Tag Archive for resilience

Thinking about Cities: An exploration of contemporary themes

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.

Can Twitter be a useful source of knowledge? Thinking about Cities through Twitter.

When I was establishing the forward thinking research section of the website (www.thewordsthething.org.uk ) I had in mind a number of strands of thinking that I wanted to take further. These were broadly related to my pre-existing interests in learning, social and community behaviours, public developments and so on. The site declared that Forward Thinking Developments had an interest in a broad range of topics linking:

  • complexity – and how this related to managing and developing social outcomes
  • learning across distributed networks; on-demand learning; outcome-focused learning; informal learning; learning cities
  • user-determined services; what constitutes ‘expertness’
  • links between myriads of small actions and larger-scale public processes
  • nature of evidence, causality, leverage, models
  • nature of progress; why things aren’t as good as they can be -leadership

‘Research’, like so many other notions, can mean a variety of things to different people. Research is increasingly linked to a need to produce useful outcomes – often with commercialism in mind, or with policy direction in mind. Whilst ‘really useful’ research is important there is also a place for research-type activities that are undertaken for no immediate gain, for playfulness, simply because a puzzle has presented itself. Such activities have value if they stimulate curiosity and provide different ways of seeing our social world.

One of the initial interests, via the website, was how to explore the kinds of things that a modern complex city (like Birmingham, UK) might need to know more about if it is to really flourish.

In this context, some work was already underway on how Birmingham operated and might further develop as a city (not so much in terms of built environment, urban layout – more in terms of relationships, ways of seeing the city, capabilities etc).

A different section of website was concerned with various forms of writing. A subset of this was Place-based Writing (loosely defined) with an early thinkpiece summary on Space and Place. This connected with the city research strand through the concept of placemaking.

Relatively late in the day I was also discovering the various uses of social media (in relation to writing) and having got to grip, in a very basic way, with Twitter was beginning to see its values in many ways. I started to wonder about the value of Twitter as a means of study, as a source of knowledge. By this I mean something more than information (of which Twitter is a very good source) and something less than deep understanding (of the kind one might get from a substantial graduate/post-graduate course of focused study).

In what ways might Twitter be a good source of knowledge about any particular topic? The real value of Twitter, as with other forms of social media, is its immediacy. What gets put up on Twitter is more contemporary (happening right now) rather than historical (last week’s story); is more current (minute by minute/ day by day thoughts) rather than established (things packaged into a lengthy course); is more broad-ranging (contributors from a variety of people across the world) rather than institutional (contributors from experts within the same organisation).

Twitter, as a possible source of knowledge, is open-ended and not centrally managed. The scale of what is available is potentially overwhelming. The very nature of Twitter means that tweets up there are partial, fragmentary and often idiosyncratic. The 140 character limit means that fuller explanations rely on clicking through to articles. The words written on Twitter each day would, as an estimate, fill a 10 million page book – with a new one written the next day, and the next. Faced with all of that, where might one start in order to begin to pull out learning in a sense-making way? Having settled on a learning topic, eg ‘Cities’, what would be the most productive way of getting sense out of the range, scale, volume and variability of Twitter?

The puzzle was simple: As an interested non-specialist, would there be a way to use Twitter to research current ideas around Cities?

Some prior thinking needed to be done. Was I interested in all cities or just in larger, more complex ones? I had already produced an early paper on cities and adult basic skills, which outlined the very varied nature of places that were cities: Old mercantile places; old ecclesiastical places; old industrial places etc of various sizes. ‘City’, after all, is simply a designation and there are new cities that have recently been produced simply by a change of nomenclature. Although interested in all cities I was really only interested in larger ones, that were not peculiar examples because of being capital cities, and which were not such huge megacities that they had particular dominant features because of their sprawl.

Through previous work I had become familiar with Core Cities; Eurocities; city regions – and general reading around the pull of megacities, and the idea that city/city links can be as important or more important that city/nation links. I had already noted the annual league tables for leading cities/top cities based on various measures of quality of life and adequacy of infrastructure.

I had done some work on Birmingham as a Learning City (and developed a framework for assessing the extent to which Birmingham was in reality a learning city). In my reading I had come across various categories, associations and labels for cities: smart cities, resilient cities, innovating cities, connected cities, learning cities, cities with a clear sense of place ???. and I had been involved in conversations about the extent to which cities might become more capable, well-governed, engaging/engaged, decisive, understanding, tolerant, and so on. A lot of this may simply have been mere semantics, but words are important, language still matters. Words shape perspectives; perspectives influence behaviour; behaviours influence outcomes.

If this was my starting point, how might Twitter take my understanding any further forward?

The flow of tweets is endless and relentless. How could I set about managing the flow to make it useful to my puzzle? What was a reasonable period to select for this exploration – maybe initially 6-12 weeks? Would that be an adequate period to open up access to interesting content around topics related to cities?

Were there productive routes into that 10million page/day equivalent? What might I do to maximise my chances of coming across the right mix of stuff that would leave me feeling that I had learned something substantial about cities? I already had an existing, if somewhat limited, Twitter network that I was following but what was the best way to extend this to capture city-knowledge and still keep the exercise manageable?

Some of my Twitter contacts were being followed because they were key figures in urban development/urban studies. Tracking back to see who they themselves were following gave me a wider range of people to follow. Searching down Twitter lists produced other leads for me to keep an eye on. These flagged up some conferences that were about to happen and which covered various dimensions of cities, and which could easily be followed using the # hashtag for that conference.

This probably wasn’t all that was on Twitter re cities in the chosen period. It was simply what showed up on the slice of tweets that I could see. It did, however, produce a sufficient volume of articles, opinions and links for me to gather around 400 pages of notes re relevant knowledge over a12 week period. This was edited down into a 30 page article:

Thinking about Cities: An exploration of contemporary themes


A number of trends for cities in the near future were identified. Feeding these back into the hashtag system of Twitter would open up a new range of explorations, but I am content to leave that for some other time or some other person. For me, this current exploration has demonstrated the extent to which a selective use of Twitter might be a useful learning tool for any topic.

In what ways might a city need to think differently if it is to get to where it wants to be?

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 which their 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.

Cities: Flourishing? Learning? Resilient? Capable? Emergent?

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 intra-connected 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.

Family Learning: Can it promote resilience in children and young people?

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.