What do rusting industrial cities have in common with outmoded BlackBerries? In this era of constant technological progress, talent mobility and global competition, it's striking how many similarities can be drawn between cities and companies, and the need for both to continuously adjust their industrial strategies to avoid oblivion or bankruptcy.
Cities can lose their vigor and vitality just as surely as a once-hot product can lose its cutting-edge cool. RIM, the maker of the the once-ubiquitous BackBerry,
has been leapfrogged by companies with more nimble technologies; Kodak, once synonymous with photography, went bankrupt when it failed to make the transition
from film to digital. The roll call of withering cities – once proud, yet now reduced to rusting remnants – shows how cities, like companies, can lose their historic raison d’etre if they fail to hone their competitive edge.
Heavy industries like steelmaking and automobile assembly once powered some of the world’s mightiest economic urban areas: Traditional manufacturing industries shaped their identity, giving their citizens income and pride. But globalization, competition, shifting trade patterns and changing consumer trends are continuously reshaping the competitive landscape, with dramatic impact on cities and people. Over the past century, industrialized regions like the Ruhr Valley of Germany, the Midlands of Great Britain and the north of France – along with the older shipbuilding cities around the Baltic and North Seas, and the mono-industrial cities of the former Soviet Union – have struggled to make the transition to different industries or toward a post-industrial identity. Their elusive quest for a post-industrial future has had a dramatic impact on their citizens.
The same issue has become daunting in recent decades for aging manufacturing regions in the United States, which have suffered the prolonged erosion of their industrial-era vibrancy. That kind of wrenching change is bound to soon confront other cities in the developing world, as they struggle to adapt their urban cores, civic infrastructure and industrial strategies to an era that puts a higher premium on nimble cognitive skills and advanced technologies than on bricks-and-mortar factories, blast furnaces and big-muscle brawn.
For fast-growing cities in the global South, many of which are urgently seeking solutions amid their sudden urban growth, there could be many lessons in the experience of older cities in the developed world in making such a transition.
A series of recent conferences among urban policymakers and practitioners – backed by a wide range of rigorous academic research and practical client-focused experience in building competitiveness – provide insights that city leaders and the World Bank Group’s practitioners can leverage as they craft programs for transformative urban strategies.
The future will be won or lost in the world’s cities. With half of humanity now living in cities – and with the breakneck pace of urbanization likely to concentrate two-thirds of the world’s population into metropolitan regions by 2050 – getting urbanization right is the over-arching challenge of this globalizing age.
Urban policy is now at the top of the news due to the bankruptcy filing of forlorn Detroit, which has long been a symbol of urban decay. Yet the urbanization drama goes far beyond the de-industrializing North: The destiny of cities worldwide will determine the success or failure of virtually every development priority – and it will be especially vital for job creation, innovation and productivity growth, environmental sustainability and social inclusion.
“Rapid urbanization is the defining trend of the 21st Century,” said Sanjay Pradhan, Vice President of the World Bank Institute, as he outlined the daunting statistics to a New York City Global Partners conference on “Business Innovation and Entrepreneurship: City Strategies” at Columbia University. “Nearly two billion new urban residents are expected to stream into the world’s cities by 2030 – most of them, in developing countries.”
Managing the growth of emerging megacities will be daunting: The urban populations of Africa and South Asia are poised to double within the next 20 years. An additional 310 million working-age people – about 35 percent of the coming expansion of the global work force – will soon arrive in just 600 of the world’s largest cities. With a worldwide network of densely developed cities destined to become the driver of prosperity, the prime centers of opportunity will be those cities that can attract and energize all forms of productive capital – of the financial, technological and intellectual varieties.
Cities accelerate economic transformation because of their intense population density, which encourages social and economic interactions with greater “social friction” than non-urban settings, as Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser emphasizes in his influential work, “Triumph Of The City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier.” Spontaneous and serendipitous exchanges of ideas turn cities into vibrant hubs of innovation, helping generate 70 percent of global GDP and making cities the world’s focal points of innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity and culture.
In a relentlessly competitive world – which is both “flattened” with a level playing field (as journalist Tom Friedman contends) and “spiky” with intense concentrations of wealth and talent (as urbanologist Richard Florida argues) – competitiveness will depend on both local creativity and global connectivity.
If they can assert what Edwin Heathcote of the Financial Times calls “urban ingenuity,” cities that clearly define their distinctive identity will thrive by embracing their economic vocation and enhancing their strengths in global value chains. Those urban nodes of creativity that are efficiently networked through technology, transportation and trade connections will be able to take maximum advantage of opportunities that require a global sensibility and a global frame of mind.
Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2012
Originally published on April 4, 2012
Cities are often associated with mixed emotions. They can sometimes make us feel insecure, disconnected and lonely, even in a crowd; while, in other moments, they provide the setting for the happiest events in our lives.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, urban spaces have a huge impact on how people participate in public life. Regular readers of this blog know that the original concept of the public sphere originates from the agora in ancient Greek city-states. The agora was a physical place where people gathered to deliberate and exchange their opinions – a true marketplace of ideas. The modern public sphere has now shifted more into the virtual realm, through various technologies and social media.
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