The nature of cities: a way of 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:

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.

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