Drawing power and the resonance of cities

The drawing power concept pulls the various aspects of a city's desirability together. It assesses the dynamics of attraction, retention and leakage of power, resources and talent. Equally, it looks at what repels people from a place. It is the blend of elements that make a city attractive and desirable. And different aspects will tempt different audiences: power brokers, investors, industrialists, shoppers, tourists, property developers. The sum of these threads of attractiveness creates the resonance the city projects. If this is positive, the results will be shown through economic, social and others indicators. Many of the components can be quantified, yet much needs to be evaluated through peer-group assessment and qualitative judgements. The currently available data on cities, however, do not allow us to comprehensively assess drawing power. Sometimes this is because an element is not measured at all, say the image of a city or its resilience, in other cases because the various data are not brought together within a broader explanatory conceptual framework such as overarching drawing power. Economic, environmental, social and cultural data are looked at in isolation and rarely in terms of mutual impacts upon each other.

The Global and World Cities (GaWC) project in Loughborough23 reminds us how out of date our measurement systems for assessing city dynamics are. There is a dominance of attribute measures over relational measures in social research. We measure static quantities, such as population or gross domestic product, usually derived from the census, as distinct from relational measures of flows, connections, linkages and other less tangible relations. 'In this process cities are effectively de-networked', which is ironic given the mantra about the importance of networking. The same applies to transnational statistics, which are based on the nation. For example, the massive concentration of flows of information across the North Atlantic and the vast connection networks linking London and New York are simply not picked up in 'official statistics'. Lastly, GaWC note:

There is a great temptation to interpret rankings as hierarchies. Since data can be compiled from official statistics on cities to provide quantities of attributes -population totals, employment sector totals, headquarter totals, etc. - cities can be ordered by size in various ways that may look like an urban hierarchy. Of course, it is no such thing: hierarchies can only be defined as relations between objects, mere ranking of cities says nothing about relations between cities.

The axes of power and relations to be looked at should include social and cultural power as well as political, administrative and economic power. But there are other sources of power, especially within niche sectors. These include heritage or tourism power, where clearly a Florence or a St Petersburg would score highly. Yet the judgement of how powerful these assets are would not be exclusively based on high levels of tourism. How exclusive it might be or how it might attract inward investors would also be considered.

Another source of power is the attractiveness of learning institutions, especially to post-graduates. This gives a city more opportunity to be selective and perhaps attract greater talent. That talent itself, if it clusters in a place, becomes in its own right a source of pulling power.24 An effect of being a talent magnet is the ability of a city to get outsiders to associate with it, to attend events like conferences, which in turn have spin-off effects as people get to know the city and become ambassadors by sending out good messages. Other sources of potential power include research or industrial specialisms, such as the hardcore disciplines of computing, engineering or high-tech manufacturing. This was the initial trigger that made Silicon Valley happen. All power resources need tracking.

The overall effect of drawing power is the resonance it creates. And this is made up of tangibles and intangibles - it is the multiple facts, stories, images, memories and associational richness a city establishes for itself. This might be to do with a historical event, an image or its role as an industrial engine. People often have strong views about a place, positive or negative, even if they have not been there. The phrase 'black hole of Calcutta' will always blight Kolkata's prospects. It refers to the death of 123 British prisoners who had perished in an airless dungeon in 1756 after the Nawab of Bengal incarcerated them but, partly as a result, Kolkata is still seen as the epitome of urban hell and slum-living and is not attractive to inward investors. The reality is far away. There are some dreadful conditions, but the infrastructure, such as the metro, is very good. Mumbai by contrast, because of its association with Bollywood, is seen as glamorous, when in fact it has a far greater proportion of slum dwellers: 5.82 million as against 1.49 million in Kolkata and 1.82 million in Delhi. With 500,000 inhabitants, Mumbai's Dharavi is the largest slum in the world.

The positive or negative resonance of a city affects its citizens and they behave accordingly. It is difficult to measure, yet, in my experience, people in places that have a negative perception of their city lack confidence and have less motivation and energy. By contrast, those who know they are coming from a place that is going somewhere derive energy from that, even though objectively they may have no more talent than someone from a place lacking confidence. The collective psychology of a city plays a significant role in achieving its objectives. It affects its ambition, its chutzpah and its vision. That is why we can talk of 'can do' or entrepreneurial places, such as Birmingham in the past or present-day Shanghai or even Hong Kong. Conversely, Taipei's or Osaka's current difficulties with the rise of mainland China affects them deeply.

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