Cities of Ambition

A collaboration with the Knight Foundation Miami and published in June 2015.

Why do some cities punch above their weight? How do they avoid being drained of talent and being caught up in the vortex effect of major hubs like London, Paris, Berlin? Cities of Ambition is exploring 35 second and third tier cities across Europe, from the North to the South, who have made their mark and been able to ride the wave of rapid change.

Cities of Ambition show how those cities globally we regard as the best have managed to develop the foresight, strategy and leadership to become confident in being ambitious and more importantly what projects have they undertaken to turn their good ideas into reality.

Setting the scene

‘Cities of Ambition’ explores what we can learn from the best of European urbanity. Many cities find it difficult to develop a sense of urgency. This is difficult when things seem fine on the surface. For those which are quite attractive there is a danger of imperceptible yet graceful decline, when neither boom nor bust pressures are immediately at the forefront.

Yet looking deeper at the global forces around us and unfolding with increasing speed and at times hidden from view we see that most cities stand at the cusp of important choices. And a business as usual approach will not get them to where they need to be.

In surveying the best cities the relative feeling of comfort is not enough. They say ‘It is not it OK to be OK’. Their city leaderships create a crisis of ambition – this is a crisis of a special kind. With a normal crisis threats loom sharply and action is required, but for others not so alert there is the ‘frog in boiling water’ threat. The problems could be addressed too late. Therefore foresight, strategic thinking and widespread leadership are key.

How do ambitious cities generate this drive? We think here of places like Copenhagen, Helsinki, Stockholm, but also smaller Nordic cities such as Ostersund, Tampere, Aarhus or Umea. They have all done things well beyond their expected circumstances. They are the Dutch and German cities and here we can think of older industrial cities like Rotterdam or Eindhoven or Ghent, Antwerp and those cities in the Ruhr area of Germany or apparently sleepy university towns like Freiburg, now regarded as the green city of Europe. Shifting towards the Mediterranean many cities are getting onto the radar screen and have become more resilient. Think here of Nantes, Montpellier, St Etienne, Lille or Malaga and Valencia and more famously Barcelona or Bilbao and there are even lessons to be learnt from the shrinking cities of Europe.

What we discover is that their thinking is strategic: they are looking at the future in the broadest terms and see the planning process as continuous and intrinsic. They exhibit foresight and awareness beyond the confines of their own field and are conscious that they are helping to future-proof their place. They understand the broader context and how they fit in, working with other leaders creating motivated partnerships. They are not only collegiate, but collaborative and so make the most of their potential. They ensure that there are good mechanisms to gather information on best practices and innovative solutions from around the globe, such as research centres, think tanks and collaborative devices such as clusters networks, specialist hubs or centres of excellence. They are strategically agile knowing when and how to seize opportunities, for which they have already created a state of preparedness.

The decision making communities in public and private walks of life have a forward focus, whether they are teachers, public servants, transports chiefs, middle and higher management in industry and business, or community organisers or those in the artistic world. They are always alert and scan the horizon in their respective sectors, actively looking out for the next important thing in their respective domains – for example, at the present time there is likely to a significant involvement in things green. Their pride in place helps them to share a common agenda.

These places are seen as creative and there are many leaders and many levels of leadership. There are dynamic and forward looking people of quality in every sector providing a strong sense of vision for the place, meaning that there is deep awareness of current trends and emerging developments and their implications. Their style is noticeably inspiring, able to delegate and be empowering to others. They are accessible. These leaders describe an achievable yet ambitious future that acts as a compelling and involving story, which could be a vision for the city or region, or a business venture or educational programme. Here all talents are nurtured, fostered, promoted, rewarded and celebrated. There are ladders of opportunity. There is professional pride and this is infectious.

Most importantly these places get things done. They ‘walk the talk’. It is the real life examples and things achieved that really matter. These inspire and help develop a culture of continuous improvement and mutual learning. It provides confidence. This allows them ‘to punch above their expected weight’.

In early 2014 I chaired of the European Union’s new award to select the Capital of Innovation for Europe. The applications were revealing in that they showed how cities of all sizes are thinking afresh with determination to make the most of their potential.

58 applied for the award, with 20 shortlisted cities and 6 finalists. The winner was Barcelona with Groningen and Grenoble the runners up. Many of Europe’ leading cities applied such as Paris, Milan or Barcelona as well as a good range of second cities ranging from Dublin, Edinburgh, Dresden, Wroclaw, to Grenoble, Oulu or Oporto and some smaller cities such as Leiden, Groningen, Valladolid, Graz and Erlangen.

The criteria for the award wanted places to be seen as:

  • Innovative – shown in both processes and the impact
  • Inclusive – illustrating citizen involvement and engagement
  • Inspiring – by attracting talent, funding, investment and partners
  • Interactive – encouraging open communication between key players
  • Integrated – maximising a holistic viewpoint involving people and place.

Cities had to show concrete results of projects started since 2010 as well as a track record of innovation and most importantly an interconnected innovation eco-system approach.

A number of themes emerged and these are lessons to share with everyone:

  • Several highlighted evidence of their quadruple helix approach – the link between universities, the public and private sectors and citizens’ involvement, which was a pre-condition to win the prize.
  • Many proposal highlighted ‘smart city’ thinking such as open data applications, but initiatives focusing on these alone were not deemed to be systemic even though several involved cities throwing out calls for proposals which were taken up by start-ups, SMEs or enthusiasts to develop apps. The use of big data and open data is now regarded as mainstream.
  • There were various examples of participative crowd-sourcing schemes to generate ideas to find solutions to urban problems ranging from crime prevention, to energy saving to dealing with traffic problems. For instance applications to find available car parking spaces since a large proportion of congestion is people looking for parking spaces.
  • The energy transition was a strong theme with a number of cities using incentives and regulations in imaginative ways and with determined goals to do better than mandated reduction targets.
  • Some reconceptualised complete systems in the city such as structural reform in health, which empowers citizens to manage and maintain their own health and wellbeing with the help of ICT, tools. The solutions seek to deliver an advanced, personalized, connected health service based on open systems and open collaboration where the ownership, development and management is distributed, without any one stakeholder holding a monopoly position.
  • Many used design thinking to rethink processes and procedures and to look at services or urban development from a user perspective and often the results re-conceived how things could be done.
  • Model urban development schemes were put forward mostly to act as inspiration for overall city development so becoming ‘living labs’. These typically combined incentives to develop the creative economy, eco-city thinking, new forms of mobility and co-creation.
  • Cities often threw out problem solving challenges to established private companies and the world of SMEs allowing them to use the city as a test bed for innovations. This has helped many companies to prototype inventions and to use the city brand as a marketing tool.

Can we encapsulate the essence of what the most ambitious places have done in such a way that it is tangibly helpful to other cities? We can by showing how they achieved their aims, the ideas and projects they implemented, the obstacles they overcame, how they financed innovations, how they involved disparate partners, how they gathered community support and most importantly how they sustained a dynamic of change that has made them more resilient in facing the future. And finally: how they told their story to themselves and the outside world.

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