The collaborative city

22 May 15

A successful city is also a collaborative one. How can collaboration help to make growth in our cities more inclusive and sustainable?

A sustainable and successful city is a collaborative city.

This is the point I recently raised with a group of global public service and business leaders, and it’s been fascinating to hear perspectives from England, Australia, India, Zambia, Kenya and beyond.

Did the collaborative ethos ring true for people? I think so. But collaboration is an activity; a value set; a means to an end: it has multiple meanings depending on your starting point. As Scott Cain reminded me, we instead need to ask: what are the questions to which collaboration is the answer? Here are a few thoughts in response.

Question 1: How can we make our model of growth work for a greater proportion of citizens in our increasingly unequal cities

Many cities are growing – as a population, and in terms of the GDP share they contribute (and take) within nation states. The biggest cities (e.g. London) have little problem creating new jobs and absorbing the right mix of skills, perspectives, identities and aspirations to fill them. But this is not the case everywhere, and some cities and regions have chronic staffing problems that a London-centric UK economy exacerbates. Even within the most vibrant cities, the jury is out as to whether the right kind of jobs are being created – those that offer dignity, security and the possibility of in-work training or progression from low skills (and low pay).

Running a small and growing business I know this is far from a simple proposition. There is little point bashing employers or thinking legislation can solve it all. And this is where collaboration comes in: getting marginalised citizens into rewarding jobs is a task that requires employers, government, health, education, and skills providers and, often, voluntary sector organisations to support the development of essential ‘soft’ skills (which everyone knows are the hardest!). Models that share the risk and rewards at different stages of doing this - such as apprenticeship brokering initiatives in Leeds, supported entrepreneurship incubators like Launch 22, or locality-based initiatives like Get Oldham Working - need promoting and mainstreaming.

Question 2: How can we build the skills and infrastructure base to sustain this more inclusive model of city growth?

It is no accident that Ben Lucas and colleagues scoped the recent City Growth Commission through the perspective of skills and the labour market. Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation calls human capital the ‘single biggest determinant of city performance’. This human capital question is something Collaborate has been working on with partners in cities outside the capital (the so-called second tier). It is an issue that goes far beyond early years, education and skills provision to take in questions about what Sunderland housing provider Gentoo calls the ‘art of living’ in a place.

Once again, this needs to be a collaborative effort, shaped by business, government and wider society. There are better qualified people than me to talk about infrastructure and skills, but I do think that much will be based on whether public service commissioners, providers and the wider world of professional standards and training bodies quickly face up to the ways in which career pathways and the world of work are changing.

Question 3: What will it take to lead a new system of public services that can support the aspirations of all citizens in our cities?

As Neil McInroy and others have noted, there is a certain bullishness to the city debate that risks swapping one model of nationally-led growth and leadership for a very similar version at a local level. To change this, hitherto rather conceptual tropes like “collaborative” (David Archer), “adaptive” (Ron Heifitz), “messy” (Keith Grint) and “tri-sector” leadership (Joseph Nye) need to be turned pretty quickly into practice.

In 2013, I interviewed the US thinker Benjamin Barber, author of If Mayors Ruled the World for the RSA Journal. On the question of leadership, he argued that:

‘Leadership in cities revolves around capacities and realities that are quite different from what we’ve come to expect from national leaders. Pragmatism is essential. People don't care whether you are a communist or a Tory; you still have to pick up the garbage.’

Collaborative leadership goes a step further. In an era of stretched public resources and complex social problems, leading change in government or public services will be as much about creating enabling conditions for others as doing things pragmatically ourselves.

This is a much less linear, less straightforward model of change, and requires us to think about ‘values-based’ as well as ‘evidence-based’ practice. This is something that TSIP and Collaborate will be exploring together in 2015.

This blog first appeared on The Social Innovation Partnership

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