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This Rust Belt Mayor Found The Secret To Innovating In His Hometown Margaret Myers, The Renewal Project Editor

South Bend, Indiana’s chief executive is also its chief innovation officer. Mayor Pete Buttigieg is shaping his hometown—a “company town” that lost its company—into a modern Midwestern city that understands its manufacturing roots, but isn’t afraid to reimagine its future.

At 34 and serving in his second term, Buttigieg, a Democrat, has a clear vision to spur growth in Indiana’s fourth largest city, which has experienced decline since the demise of the automaker Studebaker in the 1960s. Today, when many manufacturing towns in Indiana are losing residents, South Bend has seen its largest growth in 20 years.

The mayor attributes a lot of that to quality of place—the environment that attracts everyone from the top academic talent to its world class university Notre Dame, to the millennials and retirees who want to repopulate its downtown. He’s even put South Bend on a “road diet” to create a more appealing city center.

I spoke with Mayor Buttigieg recently about the challenges of innovating in the Rust Belt, his advice for Washington, and the state of the American Dream in 2016. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

What are South Bend’s greatest challenges today?

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG: South Bend in many ways is a company town that lost our company. That was the legacy when Studebaker stopped producing cars here in the early 1960s. What’s exciting about South Bend at the moment is that we’re finding a new future—that’s still true to where we came from, still has an important role for things like manufacturing, but also recognizes that we have assets whose value we didn’t understand before, and the importance of being in a community with a major research university right here in our backyard.

So our challenges are not unlike a lot of Midwestern American communities, a lot of Rust Belt communities that are sort of reimagining their economic structure compared to what it was one or two generations ago. We have challenges in making sure that the recovery is felt broadly, that we don’t have old neighborhoods or old segments of the community that feel left out of the economic growth that’s happening around the country and here in South Bend. And keeping the community together is one of the biggest things on my mind when we look at how our growth is going to continue and how we make sure everyone can participate in that growth.

It’s important not to just try to turn back the clock but to recognize that growth is going to happen in new ways and that isn’t a bad thing.

You’re in your second term now. What have you learned about making sure everyone has access to opportunity in this new economy?

BUTTIGIEG: It’s important not to just try to turn back the clock but to recognize that growth is going to happen in new ways and that isn’t a bad thing. So what we’re finding is that, for example, we still have a really significant role for manufacturing, but it’s advanced manufacturing and it really places a premium on skills. This is not the world where you graduated from high school one day and went to work at a factory the next, and if you lost that job you went across the street the next day to work at another one. This is a world where it really matters what you’re able to bring to the team. But it’s not OK to use that as an excuse for some people to be left out. So we’re really looking for ways to make sure that there’s a relationship between the skills that young people and disadvantaged people are learning and the skillsets that are needed at the employers that are going to continue growing—whether it’s advanced manufacturers or things like the data space.

We have the South Bend Code School, for example, which is an independent organization that is going into disadvantaged neighborhoods working with middle schoolers. They’ve even trained kids who are in the juvenile detention system, and it is amazing to see what these kids come up with. So you have stories like that that are really empowering for people who are at risk of being left out. It’s even just the basics of digital inclusion—we’re working hard to expand a free wireless canopy. We started with downtown and extended it into public housing and some community centers and low-income neighborhoods.

From that end of the scale, all the way through to making sure we’ve created a sort of quality of place that is going to be compelling for the kinds of academic and economic rockstars that a place like Notre Dame is trying to recruit. We’re finding that people in those kinds of skillsets will figure out a place to work once they’ve figured out where they want to live—not the other way around, which is how we used to think of that. And grasping that has a lot of implications for the choices you make and in particular, the priority you place on quality of place.

The South Bend River Lights installation illuminates the St. Joseph River in the heart of downtown. Photo courtesy of the city of South Bend

I live in D.C., a city that certainly has quality of place, but it’s extraordinarily expensive. You see a lot of stories about millennials moving to the Minneapolises and the Detroits of America. South Bend’s population has started to grow for the first time in 50 years. What is South Bend doing right?

BUTTIGIEG: There are a couple things to think about. One is making sure that you have a good strategy for both your core and your neighborhoods. For our neighborhoods, it was largely a question of clearing out a lot of vacant and abandoned properties without the neighbors feeling like this was something being done to them. In the meantime, making sure that you have a downtown that feels like a downtown. You know, many cities our size and in our situation are recovering from LBJ-era design decisions that really served to evacuate downtown areas. Our streets going through the heart of our city are really there to evacuate downtown. And my interest, of course, is to re-populate downtown. And so we’re in the middle of an effort that at first was hard to get their head around, because we’re actually doing road diets—we’re actually taking roads and narrowing them. And it’s not because there’s less traffic, it’s because we want a different pattern of urban life in the heart of the city. And what we’re finding is that people want to live where they have access to that.

We have a really interesting combination—it’s almost a horseshoe pattern—where new housing options coming online in the downtown area are mostly going to people roughly my age and younger, and people about my parents’ age and older. So it’s millennials and retirees, both of whom are looking for the same thing in terms of a lifestyle that maybe doesn’t involve looking after a yard but does involve access to culture and restaurants and that sort of thing.

Innovation isn’t something that you just pull out of the air. Innovation is something that needs to be built on what you’ve already got.

You referenced in your TedX speech your rules for innovation. Can you tell me what your rules—specifically for your community—for innovation are?

BUTTIGIEG: Innovation isn’t something that you just pull out of the air. Innovation is something that needs to be built on what you’ve already got. In our case that’s true in terms in terms of our software, which is a tradition of hard work and creativity and industry, but also hardware that has new value, which in our case had to do with the discovery that the same right of ways that use to carry goods on roads and rail now carry signals through digital infrastructure such that the fiber that carries the internet runs right through the industrial corridor of South Bend. A lot of mayors feel like they’re under pressure to invent the next industrial cluster for their community, when these are things that are often found and cultivated, not imposed or created—and certainly not created by government. We have a role to play in fostering and cultivating this growth, but the last thing a mayor should be doing is deciding out of the blue what industry is going to dominate the economy of their community in the future.

Another thing that I think is really important is the culture in your organization. We’ve worked hard to develop a culture that invites new ideas and questions habit. Now that doesn’t mean all your habits are bad; it does mean a habit is bad if it can’t be explained or justified in terms of “we’ve always done it this way.” We really try to root that out. Sometimes the old way is great. But if that’s true, we should be able to explain and justify it.

You were filmed at an event during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia saying, If mayors ruled the world, we’d be better off. What advice would you give to our politicians in Washington?

BUTTIGIEG: I think there’s a certain immediacy and accountability that goes with local government that compels us not to be very ideological about it. But the other thing is, and I think this is a little different for Washington, the relationship of evidence and results to decisions is just a lot closer at the local level. In other words, even if folks at the local level are less likely to be absorbed in theory, we really look at evidence because people can tell very quickly whether something we said would work is going to live up to the promise. And if it isn’t, we don’t have a lot of time to figure out why and fix it. The stakes are even higher in federal policies, but I think the people making those decisions are so removed from the impact that they don’t feel that kind of accountability. The other thing is being open to acknowledging when you fail; when something doesn’t work here, there’s no point in trying to pretend otherwise, because everybody can tell. So that means you just fail forward and fail smartly and learn and grow. I think if there were more emphasis on that and less on denying whether failures had happened or concentrating on where to allocate blame, I think we would be better off. If Washington were populated by more mayors, we’d be in a better place. But of course, mayors are also needed right where we are.

What’s the American Dream in 2016?

BUTTIGIEG: You know, I don’t think it’s any different in 2016 than it’s always been. The idea that if you’re willing to do the right thing and work hard, you can confidently expect that your standard of living will rise, that you will have a better standard of living than your parents, that your children will have a better standard of living than your parents, and that you can look forward to a comfortable retirement.

There’s something really striking about the American Dream in its modesty. If you compare it to the Roman Dream, which had a lot to do with world domination, or the Soviet Dream, which had to do with eradicating inequality and injustice, ours in a way is more modest. It’s just that we ought to have access to a good life, and nobody can say for you what defines the good life for you, but the idea is that the means to live the good life are within your grasp for any ordinary American who’s prepared to do a reasonable amount of work and willing to participate in society according to the rules that we all agree on. In a certain way, it isn’t that much to ask—or at least it shouldn’t be. And yet, we’re the only society that’s become famous for our ability to deliver it, and nothing would be worse than finding in 2016 that citizens of other countries are starting to have a better shot at the American Dream than we are. We’ve got to stay ahead of that.