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Cities must use their new freedoms to develop as ‘networks of networks’

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George Osborne’s Budget on 8 July is expected to put some more meat on the bones of his commitment to devolve power and freedom to the Northern Powerhouse, centred on Greater Manchester.

Although that commitment is welcome there continue to be major unresolved issues including the overall map of devolution in England, the coherence of Whitehall’s approach to public service devolution and the big bad question of greater fiscal autonomy.

Alongside the national debate, the possibility of greater local freedom is leading to a renewed focus on urban policy. The city debate here has tended to lag behind that of the rest of the world: when our cities had so little control over money, industrial policy and public service objectives, what was the point of speculating on how local leaders might develop an overarching place strategy?

This is now changing, and not just in cities; we at the RSA are finding demand from towns and counties too that want to show they can be trusted to provide strategic leadership despite the many challenges they face.  

Cities are complex social phenomena. They succeed and fail for a wide variety of reasons. Nevertheless it is important to approach place shaping with a broad conceptual framework, especially if leaders want to combine economic and social strategy. One starting point is to see the power and potential of cities lying in their nature as networks of networks.

From this perspective, while city leaders need to act in a number of ways to boost resilience and growth, the core energy of cities lies in the interaction between the members of these networks and between the networks. In viable cities, the challenge of leadership is not just about driving change but also about painstakingly removing the many barriers that block cities from exploiting this innate capacity for innovation and development.

A number of features help networks be productive. Size is important: the larger the network the more resources and skills it will be able to mobilise. Quality too matters. Innovative firms and creative people aren’t just good in themselves but they enliven the networks of which they are a part.

Diversity is an increasingly recognised network attribute. A few years ago city leaders might have seen growing ethnic or national diversity as a problem; now most see it is as a boon. The leader of a Midlands city told me recently how for the first time he was seeing signs of enterprise and aspiration in the low density social housing estates that had been in the doldrums since seventies de-industrialisation.

The reasons? First, falling crime rates and public safety measures (paid for by the council in less austere times) had reduced the sense of disorder and danger; and second, that aspirational African and Eastern European families were now moving in. The impact that enterprising newcomers can have in shifting norms in a community as a whole is classic network effect.

A fourth important network attribute concerns affective factors such as identity, mission and trust and also the institutional ecology. Places with a sense of shared purpose alongside collaborative, network-bridging institutions are able to reduce friction, enabling faster reaction and adaptation. As US management expert Stephen Covey neatly put it: “change happens at the speed of trust”.

But if cities are inherently dynamic, network-based systems, why don’t they all thrive? Of course, cities can have major structural weaknesses such as inadequate infrastructure, but just as important are the largely human barriers that block ideas and energy from flowing through urban networks.

For decades one of the most obvious was geographical: the parochialism of local government, along with Whitehall’s ham-fisted creation and destruction of regional and subregional structures, saw councils unable to collaborate at the level needed, particularly for economic policymaking. Yet now things are changing fast. It seems as if almost every urban authority is part of some kind of combined authority initiative.

Sadly, the same determination to change is yet to be consistently found in relation to the barriers which disrupt the creative potential of local public services networks or that keep business and local government at arm’s length.

As forthcoming RSA/LSE research will show, weak, narrow and fragmented social networks still lock out the talents and aspiration of deprived communities from the winners’ circle of city renewal; in this domain interventions need to be crafted with the community as the weaknesses and strengths of social networks differ markedly from place to place.

Local leaders need to be ambitious and proactive in guiding their places but they must ultimately trust their cities; removing barriers isn’t easy and the work is never over, but do it and the network of networks will start to perform their magic.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive, RSA

 

 

 

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