Recapturing centrality

For the first time in history size and scale does not matter any more. Large cities no longer have the automatic advantage. Size, indeed, can now be a disadvantage. The sheer 'cityness' becomes invasive, transactions are too cumbersome, you fight against the traffic, ease of movement is constrained, and open space is too far away. In short, quality of life is not good enough.

This is why in surveys of world's best cities places like Copenhagen, Zurich, Stockholm and Vancouver always come out top. Most have less than 2 million inhabitants. They are walkable and accessible. Even Frankfurt has less than 1 million. They are small enough to be intimate yet large enough to be cosmopolitan.

Any place anywhere can become the centre of a universe, whether a tiny niche or something more substantial, as long as it is tenacious, connects adroitly and thinks long term. Even those out of the urban maelstrom. This is the big opportunity for less-known cities at a time when edge places and peripheries can become hubs and even small towns can get on the radar screen. Think of Helsinki, Geneva or Antwerp.

But it can also be in the smaller or more peripheral towns and cities where people with a high level of ambition find it hard to realize their potential. The pool of risk-takers and thinking people feels too small to stimulate people to achieve more and this can lead to a leakage of talent and wealth-creating possibilities. A way to overcome leakage is to develop and promote very strong niches where localized critical mass can be attained. Within these niches, 'thick' labour markets can be achieved. Adelaide, for instance, achieves deep strength in the wine industry. Wine research, production (and consumption!), distribution and representative bodies agglomerate there. Only large cities can generally create across-the-board strengths, niches and the associational richness that can be heard among the din of global information overload. Within the globalized market industries do not need to be large, but they must be competitive to operate globally.

A city can accrue power by capturing imaginative territory in the imagination of the world. It can become the central location for an activity, the headquarters of an important entity or be associated with an area that others aspire to. These niches can act as powerful levers.

Corporations capture markets by selling products, much as colonial powers captured territories to secure trade routes or raw materials. If cities have few tangible, productive resources, they can still capture ideas and networks and get ownership of them. The choices they make and resonances they create can reflect more distinctively the values a city wishes to reflect. This can have downstream benefits in terms of economics and culture and should be part of a city's foreign diplomacy. For example, Freiburg in Germany, with a population of just over 230,000, is renowned as an innovator. Car use has remained stable over 30 years and eco-housing, recycling and the use of alternative energy sources are an everyday part of life. This has attracted a cluster of high-level environmental research institutes and networks, such as ICLEI,16 whose innovations reinforce the town's position. The broader region, including wealthy northern Switzerland, acts as an innovation hub, rather like a Silicon Valley with a sustainability twist, with cities competing with each other on the environmental front. This alternative view of city development acts as its drawing power and is the region's source of competitiveness. It is the region's eco-aware, IT-savvy, anti-guzzling perspective and alternative Silicon Valley idea that resonates.

Another example: I proposed the concept of Adelaide as Google,17 whose aim was to make Adelaide a strategic nodal point for various activities, thus reinforcing its presence on global radar screens and enabling it to work strategically to capture downstream economic and other impacts. The core idea was that when key words were searched on Google, links returned to Adelaide. The city has niche specialisms and holds key events in areas that may seem insignificant at first glance but which are in fact potentially powerful, such as prison reform. It is also a hub in the 'educating cities' network. It has some leading cluster specialists. Its wine technology research is world class. The list is extensive and possibilities are very wide. By assessing the networks in which a city can take a prime position, a city can reflect back to the world some sense of centrality. This can be achieved by a concerted effort to join in and participate in relevant international organizations, providing international presentations and making the city the focus for meetings.

The aim is to capture space in the world's imagination. This approach allows a city to cascade into niche audiences, so creating ambassadors for the city. Three thousand targeted international friends of the city are better than a generalized scattershot approach. Deepening a niche requires long-term commitment, so their worth can reveal itself. This then begins to generate associations, and for these to have power they need time to mature rather than jumping from one idea to the next. The danger is that many places copy good ideas before they have had time to settle, as happened with Adelaide's Festival of Ideas, which was more or less immediately copied by Brisbane.

The fact that so few cities have developed these strategies is astonishing. It reveals a lack of understanding of how soft infrastructure works, its role in urban dynamics and what its value is. The continued knee-jerk reaction to focus on hard infrastructure blights exploring these 'soft' possibilities and eats up budgets.

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