Tuesday, 13 October 2015 11:19

Innovative leadership can make cities more inclusive

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Robin Hambleton's latest book is timely. The UN has just agreed its 2016-2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which include a commitment to make cities more inclusive. Hambleton provides 17 "Innovation Stories" drawn from Auckland to Curitiba showing what can be done when cities are able to grasp their own future, and are led by people (inside or outside local government) who are prepared to do things differently.

The book makes three fundamentally important points. Firstly, while blind faith in markets is driving widening inequalities globally, there are some places that are being made more inclusive through conscious policy interventions. Secondly, this happens where the civic leadership sees the importance of place and recognises that inclusion and sustainability are one and the same thing. Finally, international learning and exchange are essential if we are to make a difference.

Don't tick boxes - innovate

Hambleton elegantly dissects the flaws in the ideology of "public service improvement" enforced through the imposition, usually by central governments, of market and quasi-market mechanisms. Public benefit amounts to more than an array of individual purchases; marketising things strips out the very idea of a shared public purpose - the ethos that has underpinned urban and regional planning for a century. Place-less power, such as that exercised by multi-national corporations and global finance, shows no loyalty to place. 

So often the New Public Management fostered over the past 20 years creates a dumbed-down, box-ticking culture within the public sector. Professionals and elected politicians become risk-averse. Yet, in a rapidly changing world, where cities become ever more diverse and technology is in constant flux, public administrations need an innovative culture. Hambleton argues that "nation states that have strong local governments will continue to enjoy an innovation advantage". Not much hope for the UK then!

Innovation stories

Innovation stories are a key feature of the book. There are 17 of them in all, drawn from many different countries, to show practical examples of what place-based leadership can achieve, while also illustrating other key themes in the book. For example, the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology University, Ahmedabad, India, actively contributes to, but also provides a critical commentary on, the development of this rapidly growing city of more than 5 million people. Funded by the Indian Ministry of Urban Development and the city council, it acts as a "critical friend" to the city leaders and urban stakeholders. University engagement  is one of the strands that Hambleton advocates; universities should be playing a leadership role within their region, and there needs to be a culture in which academics are engaged with what is going on outside the campus.

Other of these stories are more familiar. Copenhagen's deserved reputation as a people-friendly city that puts pedestrians and cyclists before cars shows that an incremental, but persistent, approach can deliver radical change over the long term.  Melbourne has come to prominence more recently for the way it has addressed quality in the public realm. Its innovation story explains how this came about, through strong leadership at political and officer level that embedded a new design-focused culture across all city departments.

Less well known is the story of Langrug, an informal settlment of about 1,900 shacks in Stellenbosch, South Africa. A visit to Shack/Slum Dwellers International's Ugandan federation stimulated a fundamental shift in thinking and practice. Community-based data collection became a key means of mobilising people in Langrug and advocating for their needs, and city-wide Urban Poor platform and finance mechanism was created to fund projects prioritiesed by the poor themselves. meanwhile, each block within Langrug created its own block committee to oversee projects like installation of flush toilets or creation of play areas.

Wise cities not smart cities

While strongly endorsing the case for innovation, the book takes a critical stance towards the rhetoric of "smart cities". As Hambleton pithily notes, "having super-responsive services is not enough to create an inclusive city". Smart city technologies, that are being strongly promoted by large IT companies, carry the risk of widening the gaps between those either side of the digital divide. But civic leaders certainly need to be active learners, and as well as understanding the assets of their own city they should be open to experiences from similar places in other parts of the world.

Emphatically, this does not mean following packages of "best practice". Differences in governance and institutions can mean that what works in one place flops in another. But cities remain much better placed than central governments to do successful international policy transfer; a proposition that I would endorse on the basis of my involvement in European territorial cooperation projects.

Local leadership can shape the future

The potential exists for local place-based leadership to make a difference,as the innovation stories each demonstrate in their different ways. However, the old "command and control" mentality, whether amongst elected members or public sector professionals needs to be thrown overboard. The shift from government to governance means that leaders need to become facilitators, capable of motivating disparate players and steering networks. Not all the leaders will be city bosses, though Hambleton is generally a fan of elected mayors. Place-based leaders may be politicians, but can also be community activists, public professionals, trade union or business leaders, for example.

More of the same at a bit less cost is not enough for cities confronted by climate change, high levels of in- (or out-) migration, and widening inequality. New Civic Leadership should be the focus, not more New Public Mangement.

In short, this is a book that raises many pertinent questions about the nature and future of public  service in shaping the places where increasing numbers of people will live. It is clearly written, and strong on practical examples. It advocates the need to look, and work, across traditional boundaries, whether between departments in a local authority or between practice and research. It proposes that an international perspective is essential to inspire people about the possibilities of creating a better future for places. if you are interested in urbanisation and sustainable places, you should read it. 







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