Increasing power of values in designing countries, cities, and communities

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Aspirational values are quickly becoming an important source of competitive advantage and differentiation not only for businesses but also for nations, cities, and regions.

The declaration of Independence, which is the cornerstone of values in the USA says: ”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”.

The ideals or values behind the French Revolution were Liberty, Equality and Fraternity or brotherhood between people. They were finally institutionalized in the Third Republic at the end of the 19th century act as a national guiding principle in France. The European Union is also very clear about its core values of Freedom, Human Dignity and Human Rights, Equality, Rule of Law and Democracy.

If these are the principles that guide people in the U.S., the E.U. and France, then no wonder that they are perceived as attractive places to live, to work and to raise one’s family. They are, no doubt, are not perfect, but, at least, they strive to be guided by these higher-level values. Higher level values can act as an aspiration, or a sort of positive mental conditioning that end up creating a framework for how people want to organize and conduct their lives in these countries.

It is not enough, however, to just declare these values. A nation or a country needs to live them fully, to walk the talk. Values must be authentic, and it is of course not always the case. It also goes without saying that these higher values are often diluted and eroded in the course of time, sometimes unintentionally, due to practical expediency, and sometimes, fully intentionally. This is how democracies may slowly become authoritarian or totalitarian regimes.

Core values and organisations

The power of values is well-known in the corporate sector and in advertising. The concept of core values emerged in 1994, when Jim Collins and Jerry Porras published their book “Built to Last”. The book made the case that many of the best companies adhered to a set of principles called core values. Since then, the values trend swept through the world. Today, 80% of the Fortune 100 companies[1] publish their values.

Many other studies confirmed a positive impact of values on employee engagement and corporate performance. For example, a study[2] based on more than 1,000 firms in the Great Places to Work database revealed a strong correlation between corporate financial performance and the extent to which employees believe their company’s espoused values are practiced.

The problem, though, is that values must be authentic, and they must be lived in all the actions. If it is not the case, empty values statements create cynical and disengaged employees, alienate customers, and undermine managerial credibility. And it is not easy to walk the talk on values. Today just 23% of U.S. employees strongly agree that they can apply their organization’s values to their work every day, according to Gallup[3], and only 27% strongly agree that they “believe in” their organization’s values.

Values as a source of competitive advantage also for countries, cities and regions

We have seen that formulating authentic core values as guiding behavioral principles is a powerful tool, assuming we can ensure adherence to these values. They can work not only for organisations, but also for countries, cities and regions of all kinds.

König Jerlmyr, a young and dynamic mayor of the city of Stockholm, for example, believes that values can be used also as a strong competitive advantage in the battle for global talent. “Values are a great way of attracting talent and Stockholm as a city is trustworthy, visionary and free”, she says[4].

But if values can be used as a source of competitive advantage, how can we compete while focusing on the same universal values, like the values of freedom, human rights, equality, fairness, trust, rule of law and democracy.

Or are we talking about a strategy of differentiation based on values for nations, cities, and regions?

Differentiation based on values

A strategy of differentiation based on values is already visible in many places around the world. Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand came up with a Wellbeing budget in 2019[5], saying that New Zealand is the first western country to design its entire budget based on wellbeing priorities. With this, wellbeing for all its citizens is becoming a value associated with New Zealand. Ardern reinforces these by promoting the politics and leadership based on empathy and kindness.

On the other side of the world, a recently appointed first female prime minister of Estonia Kaija Kallas also speaks about values[6] in one of her first interviews. She says that “Estonia has the strength to become a country larger than its borders, which is valued in terms of openness and innovative technology policy”. Estonia is indeed strongly associated around the world with the value of openness (just think of its e-residence program) and a value of technological and digital savviness.

Value of purpose and impact

Another interesting differentiation based on values comes from the visionary mayor of Stockholm who believes that one of the important values of today that drive and define people’s choices is a search for purpose, meaning and impact. The mayor König Jerlmyr says[7] that “purpose is what drives people these days, not only the salary or the bonus. You want to create something good and leave things better than when you started.”

She believes that what people want to do is to leave an impact. People want to be involved with a company that has a sense of purpose. They are starting to ask what their company or employer is doing to create good, to create value for others. Those companies with a strong sense of purpose are starting to become the ones able to recruit the best talent nowadays. But this logic can be applied not only to companies but also to cities and communities. König Jerlmyr says that “it is not just companies but also cities with strong values and a sense of purpose that attract the right kind of people and businesses”.

Guided by this new thinking, Stockholm has decided to become “the impact capital of the world”, presenting it as one of its key values and key competitive advantages.

To conclude, setting aspirational values that are authentic and are truly lived and practiced can become an important source of competitive advantage and differentiation of nations, cities, regions and communities, helping to attract right type of businesses and human talent. Many visionary political leaders clearly recognize it.

[1] Make Your Values Mean Something (hbr.org)

[2] http://economics.mit.edu/files/9721

[3] Few Employees Believe in Their Company’s Values (gallup.com)

[4] Mayor of Stockholm: ‘We want to be the impact capital of the world’ | www.visitstockholm.com

[5] Jacinda Ardern on culture wars, her plan for 2020 and how to cook snapper | Jacinda Ardern | The Guardian

[6] Estonia’s new PM Kallas: “Estonia has the strength to become a country larger than its borders” — Invest in Estonia

[7] Stockholm’s mayor on why cities need purpose at their heart | World Economic Forum (weforum.org)

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