I have summarised, for myself, my understandings of some of the things that key people have recently written about cities. These may only be partial understandings and are not meant to cover all that everyone has ever said on the subject. Nor is it a claim that any of the ideas are my own. Often they have come from a number of people writing in overlapping ways about particular aspects of cities. Where the ideas are more obviously being linked to a specific source this has been named, but the resulting document is not intended to be a fully-referenced academic paper. The exercise resulted from my own general interest in thinking about cities and is offered for the general interest of others.
The ideas have been grouped under loose interconnected headings: placemaking and placeshaping in cities; resilient cities; smart cities; data-rich cities; cities as planned systems; walkability of cities; benefits of density; what makes cities sustainably great; liveability and the issue of creative influence; how a city becomes a first-rank leader; cities, central government and innovation; governance in complex cities; cities and economics; good-enough cities, resourcefulness, adaptability and spontaneity; what the future might hold for cities.
My initial exploration resulted in a summary that was more than 400 pages of text with many click-through links. This has been edited down and further summarised so that the resulting document ( Thinking about Cities: An exploration of contemporary themes ) is around 30 pages long with just a few onward links and with a section on ways forward if others want to explore further.
This post continues my earlier thinkings on cities which can be found by scrolling down this same site. (… passing all sorts of disparate other stuff on the way…) or going to the postings put up on June 27th 2012 under the headings:
- In what ways might a city need to think differently if it is to get where it wants to be?
- Cities: Flourishing? Learning? Resilient? Capable? Emergent?
- The nature of cities: A way of thinking
I would be interested in other people’s reactions to any of this, via firstname.lastname@example.org
The Sustainable Community Strategy for Birmingham (UK) has as its goal that, by 2026, the city will demonstrably be a good place to live, to work and to bring up children. The strategy sets out some broad ways forward but on the surface these can look quite similar to the existing plans for progress that are not taking the city forward at the scale and pace necessary to achieve that goal.
In order to get to where it has set the marker down, the city as a whole (whatever that may mean in practice) will need to adopt some changes to the ways that certain things – progress; outcomes; systems; engagement; diversity of views etc – are thought about. Birmingham knows that it can improve such things by understanding them better. All of this raises the question of how a city (as a learning, developing system) learns to change by changing the ways that puzzles are conceptualised and acted upon. What are the most-likely-to-succeed approaches for the future? What more does such a city need to know and understand if it is to attain the aim of being a flourishing, connected, diverse, sustainable community by 2026?
This is not unique to Birmingham. Other cities want to make similar progress. The thinking that follows may equally well also apply at the level of towns, organisations, networks and so on.
Given the complex nature of developments, the scale of changes to be made, the pace at which many interconnecting things need to happen at the same time, and the shifting nature of local, national and global contexts there is a sense that thinking ways forward is unlikely to be simply linear and definitive. Planning, innovating and moderating ways of being and ways of doing things may be much more of an unfolding exploration. It may not be adequate to sketch out grand-scale inflexible pathways. There may need to be more reliance put on modest, contingent, conditional and interpretative sets of changes to ensure progress continues to be made with a larger, looser but equally robust framework that is able to sustain progress year-on-year towards the desired state of things.
Reflecting back on system-changes that have been more or less successful in the city over recent years there are a number of understandings that can be clustered in different ways so that emerging key lines of influence might be glimpsed. From the work done in Birmingham it seems that there may be at least five such lines of influence. These are:
- The understandings of middle managers
- The capacity to harvest past learnings and make sense (and sensible use) of them
- The extent to which a variety of views are able to count within the drive for system-wide change
- The abilities to maximise leverages that can move things along from being plans to being impacts and further on to being real changes in outcomes of the lives of people
- The various understandings around accountabilities, values, expectations ..
It is quite feasible that there could be other ways of articulating the interplays between various fragments of understanding, and come up with a different set of key influences. Nor are the five listed above discrete lines of thought. They are proposed here on a ‘good enough for now’ basis in order to take the exploration forward. Each is unravelled in turn.
The understandings of middle managers
- There are likely to be expectations that managers at a number of levels will have increased freedoms and flexibilities (as opposed to fixed centrally-managed roles) in ways that bring them into areas that are new and sometimes ambiguous. The way managers view their roles determines the ways they feel able to act in practice.
- There is already an increased focus on outcomes and accountabilities at the same time as an integration of efforts that de-emphasises notions of ‘being the lead for’, single-agency ownership of issues, traditional structures (of management or governance) etc.. This often requires a new mindset about what managers are there for and how they might operate in a changing, adapting world.
- There is no shortage of data : it comes thicker and faster than ever before. Frontline staff are expected to both collect and use a wide range of information, with more and more information being fed to middle managers. The managers’ wider understandings of the bigger picture, their operating principles and values, determine how they make use of this information, the frameworks they use to create understandable stories from it, and how the information becomes good professional knowledge that can guide decisions about future paths to take or better deployment of reducing resources.
- Key managers have direct responsibilities for the welfare of staff and the maintenance of routines (and, ultimately, for demonstrating the need for their own continued employment). This can often lead to situations where parts of the system try to preserve the problems to which they are (or have been in the past) the solution.
- In a rapidly changing world where solutions often are expected to be more complex or sophisticated, managers are increasingly expected to respond rapidly, flexibly, in responsive ways that can still be shown to be policy-led. At the same time these managers may still be operating in a system that has a legacy of being hierarchical, with its share of silos, and with fixed expectations of how things are to be done.
- Middle managers may increasingly be seen as responsible for bringing about change (as opposed to their old role of service delivery) may need a different vocabulary or narrative which places less emphasis on reporting ‘things we do’ and more emphasis on reporting the changes made, the journey so far, the distance still to travel, how best to ‘get there’.
- There are issues for managers around local/central rationalities: who decides what is the best thing to do, the sense of purpose behind decisions to be made, where those views come from, and so on. It is unrealistic maybe to assume that there is coherence to all of this: that everyone shares the same perspectives, or that everyone talks or acts in the same ways when constructing meaning within the daily realities of professional activity.
- There are balances to be struck by managers between the extent to whichtheir job is to support learning/understanding that takes place ‘vertically’ (reporting up/ disseminating down) and the extent to which learning/understandings might occur ‘horizontally’ (through sharing knowledge across; communities of practitioners challenging each other’s understandings). There are increasing attempts to understand the dilemmas, pressures and rewards that are a feature of the ‘swampy lowlands’ of professional practices; and attempts to reconcile the notions of practice-based evidence and evidence-based practice.
The capabilities of the system to harness and make use of learning
- Systems are, to a degree, unpredictable; time may be needed to see how things unfold and yet the pressure is on to manage emails/meetings etc in rapid, short-focus ways. At the same time much of the available information may appear contestable, ambiguous, even contradictory: things may be less clear cut than seemed to be the case in past years. Key individuals may need to develop new skills in in managing contradiction and lack of clarity.
- In order to get the best understanding from information there may be a need to take intelligent overviews, to have interrogative frameworks, to exert critical thinking, and to allow time and space for various explorations to take place within the pressures to take things forward.
- Within a drive to streamline decision-making and to provide quicker responses there is also a need to keep more people within knowledge-loops, allowing for more discussion that captures the variety of perspectives – implying a greater use of time-limited, highly focused, thinktank, guided conversations.
- Increasingly communications need to be across boundaries or in contexts where no formal boundaries exist. In these situations ‘normal rules’ may not apply and people may operate much more via informal self-arranged subsystems that develop their own theoretical assumptions about what is possible.
- Whilst there is an increased emphasis on evidence-based practice and outcomes-based planning there is often a lack of agreed understandings about what brings about change in particular outcomes, about how to translate robust knowledge into effective practices, and how the system may best operate in order to foster the implementation of change.
The ability to maximise leverages to move from planning intent, to practical impact, to shifts in outcomes in people’s lives
- Whilst there has been an increased emphasis on securing planned outcomes there has been less practical demonstration of the mechanisms that move from policy to planning frameworks to action schedules for implementation of things likely to shift outcomes at the (almost ‘industrial’) pace and scale needed.
- There have been strong parallel narratives around closing achievement gaps, health gaps etc – but slower progress in achieving closure of such gaps across the board through system-wide improvements. The same issues stay on the to-do agenda with little forward momentum.
- Action plans tend to be at the level of lists of activities/ projects/ interventions or, occasionally, at the level of overarching frameworks. There is less articulation of the relationships between strategic frameworks, implemented activities and secured quantifiable improvements in outcomes. Where such descriptions are being put in place these tend to be linear, ‘boxed’, single-action rather than reflecting that things may emerge, that patterns may change, and that things may be reliant on other things being in place.
Understandings around accountabilities, values, expectations etc
- Much use has been made of the idea of ‘value for money’ but without any clear explanations of ‘value’ this tends to be mostly judgements about ‘money’. There is increased concern for Public Value or Social Value. This puts more of an emphasis on attempting to quantify the less tangible notions of ‘use’ or ‘value’ when determining practical ways forward.
- Where people are concerned with systems approaches and interagency/partnership approaches it is sometimes easier to be unclear about which part of the system is responsible for securing which set of changes within the whole forward enterprise. Even less clear is where any accountabilities may lie (To direct managers? To higher-level governance arrangements? To the beneficiaries of proposed changes? To the wider public in general?). Accountabilities and responsibilities get lost within dotted lines and overlapping boxes, or within shared plans etc.. Accountabilities are not always clear (for what; by whom, by when etc) around ensuring that changes occur at the scale and pace necessary to ensure substantial progress on key priorities.
Following on the thinking from previous posts:
If cities are important (If only because more than 60% of the UK population now live in cities), are they all important in the same ways? There are qualitative differences between London (as capital city, federation of a number of small boroughs, making a lot of ‘noise’ within national debates etc); and cities with a strong industrial heritage (Birmingham, Manchester, Coventry etc); maritime/seaboard cities (Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle); small ecclesiastical/academic cities (York, Durham, Cambridge, Oxford etc); recently nominated cities … and so on. Cities have, variously, claimed status for themselves as a learning city, or a resilient city, or a connected city. From the lines of thought up to now I would also add Flourishing City as the status that many cities are aspiring to be, even if this not yet being claimed in those terms.
From the various lines of thought described in my previous post, a number of overlapping elements recur time and again as key factors. These can be listed and arranged in different ways to create ‘constellations’ of meaning. Other people may come up with their own slightly different set of aspects, and arrange things in somewhat different arrangements. Below is mine. Although it is set out (far ease of reading?) as a list it is seen as far more intraconnected since the components can be constructed together in different ways. It is intended more as a flexible lens/framework through which cities might be considered rather than as a definitive checklist. (I would also extend this beyond cities, and suggest that it is possible to use the same kind of framework to look at Organisations or Networks or Communities or Neighbourhoods or Families etc.
|Aspects of a flourishing place/organisation/network:
|Sets out a moral purpose; there is meaning in what is done; promotes a compelling vision of where want to get to
|Is aware of values/goals; uses agreed values as basis for decisions
|Acts ethically; confronts wrongdoing; challenges bias and intolerance; deals with conflict and barriers
|Can go out on a limb; able to express unpopular views
|Sets challenging aspirations; driven to meet outcomes; results focused; maintains commitment/purpose
|Asks why things aren’t done differently; approach involves querying and puzzling
|Uses complex strategies without over-complicating things
|Connects disparate things; seeing potential for linkages (up/down/across)
|Looks outwards as well as inwards; interested in broader context
|Observes what is going on in practice; watching the realities
|Fosters active engagement with people, ideas and events – in ways that are authentic
|Seeks positive relationships/interactions; collaboration; linking up with others; manages relationships with peer agencies
|Feels part of a wider network/community of others; connecting with others (family, friends, colleagues); being in touch with people
|Sees that today’s right answer may be wrong for tomorrow; recognises need for change
|Generates new ideas; can put ideas into practice; adapts responses as new circumstances emerge; acts like a creative brain
|Shows an interest in things/in the world. Passionately curious re why things work the way they do; how can be improved; wants to know other people’s stories. Relentlessly questioning; being curious; remarking on the unusual
|Stays up-to-date; maintains currency in thinking/knowledge
|Looks for information that can help improve things
|Is open to new perspectives/viewpoints; sees changes emerging; prepares for change
|Reflects on past experiences; Learns from experience; open to feedback
|Learns from differences/ambiguities/gaps; Encourages debate and discussion; promotes conversations-of-equals
|Is flexible in how events are seen/interpreted; sensitive to other viewpoints
|Experiments; enjoys ‘fiddling about’ to see what works
|Operates in uncertainty; calculated risk-taking
|Tries new things; rediscovering old interests; exploring/ formulating
|Understands how people work; how to get best from self/others; Seeks opportunities to raise skills of others; Creates culture in which people can thrive
|Listens well; picks up clues
|Meets commitments; keeps promises
|Leads by example; takes bulk of responsibilities
|Has adequate self-determination and assertiveness; has ‘presence’, presents self with confidence and assurance
|Has a degree of ‘flow/mastery’; has vitality about what is done
|Shows grit, stickability, self-discipline
|Wants (and gives) clarity, precision, succinctness
|Is good at decision-making; decisive despite uncertainties and pressure; thinks clearly; organised; manages multiple demands
|Demonstrates resilience; coping skills. Embraces adversity with a track record of overcoming it; strong work ethic
|Stays composed, positive, unflappable; relaxed, calmness; manages impulses, avoids over-reaction
|Handles difficult situations well; looks for mutually beneficial outcomes
|Is aware of own strengths/weaknesses; key strengths are used to good effect every day
|Is aware of the world and how reacting to world events is influenced by collective feelings
|Savours the moment; appreciating what matters
|Shows optimism; spreads positive emotions; cheerful, smiles, thanks others in genuine ways
|Is unselfconscious about doing unsolicited acts of kindness for others; readily volunteers
|Takes on new challenges/different responsibilities
|Offers advice, feedback, coaching to others
|Makes sacrifices for the greater good
This thinking is currently being developed further (particularly with the colleague Andrew Harrison) and additional thinking will be set out here and elsewhere in the near future. We hope that others will comment as one way of contributing to the thinking.
This piece of thinking derives from a number of roots:
One strand is concerned with the importance of cities. Several years ago the nation state was taken as being the driver of much that matters politically, economically and socially. Later came a phase where Regions were given a prime driving role (within the national context). There was an increased focus on regional growth, regional economies and (politically) on the potential of elected regional assemblies. We now seem to have a broader recognition of the importance of cities. Initially this was via a hybrid concept of the city-region whereby the regional economy was driven essentially by the wide impact of the activity of cities on their regional hinterland. More recently it is being linked to the potential value of elected city mayors and the capacity of cities to manage more of their own developments.
A different strand was the work of Martin Seligman. I have had a long-lasting interest in his work. Many, many years ago I was formally registered on a chemistry undergraduate course but (not being attracted by any form of sports; and not being enticed by engagement in more than a minimum number of university social/drama/drinking/weekend activity clubs) used some of the spare time to sit in on lectures in the psychology and sociology departments – and follow up some of the recommended readings in the library. This got me interested in the work of Gregory Bateson and the early thinking on systems and on the outcomes of human interactions; the work of the Symbolic Interactionists and the way people operate as individuals within social/group/organisational settings; and Seligman’s work on learned helplessness. Over the years these interests have been woven in with other things and insights adapted as new ideas have been put forward to explain social processes. Seligman’s shift to focus on ‘flourishing’ paralleled a change in focus within Birmingham, including part of the work I was involved in, to ideas around flourishing neighbourhoods, city-level progress, organisational optimism, and so on.
A third strand was an interest in learning (at different levels) which meandered through thinking about learning organisations, learning cities and testing out the extent to which Birmingham was considering itself to be a learning city. This, itself, started to interweave with thinking about how change can be brought about at the necessary pace and scale within larger, seemingly complex organisations – and the attitudes and behaviours that prevented intended improvements being brought to fruition. Along the way this brought in notions around communities of practice (and the work of Etienne Wenger, Jean Lave etc) and the nature of community and cooperation (and eg the writings of Richard Sennett). Some of this linked across to reading I was doing on complexity theory (with links into the work of people such as John Seddon); some connected to writings (eg Michael Fullan) on leading change in larger-scale educational settings, and work more generally on leadership (eg Adam Bryant’s writings on what makes certain chief executives more effective than average). There were connections, also, to the work of Daniel Goleman on emotional intelligence, especially emotional intelligence at work and the implications this might have for organisational processes and structures. Where writers are indicated (as in this paragraph) these are intended to be indicative of the sorts of things being explored rather than direct specific references to the only writer in that area of interest. They, and other such writers, will link into the reader’s own stock of thoughts to produce different ways forward for different people. I am, here, simply sketching out my own lines of enquiry.
A further, connected, strand was the emerging work on wellbeing and resilience – whether this be the ideas around how individuals can sustain their own wellbeing (eg the Foresight Report); or ideas around the wellbeing of organisations such as major public services in a city; or the connections between resilience, learning, flourishing and so on. This brought me back to the latest work by Seligman – his own thinking having shifted from the topic of Helplessness, through Optimism, and on to the recent focus on Happiness and most recently onto an analysis of Flourishing. His book and website on this are well worth the visit in my view.
All of this was background, vague, and held as a loose thinking framework that enabled particular questions to be thought about in different ways. One such question was ‘How does a city such as Birmingham (UK) change itself through learning? If Birmingham can be considered to be a wide dispersed learning system how does that system learn to change? How can public services, undergoing change to new operating models – partly in the desire to deliver better outcomes in peoples’ lives and partly in response to reduced public sector budgets – build learning into these changes? ’
Another puzzle was the extent to which there might be common recurring messages arising from a range of insights that might form elements of a flexible framework through which a city can self-assess itself as having the capacity to flourish etc. – and the extent to which these might also apply at subsidiary levels (such as major organisations within the city, neighbourhoods, families, individuals …)? What might the interconnections be between the layers eg how does Birmingham influence family life; how does the activity patterns within families influence Birmingham as a city with its own perceived ethos/’spirit’ etc?
This sets a scene that can be explored in more detail ….
One key concern in the regeneration of Birmingham over recent years has been that of creating economic prosperity for residents whilst also creating ‘flourishing neighbourhoods’.
These flourishing neighbourhoods are seen as small localities, each with its own distinct sense of place; where people are relatively happy to live; where public and private services are well delivered; where there is a strong network of activity and were residents feel that they have some degree of influence over their lives and there is a sense of hope for a positive future.
A number of managers from different agencies, each with their own differing concern for neighbourhood renewal in Birmingham, explored what a flourishing neighbourhood might look like in terms of learning, and established what data might be needed to substantiate this.
A neighbourhood might be considered to be flourishing, in terms of learning, when:
There are large numbers of families in which children are given an early learning start:
- children have access to high quality learning experiences 0-3, in the home, in the community and in early learning organisations
- there are sufficient pre-school childcare places, including well-resourced, well- nursery places for all children wishing them (age 3-5)
- libraries and other community venues are well equipped and welcoming to families with children 0-5
- additional support is available to specific groups and families (such as those in hostels; refugee/asylum seeking families; those wanting to develop bilingual skills in young children; those in need of parenting support or advice; young children in public care etc)
- children enter school with adequate levels of language, literacy and a sense of number – as well as good emotional, social and behavioural skills.
There is high quality primary and secondary education available to young people who live in the neighbourhood
- there are sufficient school places in, or close to, the locality
- schools are reported as being of high quality, by internal and external reviews
- pupils readily attend school and are happy in schools which are secure, attractive and welcoming
- schools are well staffed, and have good resources and facilities across the curriculum
- schools act as reliable information, access and referral routes to other opportunities and services
- parents are able to support their children’s learning
There are interesting opportunities available out of schools:
- there is a variety of well used youth opportunities re leisure, art, sport, technology, citizenship, culture etc
- specialist 1:1 or small group support services exist for young people
- young people are involved in local decision-making
- libraries, supplementary schools etc are linked to mainstream schools and are well-equipped and well-staffed
- there is good access to ICT facilities in the home and in the community
- there are supported opportunities re mentoring, challenge, taking on community roles – by, and for, young people
There are high levels of skills achievement across all groups (11-25)
- young people have ‘access to significance’, being able to define a valuable set of activities for themselves
- there are no substantial gaps in achievement levels between different groups
- achievement rates at 11, 16, 19 are relatively high
- there are high proportions of people qualified at level 3 and level 4
- young people needing additional support know who to turn to
- young people make the transition from learning at 14 to continuing learning, in work training etc by age 19
- there are high levels of functional literacy, language, numeracy and ICT skills post-16
There are sufficient, appropriate opportunities to continue learning post-16
- libraries and adult learning venues are well staffed and well stocked with appropriate materials
- learning is available via a variety of loosely-linked organisations; in a variety of forms; and via a range if organisations
- ‘next step’ learning is accessible in terms of place, time, by ICT etc
- there are local training opportunities for adults wishing to take on community roles or be involved in community activities
- there are people who are sufficiently motivated about learning, that they act as learning advocates
- there is readily available information about learning opportunities
- there are ways of learning that can happen anywhere/anytime
- there are wide opportunities for families to learn together at a range of community sites
Throughout the neighbourhood there is an environment rich in stimulation and opportunity
- good use is made of media and ICT, for ‘own-time’ learning
- people seek out opportunities for change and improvement; people take responsibility for own learning
- there are openings for creativity and problem solving
- area looks beyond the immediate, tries to get a sense of the bigger picture
- homes and community venues are seen as places that stimulate learning
- there are opportunities (for all ages) to learn to be healthy, to be safe, to be ‘green’, to be involved, to be employable etc
- learning is related to art, sport, culture, spirituality, academic knowledge etc
- organisations in the area link up to support learning
- there is easy local access to the wider sets of social resources
There is a valuing of learning and of the variety of cultures
- there is promotion of ‘learning’ as well as ‘courses, programmes, and groups’
- ‘achievement for all’ is celebrated
- there is an expectation that provision will be high quality
- each learning opportunity is strongly able to create a further desire to learn
- draws on resources within different sectors; reflects a diversity of cultures and traditions
- learning is seen as a valuable tool – as a ‘solution’ not a ‘problem’
- people learn from each other and see themselves as having something to teach others
The above focused on the links between ‘learning’ and ‘flourishing’ at the neighbourhood level. There was acknowledgement that there are other factors associated with Flourishing and that some of the driving influences operate at the broader city or national level. At the same time the development of this potential framework was helpful in a number of ways:
- to feed into discussions about measurement of progress towards flourishing neighbourhoods (not only in terms of contributing to Birmingham as a learning city, but also contributing to the wider considerations of Birmingham as a safe place, an environmentally sustainable place, a healthy place, an economically secure place, and a place with good housing and transport etc).
- to advise local decision-makers about the best investments of local development money
- to feed into local planning mechanisms, in terms of what are the ‘puzzles’ (in terms of learning) for each area and what might the solutions be.
This article summarises the thinking that links family learning, resilience and the closing of educational gaps. It is based on some overview research commissioned by Core Skills Developments in Birmingham (UK). Insights are offered about how children can become motivated individuals. When educational settings actively engage parents directly in the learning and development of their children, and support parental involvement in learning in the home, children and young people are able to achieve greater attainments.
The report – final version can be downloaded here.