Recently, I read of a story about an African man who had been detained in prison in London's Wormwood Scrubs for a short period while his immigration and visa details were resolved. On leaving the prison, he returned and asked the warden, "Excuse me, where is the community? I was told I was being released into the community." A thought-provoking misunderstanding, I felt, which reminded me of the renowned ad campaign of New York City.
After a journey of gentrification through the 2000s, New York emerged as an urban jungle of yoga bunnies and creatives, the new alphas taking over from the former schools of the contrast-shirt wearing Wall Streeters of the 80s and 90s. But it hasn't always been this way. In the 1970s, the City's authorities were approaching bankruptcy and a billion-dollar deficit, and with public services being a no show, crime and grime were forcing a mass exodus of its residents from the City. Something had to be done. The New York State Department of Economic Development knew it had to increase tourism to fund its much needed transformation, and approached an ad agency who subsequently approached a Milton Glaser. In the back of a yellow cab, it is Milton Glaser who designed the widely recognised and much loved 'I ♥ NY', a symbol synonymous with NYC's identity for locals and tourists alike. Whilst it wasn't originally copyrighted, the meme, celebrating its 40th birthday this year, now generates income directly via merchandise branding and indirectly through the City's transformative tourism agenda. But if you asked Glaser today what the most powerful output of the 1977 campaign was, it's likely he would tell you about a cohesive journey that saw its community reconnect with its home.
As the reinvented metropolis that can't sleep, if only because of a road-raged horn-happy population, you can still see elements of the 1970s in Manhattan's urban-chic exterior. And as I travelled between London and New York, I began to think: If New York managed to save itself with a City-defining branding exercise in its time of need, why wait for a critical moment to replicate the same. London is, in my humble opinion, not just a metropolis but an international city at the peak of its powers. Upcoming European and US election outcomes aside, London has forged a path and earnt its place as a leader in the fourth industrial revolution. From finance and technology to healthcare and life sciences, the UK not only competes on a global level but leads by example, breeding talent and understanding the responsibilities of creating sustainable long-term industry successes. This is particularly visible in the UK's approach and adoption of European financial services regulations, where the UK has opted to move first and build on top of the European framework a more applicable and inclusive model to enable progression across adjacent industries. As Z/Yen Group research stated in March this year, London is the world's leading financial services hub and is certainly a jewel in the crown, but it may be the UK's leading position in FinTech that sees technology unicorns of traditionally US scale appear for the first time.
Away from financial services, the story still reads well. London houses 40% of international company's European HQs, and is in many respects the perfect geographic positioning for trade both East and West while also being a spring-board into Europe (for the time being...). While London's macro-positioning is handy, the micro city view is surprisingly unique on the capital city playing field - a city that houses a nation's parliament, regulators and economic engine-room as well as a number of historic and cultural landmarks that give a modern skyline a genuine feeling of progression and evolution. That might be why it's the most visited city on the planet.
Dylan Jones recently likened London's status today as more of a citadel or city-state - a modern day Rome, Athens or Carthage. A statement of such dramatism seemed neglecting of the many wonderful cities that can also be found in the UK, but along with New York's moment of brand creativity it got me thinking - we shouldn't claim to be an independent international city as part of a United Kingdom, but we can be proud. We can come together and celebrate London's progress, hard-work, beautiful city architecture and surroundings. Why wait until we need a moment to rally around a community driven iconic meme, as New York did.
Could we not create our own symbol of prosperity, responsibility, longevity and purpose?
It may be that the medium differs from a crayon-written phrase on an envelope, and transgresses to a sound or an image or a place. What it should be I do not know, but I like the idea of something collective, patriotic and defining. Rather than copying another city's victories, let's not reinvent the highline but ask the people that make this city so great: how do you think we can best represent London today?
Ahead of the European Referendum on 23rd June, Stand Up is hosting an informative, non-partisan event to discuss the pros and cons of the Referendum's tentative outcome. What do you think the Referendum will mean for London?
To register click: http://standupforthereferendum.eventbrite.co.uk/