'Don't just start local, stay local' - RSA

'Don't just start local, stay local'


For the first time in over a thousand blog posts, I am today simply going to extract quotes from another source. It is the book ‘Metropolitan Revolution’ by Vice President of the Brookings Institute Bruce Katz and his colleague Jennifer Bradley, due to be published on June 17th (it can be pre-ordered here).

The book largely comprises fascinating case studies of successful American urban policy making and regeneration but the quotes are from the powerful introduction, ‘A Revolution Unleashed’. Needless to say I find the analysis both credible and exciting. In the search for what I have called ‘normative leadership’, we are much more likely to strike gold locally than nationally.

The US is far ahead of us, reflecting factors including differences in civic culture, greater local independence from the party line, and the strong Mayoral system, but the best local authorities in England do at least share the ambitions of the best in the US.

Being a political greybeard, I sometimes get asked for advice by younger people set on a political career. I have long advocated an apprenticeship in local affairs. Katz and Bradley’s book not only provides visionary substance to go with that advice, but provokes the injunction ’if you want to make a difference don’t just start local, stay local’.

- The federal and state governments, at their core, establish laws and promulgate rules.  In so doing, they reflect the curse of the twentieth century Weberian state: highly specialized, overly legalistic, prescriptive rather than permissive, process oriented rather than outcome directed.  They reward consumers who play by the rules, check the box, and confine their innovations to tightly circumscribed boundaries.  Cities and metropolitan areas, by contrast, are action oriented.  They reward innovation, imagination, and pushing boundaries.  As networks of institutions (for example, firms, agencies, schools), they run businesses, provide services, educate children, train workers, build homes, and develop community.  They focus less on promulgating rules than on delivering the goods and using cultural norms rather than regulatory mandates to inspire best practice.  They reward leaders who push the envelope, catalyze action, and get stuff done.

 - The federal and state governments have a cartoon version of the economy, focusing on atomistic firms and workers and silver-bullet tax and regulatory solutions.  Cities and metros, by contrast, blend the ecosystem and the enterprise. They focus not just on a singular transaction, firm, or solution but rather on building effective structures, institutions, intermediaries, and platforms to give dozens of entrepreneurs and firms what they need: skilled talent, strategic capital, stable governance, reliable rules, functioning infrastructure, collective branding, and marketing.

 - The federal and state governments constitute passive, representative democracy; citizens’ only active role is to vote at designated intervals.  Cities and metropolitan areas constitute active, participatory democracy: tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of leaders who collectively steward their places, guide their regions, and coproduce their economies.

- Metropolitan leaders, in short, own challenges in ways that representatives of higher levels of government do not.  Problems like congestion, educational performance, or economic progress are experienced rather than studied.  Leaders live daily with the consequences of their decisions.  Metropolitan success is tangible and almost tactile: it can be tasted, touched, and felt in ways that abstract national actions cannot.

- Cities and metros understand intuitively what the nation fitfully remembers and often contests: the United States is demographically blessed, and diversity is our greatest competitive advantage and strength.

- Cities and metros are honoring the lessons learned at an early age in the sandbox: those who play well together reap mutual awards and benefits.

- For a nation confronting new global realities, the metropolitan model of global engagement reveals another primordial lesson: places that link together grow together.  In many respects, cities and  metros are guiding the world back to the pre-Westphalian era, when networks of trading cities – the ancient Silk Road, the medieval Hanseatic League – provided the platform for relationships of mutual benefit and exchange.

Finally, many thanks to Bruce for allowing me to quote his work ahead of publication – we’re keeping our fingers crossed that he will be able to come and speak at the RSA in the autumn.




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