How We Talk About the Best Places to Work

September 3, 2013

How do we talk about our ideal places to live and work? 

Many people have heated opinions about where they stay and why. Studies show us that language and place are strongly correlated. Beyond obvious dialects and accents, a place signifies much about what we do not say aloud—especially who we are and what we value. German philosopher Martin Heidegger believed that we truly dwell in a place when we feel at peace in that place, and further, that a given place influences what gets built in it as an extension of ourselves. 

Cities, in particular, lend themselves to metaphors. Over time, different philosophers and scholars have likened cities to living organisms (Aristotle), theaters of social action (Mumford), hubs, jungles, mosaics, and wildernesses, among others. 

When it comes to business, cities often struggle to project an image that will appeal to potential employers. The traditional model focused on “chasing smokestacks”, meaning that local developers aimed to attract a dominant company or anchor tenant to a region. Companies heard more about cost savings, local regulations, and tax incentives. 

In recent years, developers and city planners have turned their attention to creating entrepreneurial cities that produce new technologies and new business models for lasting economic vitality. Now the messaging is about community, sustainability, and ecosystems. 

On this thread, I have discovered three new metaphors in building better places: 

  • Rainforests: Like rainforests, cities are living biological systems that self-organize and support high levels of inter-linked diversity. City leaders should focus on cultivating cultural diversity, social interactions, and levels of trust across multiple communities. Venture capitalist Victor Hwang considers Silicon Valley as the prime rainforest
  • Coral reefs: Like coral reefs, cities function as shared habitats that are highly fragile and active. They often flourish in larger less hospitable environments, and city leaders can build the structure and resources to protect, enable, and accelerate business development. Art Markham, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, sees the Austin Technology Incubator serving as a coral reef in the larger business community, and Markham has advised other organizations on how to build internal innovation reefs. 
  • Hot spots: Like hot spots, cities are magnets for talent and ideas. Usually associated with high-tech growth, hot spots contain elements of high energy and active life. They are usually smaller concentrated areas compared to less active surrounding environments. For example, both Davis Square and Kendall Square in Boston have been recent hot spots. 


More importantly, all three metaphors reveal a vision of abundance for cities: the pursuit of new opportunities and more options will result in bigger dreams, more chances for success, and greater impact all around. Specifically, there is a belief that more social interactions will foster a vibrant and diverse community, that more ideas generated from citizens will ensure a city’s enduring power, and that more partnerships made between businesses and other groups will create the critical mass for a local ecosystem. 

What metaphors for cities and places are you hearing around you, and why? I would like to hear what metaphors inspire you most and what challenges your notions of “commonplace” as we ponder how we talk about the best places to work and why.