Salman Rushdie once suggested that cities could be defined as places where newness comes into the world.
For Rushdie, the collision of cultures disrupts and promotes dislocation and evolution. Significantly, his creative sense of creolisation and mixing that sees the city as a space of emergence is shared by many working across the sciences.
Cities combine material, social and technological forms. They are spaces where multiple systems interface with each other – systems of mobility, economy, property, public health, and the environmental impacts that are generally described as systems of urban metabolism. In this sense, cities are commonly described as systems of systems or complex and open systems.
Theoretically, cities are socio-technical systems that are invariably open (rather than closed), characterised by emergent combination, disruption and instability (rather than equilibrium), sustaining logics of divergent values and institutional forms (rather than the outcomes of unitary value systems and aggregations of individual preferences).
We know that for some cities evolution begets extinction, while cities like Detroit in the USA become icons of decline.
In more straightforward language, this evokes a sensibility that speaks to the arts and sciences alike. It draws on the leitmotif of the city as a space of adventure, creativity and invention and more prosaically, a sense of the city as on the move; always changing, invariably evolving. We know that for some cities evolution begets extinction, while cities like Detroit in the USA become icons of decline. Yet cities also have a propensity to reinvent themselves, as arguably London has done many times, New York likewise.
When we see the city as a complex and open system of systems two significant consequences are of interest to the RSA’s Urban Futures Commission, stemming from cities’ contested regimes of valuation and their innate disequilibrium that together have implications for how we think about effective reforms of city powers in the UK.
Value and values in the city
As we saw during the pandemic there can be immediate trade-offs between maximising economic activity and protecting the lives of those most vulnerable and – equally significantly – how we measure the costs and benefits of each. Cities balance demands of economic, social and environmental sustainability, domains that have historically generated different bodies of knowledge and institutions of science and profession, different forms of expertise founded on particular regimes of valuation. Values of financial return, public health outcomes, measures of metabolism, normative concerns of rule, responsibility and (sometimes inter-generational) obligation are not easily reconciled.
Some forms of scholarship have tried to synthesise regimes of valuation through mediating concepts such as natural capital, a sub-disciplinary attempt to measure the price of nature. But invariably the contest between different regimes of arithmetic value also invokes contests of ethical values, questioning how much is enough in any one society on a planet threatened by the climate crisis. So, in thinking about the balance and trade-offs between economic, social and environmental sustainability, cities implicitly or explicitly have to work with multiple regimes of valuation, recognising that they are at times incommensurable.
Cities on the move: system interfaces and urban change
Taking the health example further, although it might sound surprising, we are rarely sure what constitutes a hospital, a GP practice or a polyclinic in terms of the services and medical capabilities we expect in each. Diagnostic specialisms of cancer, lung or spinal injury care generate geographical logics of service delivery; trade-offs between the clustering of expertise and technology on the one hand, and patient accessibility on the other. Evolving systems of transport mobilities, demographic change and technological innovation disrupts these logics; online, AI and robot capabilities reconfigure measures of accessibility distance. Defibrillators were just decades ago available only in hospitals, now in Manchester you are rarely more than 10 minutes away from a miniature version in rail stations and retail centres.
In the life of the NHS in the UK, this balance between mobility, technology, health and demography defines one example of system interfaces. And throughout the history of the NHS technological evolution tends to outpace property systems, the propensity to organise NHS real estate and the geographical hierarchies of service delivery. What belongs in a hospital, a polyclinic or a GP practice is always struggling to catch up with the technologies of the present and population growth or decline of the near future. In this sense even the best-run city public health systems are characterised by disequilibrium, the healthy city is always on the move and subject to change. Similar interface disruptions multiply across the city.
The power of cities and city powers: governance implications
The power of cities is their capacity to drive social and economic innovation, and become the heart of new ways of living and working. City powers depend on the particular settlement of power and authority within nation-states; between central governments, regions and cities themselves.
There are global trends in the power of cities that recognise that concentrations of knowledge, infrastructure, and social and financial capital generate ‘demons of density’; while successful cities are also commonly the locus of innovation, the sites of discovery and disruption that drive economic development.
The propensity for successful social and economic change depends on the development of bespoke forms of intervention that identify successfully both the resources and constraints of singular geographies and histories of the particular city. The interfaces of multiple systems, positive spillovers and trade-offs between them shape the comparative advantage of particular places and intelligent interventions that identify, amplify and support such advantage are most likely to realise the potential of urban transformation.
The generic nature of city powers is qualified by the particular configurations of the power of cities in an individual country.
There are generic features to city powers. They can be summarised in terms of provision, regulation, convening and intervention. Cities may have the ability to provide services (such as welfare, education, and waste control), regulate behaviours (such as planning, development control, licensing, and transport) convene stakeholders from public, private and third sectors in the metropolitan area or city region (such as partnerships, umbrella bodies) and generate customised interventions (such as urban regeneration bodies, controlled company structures or special purpose vehicles).
The generic nature of city powers is qualified by the particular configurations of the power of cities in an individual country. Combinations of provision, regulation, intervention and convening vary significantly internationally and within a country (as with uneven patterns of ‘devolution deals’ in the UK). Some countries are particularly centralised, others mandate extensive powers to cities. Likewise, the constitutional structures of city governance vary. Mayoral systems contrast with alternative committee-based structures and many larger cities - such as London or Beijing – sustain strategic mayoral systems alongside districts or boroughs with distinct powers and significant budgets, commonly equal to or greater than the strategic governance institution.
The suite of tools to be used by city leaders consequently depends on context-dependent city powers combined with an ability to access the forms of expertise necessary to make visible the particular opportunities of place-based policy and shape future interventions. Such expertise may be local or bought in from outside but exists more rarely now in UK local government structures with capacity diminished in the wake of austerity’s decade. We need cities that are intelligent in visioning their futures as much as smart in their technical dashboards. What this also means is that optimising urban futures in the UK context depend on synthesising the most plausible interventions for constitutional reform in a British context (city powers) with an ability to identify the most intelligent interventions in maximising comparative advantage (the power of cities).
Michael Keith is a professor at COMPAS, University of Oxford, Director of the PEAK Urban Research programme, coordinator of Urban Transformations, and co-director of the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities. He also is a commissioner of the RSA's UK Urban Futures intervention.
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