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One Week Underground in Valencia

18 Feb

Living in a cave – one of many on the edge of Valencia that have been homes for hundreds of years – was not the obvious choice for a visitor to an ultra-high-tech conference.

Then again, something about that enlightened conference was like writing for the samizdat – underground press – digging for stories that must be exposed. And some of those stories, believe me, were about digging.

Gaps in comprehension are a challenge. Even as collective intelligence is facilitated by better digital connectivity the scope for collective ignorance blossoms and curiosity is constrained. The shifting sands of ‘Need to Know’ obscures perception and folks let go of things they’ve not fully grasped.

The cave was, surprisingly, warm and comfortable. Living there was eased by assistance from the owners who lived in the cave next door. It was sufficient. It was a timely reminder that conventional comforts can be recalibrated – and, anyway, the Wi-Fi worked brilliantly!

But I was not in Valencia for historical perspectives. I came to write about business futures. I came to make some small contribution to wider understanding for folks back home blissfully unaware of stuff happening beyond their parish. Stuff that really must be understood – even if it runs counter to their limited experience or unquestioned dogma.

Parochial is a way of describing the silos of specialists. In business and government, as well as in local communities, tribal tendencies need cross-cutting threads to knit together our social and economic fabrics. That need to knock heads together was exposed in my story of the contrast between two technology camps. How is it that experts in telecommunications find it a challenge to talk to each other?

In another way of describing what folks at home are missing, ‘No Valentine from Valencia’ shared what to some in government has long been best left unsaid. But wider comprehension of the real impact of that disregard has still not dawned back home. Where progress is hobbled by lack of vision, only direct experience will lift sights.

The good news for the UK might have been better headlined ‘Digging for Victory’. It wasn’t but, in the heart of the story, the determination to do the job once and to do it properly went a long way to explaining the unexpected accolade.

Three days at an ultra high-tech conference. Four days living in a whitewashed cave. Three stories shining lights on gaps in comprehension. These experiences, and many more, I carry forward to the next great adventure – the influx of folk from around the world to London next June to lift the sights of local leaders from ‘smart cities’ to ‘Intelligent Communities. You may not know it but really, you should hear about this.


Productivity’s New President

2 Feb

Institute for Management Services appoints new president to take fresh approach to UK’s productivity transformation

IMS – the very British Institute for Management Services – seems to have been around forever.   And the terribly British problem with productivity continues to puzzle, despite decades of effort, a long train of government ministers and grand policy initiatives.

The IMS appointment of a presidential successor to Dr. Beeching, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, Monty Finniston and more-recently a couple of Lords, might seem unlikely to make much difference.  Except for one small thing – the least noticed and least understood strand of the UK government’s new Industrial Policy : Place-Making.   Embedded in the latest policy iteration is acknowledgement that local economies are very diverse.  Different places have different needs and priorities.  They are not served well by ‘one size fits all’ policies based on national averages. Bristol is very different to Bolton.

With the legitimization of ‘Place-Making’ – entirely new channels are opened to the incoming productivity president.  Recharged city leaderships are massively motivated energy sources rooted within local economies. Their ‘city sovereignty’ perspectives reflect a new determination to properly manage the shocks and stresses of fast-growing communities.

The energy of new city leaders is undeniable. They wear coats of many party colours. Who better to convene new programmes that could ramp up inward investment, attract talent, grow their local knowledge workforce and get to grips with the chronic mediocrity of digital infrastructure.  In contrast, Whitehall has just celebrated the ‘achievement’ of 95% UK availability of connectivity that is not super, not fast and not broad – and wonder why more people don’t buy it?

Leastways, that’s the story so far. The UK’s productivity wake-up call  could herald a new policy balance – more grass roots than top-down – but much will now depend on finding space in local leaders’ overcrowded place-making agendas and the resources to fuel their empowerment.



With the benefit of hindsight

14 Jan

My first blog of 2018 ‘Unintended Consequences and Digital Dilemmas’ reflected on the recently aired ‘backlash’ against addictive smart phones and other concerns around popular platforms.

There is always an undercurrent of discontent and discomfort around disruptions engendered by new technologies and it’s far too easy to blame lack of foresight on those who have pioneered new online systems and digital devices. This time around, however, there’s an interesting reaction from within the tech community itself.

There’s a growing realization that this innovative industry needs to be far more than ‘clever clogs with computers’ obsessed with technological novelty and inventing yet more uncalled for stuff. “Hey Google. Who needs wireless woolly mittens to tell your smartphone you have cold hands?”

 It’s not just the digital industry that’s learning to focus on real needs. Across all sectors the question ‘And your point is?’ focuses minds on real purpose – ‘what exactly are we really trying to achieve?’ Even (some) economists are learning to strip away layers of substitutes for common sense and question mechanistic devotion to dogma.

In these ‘hindsightful’ hours there’s space to reflect that if there’d been some adherence to basic principles we’d not now need remedial actions. And, more than that, there is scope for those blessed with sharper minds to restate those principles.

My blog on the Medium platform points to an example of some basic principles for inspired local leaders. I also reflect on the relative deafness of macroeconomics – the fluffy blankets of average ignorance cloaking the insights and priorities of hugely diverse local economies and communities that still lack the freedom to seize their destiny.

A toast to 2018: Greater Granularity: delight in diversity.



Recipes for success?

4 Dec

In the unlikely event that fans of chef Marcus Waring stumbled across my blog (Vectors of Prosperity) published yesterday on the Medium platform they might inadvertently imagine that I’d confused fine dining with economic policy – Place three ways!

But that accidental analogy (and terrible pun) has some depth.  Without care in balancing ingredients, even the most creative cooks will fail to satisfy.  Today’s Irish Stew (unlikely contender for the lunch menu in Brussels) was enriched by weekend observations of the strong correlation between the lower half of the Social Mobility Index and votes for Brexit.

One of the ingredients for economic success is a metric that is closely observed and oft celebrated –  the number of new business start-ups.  But, as Sherry Coutu reminds us, that emphasis on new enterprise distracts attention from a deeper need – nurturing growth by ‘scaling up’ enterprises that have survived those early steps.  “Increasing the number of scale-up businesses in a country boosts job creation and the economy as a whole to a greater extent than increasing the number of startups.

That distinction between Start-Ups and Scales-Ups is a critical issue. ‘The UK is ranked as third in the world by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for the amount of startups created although sits at thirteenth for scaleups.’  The 2017 annual ScaleUp review once again enters a plea for better metrics – particularly for the benefit of ‘local community developers.


As chef Marcus would observe, getting the balance of flavours right requires careful selection of ingredients and experience.  The local leaders best placed to succeed are those who recognise the need for learning – which is why the Bloomberg-backed school for mayors (particularly for those transitioning from the National to Local) is more than seasoning.




On the move – fresh impetus for local leadership

30 Nov

Sometimes repetition works. It’s brilliant for children’s stories.

Sometimes – particularly in politics – reinforcement is needed for messages to penetrate.

Sometimes audience boredom blunts the impact.

But then, amazingly, the message arrives on a different train – a fresh perspective – and the audience is shaken from slumber.

That is why this Social Mobility report is required reading.

I have lost track of the number of times I’ve written of the UK’s economic diversity and the inadequacy of over-centralised policy responses.  Despite the daily evidence the march of the macros remains the average response.

Teasing apart the policy knots (treating causes rather than symptoms) does not come easily to the average big number addict.

At the heart of the Social Mobility Commission’s report the challenge of reconciling the National with the Local is exposed. Umpteen flavours of economic and demographic analysis may have said all this before but now . . .

‘There is enough evidence from around the world, in our country’s own history and, contemporaneously, in local areas to know that, with the right approach, the transmission of disadvantage from one generation to the next can be broken.

‘There is, however, a mind-blowing inconsistency of practice. It is the breeding ground for the local lottery in life chances that exists today. It is, of course, a matter for local decision-makers to attune their policies and priorities to the needs of their local communities. In a heavily resource-constrained climate, local councils are continually having to make difficult choices about where to allocate resources and focus efforts in order to get the biggest bang for their buck. But all too often schemes start up and then wither away. Initiatives often lack scale. Experience is usually not pooled. Most worryingly of all, evidence about what works to improve social mobility is, at best, not properly embedded in local policies and programmes. At worst, it is ignored. When that happens, precious public resources are wasted and the potential for social progress is lost.’

Despite the pleas for consistency – the outrage against ‘postcode lotteries’ – there is also recognition of the need for local leaders ‘to attune their policies and priorities to the needs of their local communities’. That required flexibility is certainly not lost on the recently appointed Metro Mayors and has been a consistent refrain from many city leaders. But after years of denigration (and austerity budgets) Local Governments have lost much of their authority. It’s a rare and brave soul who has leadership strength to develop local economic and community development policies that really meet the needs of their people.

And yet, despite constraints (real or imagined), it does happen. The report cites evidence of places where fortune has changed through dint of local effort. But the report also highlights how those flashes of brilliance are rarely shared.

Perhaps more than the myriad metrics around economic performance and evolving demographics, this Social Mobility study underscores that need for local collaboration and inspired leadership.

This is precisely the agenda planned for a unique 3-day conference in June 2018.

‘Intelligent Communities’ are places that may have the benefit of smart technology and future-proofed infrastructure, but they also prosper under the guidance of gifted local leadership.

This is not new – they’ve been studied in depth by the Intelligent Community Forum for the best part of two decades.

Next June such places from around the world will send their delegates to meet and mingle with local leaders from the UK, share their ideas and successes, form new bonds, learn of new opportunities and celebrate their delight in a renaissance of the places they call ‘home’.


Cross-Party consensus and other ‘escape hatches’

27 Nov

It may not have been the first such example but the pre-2015 election consensus around long-term infrastructure planning was certainly a ‘learning moment’ for Westminster. The lessons have not been lost – despite the divisiveness of ongoing policy power struggles.

The case for removing infrastructure from knockabout political games was, eventually, grasped by Party leaders despite their decades of devotion to partisan debate. Endless arguments and prevarications get in the way of well-considered solution investment whilst the people, emulating Doogle, shake their heads sorrowfully and mutter ‘What a way to run a railway’.

Even building that infrastructure consensus was hard fought. Never mind that the life cycle of governments was far too short for serious investment. Never mind that the lobbyists were routinely exposed as short-term market manipulators. Never mind that the complexities of major projects didn’t fit into 78pt tabloid headlines. It was no small wonder that anything was ever achieved in the febrile atmosphere of Westminster party politics.

But opening an escape hatch requires broad recognition of some impending disaster.

With today’s launch of the White Paper on Industrial Strategy it is timely to review the Green paper comments from industry and academia. The Policy Lab led by Kings College London (KCL) observed, ‘It is difficult to sell a big change to the entire country without a sense of crisis’ and went on to ask whether ‘a burning platform exists to launch the industrial strategy from?’

Last week’s budget scene-setter strived to embed ‘productivity’ as a central motivating focus but was that sufficient to establish a ‘war footing’?   The KCL input was as positive as possible – suggesting unity around securing a ‘peace dividend’ ‘as the country moves through this time of profound change and heightened disruption’.   They didn’t dare suggest that Brexit was itself a sufficiently severe and imminent unifying threat – a diplomatic caution that serves to underline the long road between rhetoric and reality.

Getting consensus around infrastructure planning set the scene for further calls to remove contentious arenas from everyday politics.  Writing in the December issue of Prospect magazine, Diane Coyle’s candidate for cross-party consensus is Economic Strategy.

Writing as a member of the independent Industrial Strategy Commission, Diane concludes that, There must be a commitment, across party lines, to strategic management of the economy, monitored by an independent body analogous to the OBR. The strategy must go far beyond a few eye-catching sector deals and be aimed at long-term challenges, such as decarbonising the economy and delivering health and social care for an ageing population’.

That plea for cross-party consensus was echoed again last week when 90 MPs repeated calls for removal of the Social Care/NHS policy complex from the political maelstrom. The BBC reported, The letter argued that only a cross-party NHS and social care convention – a forum for non-partisan debate – could deliver a sustainable settlement for these services where conventional politics had failed to do so.’

What may have started with independence for the Bank of England and the creation of the Office for Budgetary Responsibilities and a seemingly endless list of ‘arms-length’/independent regulators seems now to have become the model for a new hands-off school of government.

That withdrawal, however, is a prospect that now seems far more likely to succeed at a local level closer to the people and their communities. An alternative ‘escape hatch’ for conflicted macro-managers is to back-off and devolve issues to regional/metro and local governments where attending to the great diversity of needs can help untangle the centrally knotted issues. The other great advantage of letting go is that local political discourse is far more inclined towards the consensual and the emergent White Paper is certainly not short of placed-based aspirations.

The UK is, arguably, the most centralised of all advanced economies. Sadly, subsidiarity is often and erroneously painted as some dark and suspect EU concept but as any parent with teenagers will know, there comes a time when youngsters must be let go. So it is with Mrs and Mr Whitehall – the offspring must be trusted to provide the energy for the entire family’s next generation.

And I wrote all that without using the F word.



Communities and their place-makers: the roots of the UK economy

20 Oct

The London-based Centre for Cities does exactly what it says on the tin. They advocate for better recognition of the economic and societal strengths of the UK’s major conurbations.

‘Cities’ according the Centre for Cities, ‘do not follow the national economy – they ARE the national economy’ – and their diversity demands that each of them have different priorities to meet the needs of their citizen and business communities.

This diversity of needs and priorities stands in sharp contrast to Whitehall’s grasp of the economy. The UK is, measurably, the most centralised of all developed nations.

Even with limited sub-national devolutions beyond England and the cautious local empowerment of Metro Mayors and City Deals within, it is clear that in so many spheres of our regulated regime, we have a complex challenge – an inability to align centrally planned resources with local needs.

None of that is news. The debate, like some slow-brewing tropical storm, has been building over the last three decades – centrally evidenced by the RSA’s City Growth Commission and today (rather more locally) illustrated by the energy around Bristol’s brilliant ‘Festival of Ideas’.   And this locally-driven rebalancing energy is also evident across many UK cities – at a pace, intensity, creativity and engagement that leaves Whitehall Departments in the shade.

This renaissance – the emergence of inspired local leadership and willing communities – is also a cultural expression that positions exponents at some distance from the tired dogmas of national political parties across the spectrum.

Critical impatience is, for example, articulated by Metro Mayors, regardless of Party affiliations. The Centre for Cities noted the marginalisation of these local champions at recent Party conferences and, this week, the C4C lead story is a repeat of a powerful post-election view of paralysis in parliament with a call for MP’s to support local initiatives.

I’m not a disinterested observer. I’ve written previously about Municipal Enterprise and the need to translate and apply the work of fresh economic thinkers like Kate Raworth and Mariana Mazzucato from national to more local perspectives.   I’ve watched the brilliantly creative work of Knowle West Media Centre building community cohesion in part of Bristol and for several years I’ve contributed to the work of the US-based Intelligent Community Forum with its global network of around 160 cities.

Whilst our national politicians are looking elsewhere, the new localism is an unstoppable force. This is an energy that is likely be further bolstered by the Intelligent Community Forum’s 2018 Global Summit when civic leaders, CIOs and community developers from many of the world’s leading cities come to London next June to share their experiences.   The current holder of the title ‘Intelligent Community of 2017’ is Melbourne, Australia. In recent years UK cities have rarely featured in the rankings but this year Knowle West was assessed as being amongst the Global Top 21 – a huge accolade for their imaginative creativity.

Let’s be clear (as politicians are fond of saying) communities are both economic and societal constructs – they embrace both the places where we work and where we live – and those of us who commute may belong to two or more.

In the gradual evolution of local empowerment, the creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships was supposed to have been a step along the way. No doubt they can claim some economic impact but for their wider communities these efforts pass largely unnoticed and, as noted in this week’s Economist, the divergences of well-being means that many feel they are being left behind.  Rather than celebrate diversities the good citizens of less-prosperous places are more likely to fret about ‘post-code lotteries’ when austerity drives down public service standards. Fortunate indeed are those places that rise above party politics to embrace inspired local leadership. But this is a balancing act – local threads woven into wider regional fabrics.

What marks out the new New Localism are signs of vastly greater local engagement – and with that higher-octane fuel the drivers of the UK economic performance and our social and cultural developments are very firmly in the hands of local communities and their place-makers.