foreign direct investor­ requires an investment destination to help him achieve his company’s strategic objectives. The foreign tourists who visited Pietermaritzburg­ during the 2010 Fifa World Cup because their national team’s headquarters were in the vicinity, should never have witnessed a dilapidated and filthy environment. The well-known customer service adage that every customer’s negative experience will be shared with at least nine other people­ springs to mind. The realisation that potentially 81 000 Paraguayans (and goodness knows how many visitors of other nationalities) may have subsequently heard about the poor state of our provincial capital suggests that those running our city need to take a long hard look at themselves and the kind of environment that they have helped to create, and put this city on the fast track to world-class status­ before it is too late.

Thinking in a world class manner­ means not only identifying the customer segments to target, but also creating the proper infrastructures to attract, serve and retain those customers. One lesson any city can learn from world-class companies is that they want their customers to succeed. A world- class retailer wants its shoppers to have a great experience of its stores. Similarly, a world-class company selling into the business to business sector will want its customers to be successful, and will position its company accordingly. It knows that, as a supplier, if it can add real and lasting value to customers’ experiences, those customers will continue to give it their business. Globally, we live in an experiential society, where experiences determine whether or not a customer will buy from or use a particular company and its products or services in the future. Seville­, Sydney and Salzburg all want their customers to have a great experience of what it is each city has to offer. Is Pietermaritzburg up to such a challenge?

• Paul Dorrian is a management consultant, author and business thinker.

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