David Hoppe

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:: What would Steve Jobs do?

The limits of pubic process

By David Hoppe

City leaders have been chided lately for their ham-handed approach to public process in the renaming of a downtown stretch of Georgia St. and the commissioning of a public sculpture by internationally renowned artist Fred Wilson.

Complaints in both cases have focused on a perceived lack of public input regarding these initiatives, the feeling that city muckety-mucks have gone behind closed doors, cooked up what they think are some Big Ideas and foisted these things on the citizenry.

There's some truth in this analysis. Indianapolis movers and shakers have a long, by now wheezing, history of autocratic behavior. To my knowledge there was never a referendum on declaring this town the amateur sports capital of the world. Nor, for that matter, was there a great deal of public consultation involved in the decision to devote a big gulp of the city's resources to hosting a Super Bowl.

But while an open and more participatory public process in community decision-making is certainly called for, the notion that public input guarantees progress seems naïve.

The late Steve Jobs comes to mind. In the days since his passing last week, the former Apple CEO has been hailed as a transformational figure who used design to change the way we relate to communications technologies and, by extension, each other.

What seems to have most amazed observers about Jobs was not his technical expertise or even his wonderfully elegant and intuitive understanding of the power of aesthetics. What blew them away about Jobs was his seeming lack of interest in what people wanted.

Unlike the vast majority of contemporary managers who base their actions on polls and market research, Jobs proceeded from the assumption that people couldn't tell him what they wanted because they really didn't know what that might be. Therefore it was up to him to conceive and design products that could speak in a way that turned people on -- arousing and fulfilling desires they didn't realize they had.

Viewed from a certain angle, this made Jobs arrogant and a gambler. But it's a short step from there to an appreciation of him as visionary leader. In any event, Jobs lived by the courage of his convictions.

Would that we could say the same thing about our supposed movers and shakers.

In the Georgia St. renaming debacle, members of Indianapolis Downtown Inc. and Mayor Ballard's office appear to have had the not fully baked idea that pinning a new label on a redesigned, pedestrian-friendly stretch of this downtown boulevard would somehow signal the place as a cool destination. This, in itself, was not an unreasonable conclusion to jump to. But the problem was not that city leaders proceeded to engage in a wobbly attempt to get the public to help rename the street, but that they unveiled their idea without a clear sense of what they actually wanted. This lack of creative imagination created a jumble that left everyone feeling that no change at all was the preferred solution.

In the case of Fred Wilson's sculpture, a depiction of a freed slave entitled "E Pluribus Unum," appropriated from a figure already appearing on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, leaders from the Central Indiana Community Foundation and, again, Mayor Ballard's office, backtracked on a plan to install the work on the plaza in front of the City-County Building when this news provoked an outcry among some members of the city's African-American community.

It's easy to write this setback off to a lack of public process. But Wilson's work was designed to provoke a complicated public reaction. Unanimous praise was not its intention. The question would be whether the work's sponsors would have the courage of convictions that drew them to an artist like Fred Wilson in the first place. Unfortunately, rather than defend the work, the plan to put it in front of city hall has been abandoned and now a series of focus groups is meeting to determine where the work should be - or whether it should be created at all. Public process has become a kind of reverse tyranny.

This is what happens when we get managers instead of leaders. Managers base what they do on taking the public temperature. This means people get what they think they want, instead of what they don't quite realize they need. Given our current class of public managers, don't hold your breath, for example, about ever getting a viable public transit system here. Without the political leadership to drive the discussion, we get studies and commissions, editorials and public meetings, but nothing happens. That's because no elected official is willing to stake their office on championing an idea not publicly pre-approved.

But people living in a city without good public transit are like all of us were before there were iMacs and iPhones. There is no way for us to understand how much we might depend on these things until we actually have them in front of us. Then we wonder how we ever lived without them. Public process can only get us part way there. Leadership is also required; a politician who asks herself, "What would Steve Jobs do?"