Yes we want growth - but what do we mean by growth? - RSA

Yes we want growth - but what do we mean by growth?


  • Cities
  • Communities
  • Environment

As the City Growth Commission begins to round up there is a feeling that some of the most pertinent questions have been raised, if not quite put to bed: yet the devolution discussion and this series of reports is right there at the heart of the matter.

The Commission has looked at the role of connectivity to the regions, addressing the skills gap, and worked to explore how governance will need to change in a more devolved future. We have also looked at the role of higher education institutions and in particular how they can help to nurture graduate entrepreneurs, keeping them within the region and fostering local growth. With the subject of devolution still fresh on mind of people all over the UK since the Scottish Referendum, one of the largest ever protests on climate change taking place in the US  and the UK Party conference season underway - what now for the political rhetoric of ‘growth’? In 2000 we were told by Gordon Brown that we were beyond the ‘boom and bust’ era, and then the financial markets crashed in 2008. More recently Cameron assured us that for sustainable growth to happen, we needed to have austerity now. This appears to remain true as we start to trim our sails to weather the on-coming storm of even further cuts. The RSA has asked this question before, but is ‘growth’ always possible without harming our social, cultural or environmental worlds?

Regardless of the temptation to call time on the argument ‘for growth’ as humans, as animals, we will no doubt continue to multiply and demand more food, more clothes and more Iphones. What we need to do is to try and manage the demand, through cultural and social awareness of the real costs of such things. And, at the same time, make sure that the mechanisms of supply are completed with more than a dash of strategic design.

As part of the research for the City Growth final report I have been asked to look into what sort of growth we are calling for. Some argue that the best we could ask for is growth that is more horizontal, than it is vertical; rather than building companies up in size/ employees/ sites we should spread growth out, horizontally, across multiple levels and in diverse ways. Rather than making one company bigger through success, we should be ‘spinning off’ into smaller, better connected and diverse, companies. Diversity of growth is important for one key reason – without diversity there will be no novel connections, and without that, no adaptation, no change.

When we call for sustainable growth we call for it to be both economically and environmentally sustainable. We want to be able to have schools, careers and futures for our children yet with a state that can provide the sort of public service needed. We also need to do this whilst being mindful of the planet that provides us with a home. Ignoring either of these two important elements of growth is to fail. We live on a finite planet with finite resources and as the US strides forward with its mission to put 3D printed houses on Mars (which can build colonial homes before we even get there) we must make sure we still have somewhere firm to stand.

A call for growth in cities does not mean ‘at any cost’, the call is for environmental and economically sustainable growth. Such growth is far from impossible: Developments such as Venlo in the Netherlands and Low2No in Helsinki both offer glimpses of ecological development that not only work to reduce waste and make the most of resources, but are far more economically sound than their carbon producing, electricity guzzling predecessors - and they are likely to out-live them too. Important to such developments is the notion of what could be termed ‘embedded connectivity’ throughout the design. Such connections work to not only reduce environmental impact but spread growth outwards through diverse platforms of operations built at local levels. By embedding connections of developments, they create dense pockets, or clusters, of activity. I am reminded of Peter Wynne Rees lecture where he commented that much of the growth of the financial district in London is down to the novel deals that could be made when the bankers gathered in the pub to gossip. Innovation, as we see in the explosion of tech clusters, often comes through diverse connections, in dense formations.

Embedded connectivity in developments is also about making growth inclusive rather than exclusive; moving the deals out of the gentleman’s club and into the open sourced, social economic arena. Inclusive growth is about providing broad access to economic opportunities that goes beyond infrastructure development to focus on local integration and interaction. Crucially, such distribution of growth will work to reduce economic inequality, a major driver of demand for public services (leaving more money to get us to Mars!). Inclusive, diverse, and connected programmes of economic growth will only work alongside an equal focus on social and cultural growth and it is this combination that will make it sustainable, but also resilient.

Devolved power to regions will encourage growth, yet this growth must work in synergy with the public services. Reform in governance should not be isolated from reform in service provision, nor should the mistake be made that changes in one do not affect the other. Work now needs to be done on designing the correct architecture to progress this new arena. Such a strategic design would require both interdepartmental communication with Whitehall and significant bureaucratic room to manoeuvre.

Next stop Mars.


Dave Yates


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