Amazon call highlights city’s shortcomings

Last week, Amazon announced that it’s building a second headquarters somewhere in North America. Their Seattle headquarters employs more than 40,000 people, puts billions into the local economy every year, and has attracted other major employers to the area. So it’s easy to see why cities across the continent are eager to plead their case, and why Londoners would like to be in the running.

Amazon is asking for proposals, and those of us interested in seeing our economy grow should be gratefully poring over the document that outlines their needs and desires. There is an opportunity for London here — no, not for us to become the home of the next Amazon headquarters, but for us to become better.

If we’re serious that this is the kind of company we want in London, then we need to get honest about why they don’t want to be here, and this Amazon RFP is a detailed and clear explanation of that, if we have enough courage and conviction to see it that way.

Of course not all of Amazon’s requirements will be shared by every company in the industry. Not everyone needs eight million square feet of room to grow into (which is too bad because that’s one of the boxes we could check). But companies like this have a lot in common, and they tend to cluster together. There are good reasons for that, but the municipal planning upshot is simply that a lot of them really are looking for the exact same things Amazon is.

And obviously, we can’t be all things to all companies, and go around making long-term planning decisions based on every RFP that floats past us, but the numbers are clear on one thing: we don’t seem to be all things to anyone right now. London is posting the lowest employment and labour force participation rates in the province, and nearly the lowest in the country. That’s not because people just don’t feel like working here — it’s because companies don’t feel like being here.

At this point, as Londoners who’d like to earn a living, we really need to be asking very seriously why so few companies are choosing our city. We can’t be a community full of unqualified cheerleaders, and the people being paid to develop our economy certainly can’t. It’s time to get real. It’s time to start listening to employers about what they and their employees want from a city. It doesn’t seem like we’ve really been doing that for a very long time. If we had, we wouldn’t be where we are right now.

So, yes, this Amazon RFP could be the best thing to happen for London’s economy lately, but it’s not a chance to toot our horn. London isn’t even close to being the ideal city for the next Amazon HQ. In fact, we’re not ideal for much right now.

This gives a chance to better understand how we can become something considerably closer to what companies need and what will make them start choosing us. It gives us a chance to be better. If we’re willing to take it.

Originally published in Our London on September 14, 2017.