Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Talent, competitiveness and liveability

To be successful, cities must attract investment. To attract investment cities must attract talent. To attract talent, cities must offer a desirable quality of life for a broad range of needs. All this must be done while introducing resilience and ruggedness to city systems in the face of environmental stresses, particularly climate change.

This post explores the links between competitiveness, liveability, resilience and design in the built environment.

Many urban analysts are focusing on competitiveness as a defining characteristic of successful future cities.... Yet what makes a city competitive is a complex question - economic activity, culture, infrastructure or natural assets?

While the considerations are wide and varied, perhaps its ability to attract investment is a useful indicator, which leads to an interesting quote from Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York:
Ive always believed that
talent attracts capital more effectively and consistently than capital attracts talent.

So if the ability to attract investment is directly linked to the ability of a city to attract those globally mobile knowledge workers, who represent Richard Florida's 'creative class' elite, then framing cities in terms of securing talent provides a new perspective on design and policy priorities.

It means that to be competitive, a city must be attractive, desirable and liveable.

The issues become even more challenging when considered in the context of climate change and resource scarcity - summed up by urbanist Alex Steffen's tweet:

"The greater your community's structural demands for energy and materials (off-site or off-shore), the greater its vulnerability."

So future competitiveness expands to include resilience and self-sufficiency to some degree. These social, environmental and economic considerations make planning for competitiveness a tricky task - identifying leverage points which achieve outcomes aligned with all three must be a priority for cities with global aspirations.

One of the challenges in conceptualising cities is their complexity. However cities are not the first (and certainly not the last) complex system to attract the attention of designers and analysts. Indeed, economists have built an entire field of study around models for considering complexity. The Economist Intelligence Unit - the consulting business associated with The Economist magazine - has developed a number of indices for assessing cities:

- Hot Spots - The Competitive Cities Index (for Citigroup)

- The Green Cities Index (for Siemens)

- The Liveable Cities Index

The ranking of cities on these indices has attracted a fair amount of press and tapped into the competition for global recognition (itself a measure of competitiveness). However, more so than the results, the metrics for these indices offer some insight into the leverage points for cities to become more competitive.

And perhaps more importantly, it provides some insight into the factors in the immediate control of city authorities that could make it more competitive?

Looking at the index metrics more closely, the majority relate to external or institutional factors or issues of national policy - all of which are challenging to address with short-term actions. Issues such as economic strength, global appeal, stability, culture and health and education sector strength are critical, but often beyond the capacity of city decision-makers to support directly.

However, beyond the broad institutional criteria, the largest area of overlap between all three indices is the built environment. Physical capital and resilience to natural hazards contribute 25% of the competitive cities index, physical infrastructure contributes 20% of the liveable cities index and six of the seven of the green cities index criteria relate directly to the built environment (carbon emissions, energy, buildings, transport, air quality, water and land use). The physical fabric of the city is also directly within the sphere of influence of metropolitan authorities and so should represent a cornerstone to city strategy.

My experience of design in the built environment is that often projects - even big projects - forge ahead with little recognition to the broader city context. The thought process appears to be:

"we'll focus on being a commercial success first, and then use the money from that to make the spaces between buildings somewhat better or make allowance from investment in some discrete piece of public infrastructure".

We go forward as though the financial performance gives us licence to invest in social infrastructure, not understanding that the social (and by extent environmental) infrastructure is what makes cities desirable in the first place.

Concluding this post, I urge city authorities and precinct developers to consider the patterns of liveability, competitiveness and sustainability when considering strategies for improving investment in their city.

They may realise that they have more agency to contribute to all three than they thought: next generation infrastructure and a smart built environment have greater potential to address these issues in an integrated fashion an any other area of policy or public investment.

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