Tag Archives: sustainability

The Intelligent Community

31 May

The Intelligent Community

Kate Raworth, the ‘renegade’ economist and author of Doughnut Economics, knows only too well that ideas are born when and where they are needed most.  Fresh thinking takes time to be accepted.  Darwin’s evolutionary insights are still resisted.  Climate Change science still denied.  Flat Earth advocates still cling to the edges of their world.

It is not enough to gather evidence.  Mass acceptance of fresh thinking oft requires a crisis of sufficient scale to overcome complacency.   Sufficient scale?  Massive impacts for a few may be discounted by those looking at bigger pictures.  Responses reflect agency – the ability to make that difference.  And therein lies the power of localism – the strength of the place, the community, the neighbourhood. That ability to JFDI.

The emergence of Intelligent Communities – places that are not resigned to some externally-imposed fate – reflects locally perceived priorities.  These are communities that really do ‘know their place’ and know it in colours, details, depths of complexity – ‘nuanced knowhow’ that often eludes the averaged ‘higher’ authority.

BUT (and that’s a big but) the vital essence of such communities is difficult to measure and analyse. Qualitative research methods do not easily answer the question:  Why do some places succeed whilst others decline? We can, however, spot the signs – the indicators of prosperity, confidence, wellbeing and community spirit. That is why, over two decades of research, the Intelligent Community Forum has assessed hundreds of places and selected a few as exemplars – communities that may serve as beacons for others.

Every year ICF has brought these communities together to share their learning.   Until now that global gathering has always been held in North America.  2018 is different.  For three days of next week the ICF Global Summit will be held in London.  In preparation for that event (and for the benefit of those new to the notion of Intelligent Communities) we started publishing a weekly series of notes covering several of the primary indicators – the signs of local activity that ICF’s researchers have, over the years, seen time and again in the most successful places.

The series was first announced in a brief note ‘Looking Sideways at that Place We call Home’,and closely followed by ‘Local Fabrics?’ to set a framework for the rest of the series.  Subsequent episodes were:

All of these themes and their local action programmes (calibrated to match local economic and social priorities) are common indicators of Intelligent Communities.

Next week, ICF’s Top7 communities from around the world, together with an array of top flight speakers, will share their experiences with delegates from near and far.

The full 3-day programme includes details of evening receptions and, on June 6th, at the Summit Dinner, Melbourne Australia will hand over the accolade of Intelligent Community of the Year to one of ICF’s 2018 Top7 Communities.

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Facing Disasters

27 May

For a brief moment I hesitated.

Interviews with survivors of the Grenfell inferno reminded us of the horror and the tragic consequences of an avoidable and predicted disaster.

Last Wednesday the UK’s national news media was dominated by two events – the 1st anniversary commemorations of Manchester’s Arena bombing and the start of the Grenfell Tower fire enquiry.  Both sobering and intensely local.  Both respecting their community responses.

Last Wednesday I also hesitated – but not in the face of any disaster. On that day it might have been timely to reschedule the last two episodes of the Knowing Your Place Series.  It might, perhaps, have seemed right to bring forward the comments on Resilience and defer the scheduled episode on Sustainability.

But no. Manchester’s memorial moments needed no further comment at that sensitive time – the learning can follow.  West London’s respect for Grenfell’s grieving will, we are assured, gain the time it deserves.   Both are about aftermaths.  The ‘Knowing Your Place’ series is more forward looking.   I pressed ahead with publication of Keep on Running – in circles’.

It’s true that proper local consideration of the need for sustainability can be triggered in the pit of disasters.  In Part 8 of the series the primary example is of the renaissance of a rusting and decrepit steel town but, with evidence already to hand, we need hardly wait any longer for the very worst impacts of climate change to strike.  We’ve surely already waited long enough.  Alfred Russel Wallace (a contemporary of Charles Darwin) wrote of man-made environmental damage in 1898.

Working to avoid disasters – to bequeath to future generations an environment in better balance – doesn’t grab media and political attention with the same force as people perishing right now.  Two of the leading approaches to ecological sustainability are rooted in science and economics – and are closely intertwined.  The economist Kate Raworth questions underlying assumptions and Ellen MacArthur asks how resources can be re-used. The answers are being written not by national governments but by citizens, communities, city leaders and their local universities.

If you get the chance to read ‘Running in Circles’, do follow the links to Kate’s and Ellen’s work.  Both will inform future communities and city leaderships who do not want to sleepwalk towards disaster.

The final part of the series, ‘What If?’ will appear, as scheduled, next Wednesday – just in time to complete this primer ahead of the Intelligent Community Forum’s 2018 Summit in London.

Where are we heading with this?

28 Apr

There’s a moment on any epic journey – a brief moment, maybe of self-doubt – when you pause (mid-sentence, perhaps) to wonder exactly where you’re headed.

This week’s pause, this check, comes just as we approach the midpoint of the KYP series – four done, five to go.  Time, then, to check the plan, time to summon energy, time to pull together and push on.  Time, maybe, for a small course correction?

KYP – ‘Knowing Your Place’ – was always an unlikely blog series but from the outset it had great structural underpinning.  Most of the episodes had been well rehearsed – albeit with different headlines – and needed only an injection of current relevance for a new audience.

With just one exception the planned topics were neatly summarised three years previously in the concluding chapter of Brain Gain – a book that captured more than a decade of learning through the Intelligent Community Forum.

The single exception is a key indicator that has since crept far more clearly onto the community agenda – largely, it should be said, through the work of the Rockefeller Foundation and their 100 Resilient Cities network.  It might once have been argued that Resilience was but a subset of a longer-standing ICF Key Indicator – Sustainability.  However, headline tones get burdened by baggage – a peaceful green is not on the same wavelength as urgently-flashing red and blue lights of public safety.

When the Intelligent Community Forum gathers in London next June, their 2018 root theme, Humanising Data, will no doubt be coloured by recently raised awareness of data privacy issues and the impacts/consequences of ‘artificial intelligence/ignorance’ – but in our KYP series the blog-prep for Sir Nigel Shadbolt’s input is still two weeks away.

For readers remaining mystified, links to the series so far are listed below.  At the outset, the central question, the question that is bringing so many brilliant speakers and community leaders together next June, was deceptively simple: Why do some places thrive whilst others decline?

I’ve checked the waypoints.  We seem to be on course, but the next five weeks is a long journey.  Still to come in this series are thoughts on local Advocacy (Who do we think are?), Open Data (AI in city infrastructures), Innovation Capacity (Pacemakers for Place-makers), Sustainability Engagement and finally Resilience.  Fortunately, ICF is inherently collaborative and, with inputs from summit speakers, the driving can be shared.

By the end of May, homework complete, all delegates – whether from the UK or the other side of world – will be fully prepped and prompted to probe the great gathering of expert speakers and community leaders at the ICF Global Forum.

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Notes:

Brain Gain, Bell, Jung and Zacharilla, Intelligent Community Forum, ISBN: 1499228023

Knowing Your Place – that place you call home.

The series so far:

Local Fabrics?

Connected With Success?

Where Have All Our Flowers Gone?

Altogether Now?

Part 5 – ‘Who Do We Think We Are?’ is scheduled for publication on 2ndMay.

Enough is Enough: Being Growth Agnostic is not an Extremist Position

6 Jun

[Why I took Doughnut Economics[1] to the 2017 ICF Global Summit]

The time for tolerance of misguided creeds is over. That’s an existential issue for politicians searching for economic growth.   The relentless pursuit of progress has not suddenly vapourised but its measurement is, at last, being sidelined.

Economists and politicians have known since the 1930’s that GDP is a poor proxy for progress. The conventional metrics do not come anywhere near measuring the value of real activities. But even if GPD was better formulated it misses the point. The purpose of policy should not be some slavish devotion to a metric and particularly not to one so unfit. But arguing for some higher purpose begs the question: without growth are we doomed to decline? Nobody surely votes for making things worse?

Dissatisfaction with GDP growth addiction is deeply rooted. For decades economists have tried different rationales. Could we, please, have Green Growth (more sustainable) or Inclusive Growth (more equitable) or even Humanistic Growth – presumably less inhuman? The rationales for policies to be regenerative (less wasteful) and redistributive (fairer) are well argued and sometimes non-contentious – leastways, perhaps, at some future ‘transitional’ time if not inconveniently right now. These growth-variants may not immediately upset the supposedly free market dogma. But they are still argued in the context of never-ending growth that will somehow ease the pain of eventual readjustment – really?

Take away that prop – declare that we need not overly care about economic growth – and the well-established response is that the sky will fall down. This growth detox is one of the central tenets of Kate Raworth’s unexpected best-seller ‘Doughnut Economics’.  Kate is the latest in a long and fine tradition of economic re-thinkers starting in the 1930’s with Simon Kuznets who first defined what was then called Gross National Product. He well understood its shortcomings and mourned its excessively ill-informed but widespread application.

Being Growth Agnostic, as much as it may offend all right thinking dogma-driven hard-liners, is not some denial of economic variability – the course of life rarely runs smooth (in sickness and in health) – but is simply a matter of therapy for the growth-addicted and a reminder that true leadership should aim for some deeper (or higher) purpose like societal safety and wellbeing.  And whilst we are in brain reboot mode, can you please stop calling all those investments that happen not to be to your liking, by the derogatory label ‘subsidies’?

There are many reasons for reading Kate Raworth and her illustrious forbears such as Donella Meadows and Manfred Max-Neef (and more recently Lorenzo Fioramonti) but expecting her book to somehow magically reprogramme the deeply embedded dinosaurs of national politics is not one of them; far better to take her inspiration and apply it locally within your own community.

Mayors and civic leaders are desperate for direction every bit as much as they are constrained by top-down austerity. In the search for ‘taking back control’ these community champions can use the doughnut (and other frames) to spark imaginative and enterprising routes to greater public, private and environmental wellbeing. Low flying demands great skill and is risky but it gets stuff done under the radar of the high flyers.

Enough is enough. It really is time to shake off our tolerance of dented and dodgy rulers. We must not rest until we’ve rebuilt our local communities. If that reconstruction of better places turns out to be Growth Agnostic, well so be it.

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[1] Kate Raworth, ‘Doughnut Economics‘: ISBN 9 781847 941374

Localism is a global issue

15 Apr

 

Localism is the proactive administrative, economic and societal empowerment of places and their people. Across the world it is a force that battles against the natural centralist instincts of national governments.

Some societies are comfortable with federal structures that allow degrees of local independence. Others, more centrally directed, are far less tolerant of local deviation.   At this time the UK is rapidly discovering that greater localism is a key to future international prosperity.

This shift towards stronger, more-empowered, local leadership has many champions across the political spectrum – and they are supported by many public and private actors.

Opposing these champions are the massed ranks of established national forces and major utilities. They worry that fragmentation leads to a loss of control, a slide towards fiscal indiscipline and greater complexity.  Trust and experience in a common cultural adherence are key issues – defining a sense of identity.

But, while the shift has been debated for years as an issue in domestic politics, it is international trade that drives the more recent place-making emphasis. Localism is a global issue.

At this time when the UK national government is entangled in disentanglement from the European Union, central policy developers (with their dependence on macro-economic approximations) are painfully aware that their science is largely based on the aggregation of many local economic communities each with diverse needs and priorities.

Onto this stage now enter the long-promised metro-mayors and cities emboldened by new concerns for life after Brexit. Add in some fracturing of old political orders and the scene is set for a considered reordering of governmental structure – or possibly opportunistic power plays.

At its best Localism is about people and places. The people comprise residents, visitors and commuting employees. Businesses may create jobs, pay local property taxes and have expectations of local infrastructures but their employees, often commuting from far and wide, have no local democratic voice where they work. Heavily dependent on the redistribution of national taxation, Local Authorities are reduced to insignificant branch agencies with occasional competitive battles to adjust some funding formula that rarely reflects local priorities. Some places are sufficiently enlightened to spend public money predominantly with local suppliers – thus investing in greater local money circulation before it is syphoned away to big brands and Treasury coffers.

Local levers of power are minimal and this frustrates local leaders whose citizens expect them to promote local economic and social well-being. Woe betide, however, those places that fall markedly below common (nation-wide) expectations and risk outraged complaints of ‘Post-Code Lotteries’ and Daily Mail headlines.

Yet we know that some places are more successful that others. Some places seem to attract inward investment in ways that others do not. Some seem able to retain and employ their young people whilst others see only a drift away from home. Some places have a track record in creating new types of employment but others never recover from the demise of old industries. Some seem destined to be losers and never manage to catch the funding streams.

But we also know why some fail where others do not. Some attribute the differences to location, weather, historical accidents, insensitive policies or outmoded formulaic funding rules. Some places have been over dependent on outmoded industries and have not seen far enough ahead to plan a different future. But, most of all, the performance variations come down to the quality of locally collaborative leadership.

This much was recognised by Lord Heseltine’s Local Enterprise Partnerships – bodies that were, alas, quickly dominated by big-brand placemen – public or private. Fostering collaborative and constructive local leadership takes years – way longer than electoral cycles. And it demands a real understanding of local ecosystems.

All that was known and understood way before creation of the European Union. Pre-dating that by several hundred years, cities across northern Europe created the Hanseatic League – a trusted trading network that enabled deep relationships, economic wellbeing and cultural confidence.

The Hanseatic League still has echoes in modern times; embedded in an airline name and in the Business Hanse – an active network of enterprises seeking deeper cross border trade. UK cities, mostly facing the North Sea, very clearly understood that confident trading needed much more than a simple market – it demanded trust and whole community support.   And building on those formative experiences the ‘new’ place-based strategists can understand why some communities succeed where other decline.

This is is why, instead of just puzzling over raw economic data and demographics, successful communities are now being assessed on the deeper quality of local programmes that cut across the top-down sector silos. Creating and sustaining a range of these initiatives requires long-term dedication and a spirit of willing community collaboration – from schools to hospitals, from transport providers to colleges and universities and, vitally, full engagement with really local small business ventures. Hence the recent calls for greater recognition of local business/community responsibilities.

All that, of course, would be helped by a central government that saw its role as an enabler, nurturing local differentiation, instead of a state supervisor determined to scold any local experiment that falls a little short of the lowest common denominators of cost-constrained public services.

All this we know from the evidence of hundreds of places around the world that have defied expectations and breathed new life into their communities.  Building on capabilities that leverage the Smart’ technological enthusiasms of major cities, we are now seeing recognition of a newly empowered breed of ‘Intelligent Communities’. Some achieve this because, simply, “we’ve had enough” and others through inspired local leadership – but, crucially, all are making a name for themselves on the global stage.

It’s a puzzle for sure when we have an abundance of ‘fairly average’ national economic data but very little local data granularity to enlighten aspiring city leaders.

So when the central ‘industrial strategists’ scratch their heads and our political classes try to imagine how to recover from natural disasters or self-inflicted wounds, this time, we’d hope, the old sectorial orders must be refashioned – supplemented and overlaid with place-based and inclusive, locally-led, economic and societal nutrients. Tolerance and flexibility for their encouragement from the top down will (or should) seek accommodation with local homegrown energies.

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This article was written as a discussion paper for the Global Summit Steering Group 2018.

Migration: the issue that goes away and doesn’t come back

4 Jun

Migration issues are rarely far below the surface in the current neverendum debate. Overcrowding is cited as an inevitable consequence of the migrant influx but no one questions the underlying causes of congestion.

Beautiful country area with small town and brightly colored fields

To what extent are overcrowded cities and the pressures on services and infrastructure the result of our own homegrown policies over which we have complete control?

Parag Khanna in his new book ‘Connectography[1]’ observes the growth of megacities – increasingly coastal megacities – and, like the UK’s Centre for Cities and the RSA’s City Growth Commission, regards that growth as inevitable – a long-term trend towards the supposed richness of culture and economic efficiencies of scale.  The drift within England from North to South and the consequential pressure on London and the South East has at least been recognized as in need of remediation – hence the Northern Powerhouse concept – but the remedy proposes further growth of great cities from Manchester to Newcastle via Leeds, and HS3 must go to the back of queue behind HS 2 nowhere near as important. The 2007 Treasury White Paper on subnational growth pointed in sensible directions but fell amongst the chaos of global economic calamity (and bonkers bankers) in subsequent years.

But what if our smaller towns and communities in the vastly greater hinterland were better enabled to be economically thriving without driving their citizens away to distant cities never to return? While we bemoan the pressure of overcrowded capitals do we spare any thought for the depopulation of vast tracts of land and market towns or the demands on road and rail travel for commuters who cannot find work near home?

This is our internal migration issue, the imbalance of rural and urban economies. It affects many countries – which is why you can buy a second home for next to nothing in rural Northern Spain or the middle of France. We read of massive effort and creativity being poured into solving the challenges of making megacities habitable. That’s no bad thing but let’s not kid ourselves; we choose to huddle together. That internal migration towards ever-more complex cities (mostly internally-displaced economic migrants) far exceeds any issue of a few hundred thousand refugees arriving from elsewhere.

Local Authorities can and should rise to the challenge. They may not have mayors like megacities have mayors but they surely know what is needed to bring the children (and jobs for the children) home. They understand the consequences of neglect.  It is time for Municipal Enterprise.  The issue that went away but now needs to come back requires a multi-year round of rural renewal.  The investment will pay dividends – not least in the greater resilience of cities!

Discuss.

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[1] Connectography: Mapping the Global Network Revolution, Parag Khanna, pub: Weindenfeld & Nicolson, 2016, ISBN 978-1-474-80423-9

 

 

Rural Prospects in Digitally-Enabled Economy

29 May

A theme paper for an Environment Management conference in Delhi has sparked debate about the underlying assumptions.

Beautiful country area with small town and brightly colored fields

The paper characterises city dwellers as materially rich compared to rural citizens described as ‘poor’ – but then considers the prospects for lifestyle values that would position rural citizens as environmentally rich and city dwellers as increasingly impoverished.

The author’s intent is clear – to challenge delegates with a potential reversal of fortunes – but the problems with these characterisations are two-fold.

Firstly, we are well aware of material deprivations in cities, towns and villages across the land – economic inequalities cannot be fully correlated geographically.  There is no doubt, for example, that rural areas may have a raw deal in terms of transport and digital infrastructures but it is, at the same time, far from realistic to assume that city-zens are much better served.  If you really want a life off-grid then 1 mile downstream from Tower Bridge in SE16 may be just the digital desert you desire.

Secondly, it is mistaken to assume that rural citizens value being less connected.  Some may well luxuriate in leafy glades surrounded by natural wonders and wildlife but making a living, having and creating gainful employment, being able to access medical care and education, and contributing to wider society are not absent from non-urban family agendas.

The key to reconciliation between different environments lies in the priorities given to issues of resilience.  You might imagine that cities need, for example, stronger environmental efforts and rural areas need better digital infrastructures – but those are a generalisations; policies based on averages are ‘merely average’ and, generally, unfit for purpose.

Places and peoples are different and have diverse needs.  The presumed-to-be unstoppable tidal flow of humanity towards major conurbations is as much in need of thoughtful management as migrations between countries.  The leadership effort surely needs to be directed towards ironing out the relative risks and inequalities that prompt these migrations.  Leaving them to grow and fester will surely only fuel future problems.