As 2016 fades away and we embrace the New Year, we take a moment to reflect on the seismic shifts that make any predictions seem hazardous. Some of those upheavals arrived packaged with polarized opinions and dubious evidential credibility. Other shifts gained far less media attention because they do not yet lend themselves to snappy headlines or slogans. These ‘straws in the wind’ are however just as real and may well have far reaching impacts – not least in the management and wellbeing of local communities.
To capture the uncertainty of what community leaders are heading into, lyrics from the Sound of Music may seem a very unlikely text. In the musical, young Leisl places her trust in someone just a year ahead – not much older, certainly no wiser and about to betray her trust. Convenient calendar coincidence aside, the sense that we are now sailing into the latter stages of ‘troublesome teens’ is a handy metaphor for anyone concerned with the local development and wellbeing of communities. And in these turbulent times, those UK readers who are concerned will find it challenging to fathom the realities, see bigger pictures or plan for longer-term futures.
You might imagine that vast years of experience would suggest otherwise. Our diverse UK communities are, however, more Unique than United and, when academics study community wellbeing, the current research papers might sometimes seem to have been written on (or of) a different planet.
Take, for example, John Lauermann’s ‘Municipal Statecraft: revisiting the geographies of the entrepreneurial city’. It is, undeniably, a splendid work with many interesting insights. But many UK readers will find his observations on post-growth diversification of entrepreneurial policy impacts to be several light years ahead of prevailing realities in our over-centralised State.
He contends that the search for economic growth is no longer the primary or dominant rationale for local initiatives. Narrowly-defined growth goals, he argues, have become just one of many local policy objectives across a wider societal spectrum. In truth there may well be far greater Municipal Enterprise being practiced across the UK but, with few exceptions, local leaders dare not highlight these efforts for fear of (a) harsh media scorn, (b) an irrational blame culture and (c) central financial penalties for daring to find creative alternatives to austerity cuts. Look no further than the momentary media outrage about hospital car-parking charges.
Lauermann’s acute observation that the historic rationale for municipal enterprise (boosting economic growth) has evolved into a more diverse and imaginative focus across multiple aspects of public/social policy will, however, mean little to those who have yet to fully embrace Heseltine’s (‘No Stone Unturned’) 2012 notion of Local Enterprise Partnerships. Being this far behind the curve might, however, provide scope to leapfrog the learning process but only if local leaders adopt a less insular perspective – a notion that, with few exceptions, runs counter to prevailing politics.
The theme of an evolution in economic thinking is also evident in Erik Beinhocker’s ‘Evonomics’. His Oxford-based New Economics programme has a mission to identify and address the large gaps between prevailing economic theory and reality. He does not underestimate the scale of the challenge. “So an explicit, widespread use of new economic approaches to policymaking may require some education of citizens, the media and politicians themselves on the risks of overconfident top-down solutions, and the importance of small-scale failure as a way to learn and prevent large-scale disasters.” His theme of multiple and local small-scale experimentation (inevitably with some failures) is, he would contend, vastly more likely to induce success.
There is no shortage of instructive reading for the UK’s local leaderships. The RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission, led by Stephanie Flanders, still bangs the drum for local economic growth but sees that ‘place-based’ growth as moderated in ways that would counter run-away social inequalities. “Inclusive growth is about living standards and earnings, as well as in-work progression and tackling long term unemployment. It offers a social return in helping more people participate meaningfully in the economy, but it also has an economic rationale, with the potential to address some of the key drivers of the UK’s productivity puzzle.”
The Inclusive Growth Commission’s final report in March may be a useful stepping stone but no-one should underestimate the scale of political and public education that will be needed to counter four or five decades of ill-informed governance.
Similarly Mariana Mazzucato’s work is gaining traction but the fact that her ideas are often described as radical is a sure indicator of the depths to which economic and regulatory management has sunk in the hands of unconstrained admiration of over-simplistic, supposedly ‘free’, market mechanics.
In the old musical we may have pitied teenage Leisl’s naivety, but we should now also feel for city and community leaders, who must cast around for clues in these uncertain times. Who can they trust? What are the local priorities? A recent discussion note written in preparation for the 2018 Global Summit pointed out that in the last six decades the meaning of the phrase ‘knowing your place’ has shifted from an admonishment (not speaking out of turn) to an empowerment enabled by the advent of access to Open Data and better visualization tools.
Fortunately for the UK, a few sharper minds are becoming focused on the need for renewed effort to stave off what many see as an evolutionary crisis – a crisis for which the populism of the Brexit and Trump votes are just symptomatic. Perhaps one of the best (and most readable) starting points would be Rick Robinson’s ‘Three Step Manifesto for a smarter fairer economy’.
In this summary of the state we are in, he finds little reason to blame our ills on ‘other’ (external) presumed malevolent forces but understands our own home-grown failures. “The failure to invest in local services and infrastructure . . . . is caused by . . . the failure of national government to devolve spending power to the local authorities that understand local needs.” Dr. Robinson is very much aligned with the RSA’s Inclusive Growth work when he calls for legislation ‘to encourage and support business models with a positive social outcome’. His perspectives are informed by his work in the ‘smart city’ arena but he has grasped that those inspiring innovations should be driven by a far higher purpose than mere technological novelty – and in this he sees Open Data as making vital contributions to local leadership priorities. He is not alone – as the unusually articulate and constructive post-blog comments testify.
All of these references point towards something that has been happening for decades but has been largely ignored by dominant central governments. Central policy development deals in averages. Local needs and impacts are lost in ‘rounding errors’. Is it any surprise that the effectiveness of top down directives is so often far less than their instigators hoped? What, however, has been going on are remarkable but largely unsung local heroic efforts to cope with those top-down determinants. And those local inspirations can be observed in communities the world over and, more frequently than they might admit, within in many very large companies: progress despite the senior management.
This local experimentation, this inventiveness, this local understanding of needs and priorities is in some countries constrained by central authority and a general lack of leaders who dare to be different. Many brave experiments may fail but really great local leaders do not buckle under the barrage of ignorant media bullies. That is why the creation of metro mayors and increased devolution of powers to local communities will be both significant and challenging.
For the last few years the charge into local projects has been led by technologists keen to create a market for their ‘smart’ systems and devices. Their enthusiasms have not been misplaced – great benefits are evident – but, as local leaders gain strength, as economists gain greater insights and as citizens begin to speak up, there is a renewed interest in learning from others.
For the past two decades the Intelligent Community Forum has researched these issues. Every year a few hundred communities from around the world volunteer their experiences for assessment in the hope that their efforts will be recognised and honoured. Through that evaluation process the contenders themselves gain great insights and understanding. From those that apply, the selection of the Top 21 and then Top 7 provides a vast archive of evidence of the characteristics that, in aggregate, indicate the emergence of truly intelligent communities. The indicators gleaned over the years have six or seven dimensions – the themes today being much broader than in the earliest research.
The underlying focus in on the quality of locally managed programmes for Connectivity (the extent to which digital broadband infrastructure is fit for future purpose) is now joined by assessments of local programmes for:
Digital Inclusion (or Equity) – the great effort of bringing the whole of society into a digitally-enabled world without creating yet further divisions and inequalities. In the UK the work of many charities (such as Good Things Foundation) and housing associations are delivering brilliant programmes.
The generation of a Knowledge Workforce – has impacts encouraging inward investment/employment and discouraging migration of young people. This is becoming a major focus for Local FE Colleges and partnerships with enterprise and public service agencies.
The extent of Innovation Capacity – particularly in the local provision of low-cost workspaces, mentoring facilities and investment finance to enable locally-grown new business ventures.
Local programmes for Sustainability and Resilience – whether designed to counter environmental threats or to ensure rapid responses to disasters, these local initiatives have become a key leadership priority.
The visibility of local needs as revealed by Open Data – particularly in (but not limited to) the public realm – has been hugely boosted by (a) improved visualization tools and (b) a massive growth in Data Journalism expertise.
And finally, Local Advocacy –championing pride in the local community and not shrinking from the reality that it sometimes needs more than the local football team to establish credentials on the world stage. Some might regard this ‘showing off’ as a most un-British and immodest capacity but leaders are defined by their leadership – and that often demands that they cross the boundaries of departmental silos that leave universities, hospitals, schools and energy companies to survive in separate boxes.
These primary indications of ‘Intelligent Communities’ may not exactly align with John Lauermann’s ‘Municipal Statecraft’, but they do provide a framework for local priorities – a policy mix that rises above many well-meaning but merely average national initiatives. Local priorities must inevitably adapt to meet local needs but, when the mayors, civic and communities leaders come together to share their experiences, the common ground is extensive and is dominated by that theme of developing and experimenting with imaginative local ideas and initiatives that would never occur to any centralised authority.
So, as we contemplate an uncertain 2017, we can at least be sure that the opportunity to bring the Intelligent Community Forum’s Annual Global Summit from its home in New York to the UK in 2018 will provide a great spur for many community leaders the world over. We are now ‘seventeen, going on eighteen’ but hopefully just enough older and wiser to cope with the year ahead!