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Discovering the DNA of global cities

26 January 2017

Renowned global urbanist and STEaPP Honorary Professor Greg Clark discusses his new book Global Cities: A Short History and his work with STEaPP’s City Leadership Laboratory.

Greg Clark - Arup City Leadership 2017

First things first, what is a global city?

In order to understand what a global city is you could go back to 1960s and 70s, when the term first really took hold, propelled by thinkers like Sir Peter Hall. Alternatively, you can look further into the past, to see how the global cities of today have their antecedents in the trading cities of the past. Global Cities: A Short History does the latter, tracing the 4,000-year ‘back story’ of how and why different cities have globalised, what this tells us about the city today, and what this might mean for the future. Inevitably, we can only graze the surface of what it means to be a ‘global city’ in this short history, but as much as possible the book provides a distillation of five years of work on the subject, undertaken with my colleague Dr Tim Moonen at The Business of Cities Ltd.

Global Cities: A Short History

What can we learn about global cities by looking into antiquity?

The book observes that there are five common ingredients that contributed to the rise of ancient trading cities such as Athens, Alexandria, Rome, or Baghdad, and that these five elements still ring true in the successful global cities of today: enhanced connectivity, which enables trading; openness to diverse populations, which attracts entrepreneurs, merchants, and traders who broaden the population base; a drive for innovation and the invention of new products and means of trade, for example transport, currencies, insurance or stock markets; a desire to seek out new markets where products can be sold; and a willingness to take advantage of geopolitical change and opportunity, for example, expanding influence in new territories, aligning with winners in conflict, or offering specialist services to new populations.

And what particularly defines the global city of today?

In our current cycle of global urbanisation, the characteristics that drive the globalising city are changing from those that have defined the previous 25 years. We are experiencing a rise in the number of global cities compared to previous cycles. The book observes three types of global city which co-exist today.

First, the ‘established global cities’, such as London, Paris and Hong Kong, which positioned themselves as corporate hubs for the globally traded sectors of recent decades, such as financial services, media or information services. Many of these cities have been through a radical growth curve, and cities like New York, Paris, London, and Hong Kong are approaching 10 million people for the first time.

Second, a group of fast-growing ‘emerging global cities’, such as Shanghai, Sao Paulo, or Mumbai, which act as global gateways for their nations. Often these cities have undergone metropolitanisation, which means they have outgrown their boundaries and subsumed nearby cities to form one huge urban area. Most have more than 10 million people. Third, we have seen a wave of ‘new global cities’ emerging in the last 5-10 years, prompted by geo-political shifts, the 2008 financial crisis, and especially advances in new technologies. These new global cities combine smaller size with high quality of life. They are also leaders in the sectors that are now globalising, which often make use of cutting-edge technologies. There are now around 30-40 of these new global cities jostling for position.

What commonality is shared between these new global cities?

Cities like Stockholm, Amsterdam, Sydney, Tel Aviv, Santiago and Auckland are specialising in the advanced industries that are blossoming today. Many are rich in start-ups and innovation clusters. They adopt specialisation in 2-3 technology-led sectors such as medicine, life sciences and bio-technology; materials science, energy and clean-tech; urban services like engineering, planning and design, infrastructure and architecture; or digital media and screen industries. This advanced specialisation is combined with a wonderful natural environment (coasts, mountains, valleys or lakes), good public services and high quality of life. These are usually cities of less than 5 million people, and are ‘managed metropolises’ where smaller scale is used to advantage.

We can group these cities together as a ‘wave’ of globalising cities in the current ‘cycle’ of globalisation, but in fact each has taken a different ‘path’ into globalisation based on their unique endowments. For example, Tel Aviv has combined American venture capital with Russian educated technology expertise and developments from the Israeli military, and contrasts with Sydney, which is leveraging its world-leading universities, diverse population, corporate capacity, and its destination strength for tourism and study, to become a very different kind of global hub.

How can today’s global cities prepare for the challenges of tomorrow?

Investing in city leadership is imperative in our current climate of accelerated growth and environmental, social and political imperatives. City leaders have to convene a diverse and distributed set of other leaders to help integrate the systems of the city, and they must build trust and ambition for the future. There’s a substantial gap between our vast expectations of what cities can achieve through the promise of global urbanisation, and the severe institutional limitations in urban governance.

Cities need capable leadership to navigate the unknown; innovate to create new tools and resources; advocate for reforms; build coalitions; and obtain consensus from different stakeholders. They also need to motivate and provoke changes of behaviour around how we make use of limited resources and persuade those who live and work within cities to make space for others. We are relying hugely on the skills of our city leaders to experiment, innovate, invent, persuade, advocate, reform, build capacity and create capability, so we must invest in their leadership.

What needs to be achieved to enable city leaders to tackle all these different obstacles and opportunities?

First and foremost, we need to enable a broader range of people to become city leaders, contribute to their success, and support city leaders actively. We also need to recognise that civic leadership has become important to cities and recognise the roles that people in non-governmental institutions can play – for example, leaders from business, urban services, not-for-profits, culture, education, and health, and the media.

Because leaders need to be able to experiment, it is important to create a space, or a laboratory, within the city for inventing new ways of doing things. This is not just about harnessing the latest technologies, but also about provoking new connections, behaviours and alliances. For example, experimenting with pedestrianisation of streets, allowing citizens to choose how city budgets are spent or how public land is used, or seeing if changing the way we pay for things affects how, and how much, we use them. Experiments like this contribute to the wider effort to improve the capability of city leaders. They can change the psychology of the city.

At the heart of all this experimentation is the need for trust. City leaders are vital in establishing trust between all participants in city life, which in turn is vital for innovation. That trust comes from the depth of the collective visioning and convening that the leaders do.

How is your collaboration with STEaPP’s City Leadership Laboratory influenced by this thinking?

Greg Clark (far right) and STEaPP's Professor Michele Acuto (centre) on a visit to Santiago as part of a collaboration with the Chilean government on city leadership policy.

I’ve been delighted to be working with Professor Michele Acuto and the wider faculty from the Lab on three key areas. First, understanding and thinking about city leadership and the future of cities, which has manifested in a number of reports and publications. Second, applying this thinking to collaborative projects in targeted locations. For example, we’ve been working with the Chilean government on urban reform and advocating for change and enhanced city leadership, with a focus on Santiago. Third, we have been developing education programmes that provide individuals with the skills to contribute to the leadership of the cities they work with. The Lab has recently launched a one-year Master’s of Public Administration in Urban Innovation and Policy, and in December we ran a professional education course on The Fundamentals of City Leadership for engineers at Arup, which we plan to roll out for other groups in both public and private sector. We’ll continue to focus and expand our work in these areas over 2017 and beyond.

Global Cities: A Short History (2016) is published by Brookings Institution Press. Order the book here

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