Note: I originally posted this entry immediately after writing the notes from Aaron’s keynote at the UIC Urban Innovation Symposium, put on by the graduate students in the Urban Planning and Policy Student Assocation or UPPSA. Aaron Renn writes The Urbanophile and works for a management consulting firm.

Aaron is probably best known for his 50 ideas to increase the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) ridership in an ideas challenge from the Chicago Chamber of Commerce and InnoCentive. (Boo to the Chicago Tribune who removes web pages after awhile.)

“How many ideas were implemented? Donut.”

The ideas in and of itself don’t make things happens.There are enormous structural barriers to innovate in the world. Most of you inspire not just to have innovative ideas, but to actually change for the better the places you live and work.

Consulting for businesses

Aaron’s career: Doing consulting for clients. “I used to think that people hired consultants because ppl think we’re smart guys. I thought I could use some of my ideas in the company. Nothing happened.”

Why do people and companies really hire consultants?

First off, there’s the tyranny of the organization chart. Everyone is in a box. Everything you do is seen in the box you occupy. What are the odds you will get an audience with the CEO, and then take your idea?

The reason people hire consultants is because they exist outside the organization chart. Innovation occurs in the bottom 95% of the organization chart pyramid. There’s no mechanism to have those ideas bubble up.

If something is untried, unproven, people are afraid to do it cuz they think their career’s on the line. So they bring in the biggest consultant they can find (meaning they have the biggest reputation).

On becoming known

I started my blog 4 years ago. I had no credentials. I started having journalists contact me. They would only paraphrase Aaron’s responses because “You are not authoritative enough to be quoted in my article.”

Only after I won the innovation challenge about the CTA would they start quoting me.

Building ideas for our cities

Aaron gave the audience a metaphor from the Bible of the sower [I missed the exact reference if he gave one]: “Our problem is not enough fertile seeds. It’s a problem of not having enough fertile soil.”

“I think building on assets is a trap. It’s the stuff we did yesterday.” Having a lot of assets to focus on may blind you to the ways you need to think about in order to innovate.

I see cities all the time defending the past. Cities are about people, not buildings. We always talk about building and form, but we don’t think about the people.

It’s very clear they’re talking about the buildings in that neighborhood – you can’t love the neighborhood if you hate the neighbors. Think about the actual human beings your project affects.

“If you don’t know where people are, you can’t lead them somewhere else.”

I like to travel. I like to meet the local bloggers and have them take me around. If I didn’t know [which city I was in], nothing about that building would tell me where I was. I don’t get a strong sense of the place. I think we have to think deeper about our cities. Think about the unique chartacter, history, and vlues of the cities we’re in. A lot of our cities seem kind of the same, and they don’t have that quaint Euro charm.

How can we make our plans, our cities, and our buildings more expressive of where they are? This is in this place and it’s right here. I think Chicago is one city that has done that. “It’s not about creating a sense of place, it’s about creating a sense of this place.”