Global cities desperately need new leadership models

By Greg Clark
October 25, 2021

IN BRIEF

  • In our post-pandemic, climate-alarmed world, city leadership is just about to become the most important job on the planet.
  • Cities are seriously underpowered, place-based leadership is a collective risk and soft power is essential for success.
  • A new generation of city leadership types is beginning to emerge, but is it too late?

The choice is ours: Will we have successful cities or human extinction?


The world’s population centres are the critical places in the future of our planet. Where people settle, and how they live with the planet, will define the ultimate endgame in the story of human life. Will we spoil our habitat or remake it?

Whether we think of such cities as consumption markets, infrastructure hubs, innovation ecosystems, decision-making centres, sharing platforms or visitor destinations does not really matter. They are all these things—and much more. We have come to call them “cities” because they serve and seek to empower citizens, but this word is now so overused, and sometimes so contentious, that it may just be better to think of them as population centres: places where people are concentrated. In the quest to avoid human extinction, such places are ontologically important. 

On this planet, there are some 10,000 cities where we humans make our home, according to Cities in the World, European Commission and OECD. Meanwhile, the United Nations World Population Projection says we are on the road to 9 billion city dwellers by 2080. Currently, about 600 cities drive our global economy and fuel our national treasuries, 200 cities are the centres of national policy and law making, and 100 cities are the hubs of corporate enterprise.

Anyone who wants to argue against the idea of an urban world needs to articulate the alternative. How would you distribute and service 9 billion souls without using cities as the primary platforms? What are the environmental and social consequences of alternative models?

We know, from all the amassed science of success, that leadership is critical to how countries and companies survive and thrive. We read books about national heroes and about great corporate leaders. But less frequently do we focus on how population centres are led and guided by wise people and what the leadership imperative is for a place that is not a nation and not a business venture. The leadership of cities is a niche discussion.

In our post-pandemic, climate-alarmed world, city leadership is just about to become the most important job on the planet. The next 50 years will be a great reckoning, and it has already started. Can we equip our cities to avoid the extinction of our species?

ABOUT

Greg Clark
Group Advisor, Future Cities
HSBC Group

Greg Clark is Group Advisor, Future Cities & New Industries, at HSBC Group, where he focuses on future urbanization, mobility, digital transformation, sustainable development and impact investing. He is also Chair of the Connected Places Catapult; a board member of Transport for London and the London LEP; a visiting professor on Cities and Innovation at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow; and an honorary professor of Urban Innovation and Policy at London’s University College. Clark is a Global Fellow at the Urban Land Institute. He supports leaders on strategic futures in more than 300 cities worldwide. He also advises global firms on the investment and enterprise opportunities of an urbanizing world. Clark is the author of 10 books. He is cities expert on the BBC World Service series My Perfect City, host of the Connected Places Podcast, and author of monthly column hosted by RICS called The Planet of Cities. Clark writes here in a personal capacity.

Barcelona
Birdseye view of Barcelona, Spain

Three ideas should drive our quest:

Cities are seriously underpowered. Most of our cities are subjected to an inadequate version of democratic government that leaves them with the wrong municipal geographies, insufficient financial resources, weak policy frameworks, short-term mandates and overly dominant national governments that do not understand the interactions of different forces locally, in a given place. National governments recognize the opportunity of a century of urbanization but are largely unwilling to couple it with the decentralisation of power it requires. So, cities are orphaned by nation states.

Place leadership is a collective task. Public bodies, civic groups, asset owners, investors and businesses must work together with citizens to shape choices and frame change together. Cities are both a means to optimise the interplay of different changes such as in energy, transport, environment and public health, and also a platform for collective behaviour change amongst citizens and businesses. Cities can motivate and inspire the changes we need because they enable and require sharing of the same place for multiple purposes by large numbers. Place-based leadership can induce innovation.

Soft power is therefore essential for cities to succeed. Cities need to be convening platforms for innovation and joint endeavour. They cannot achieve the changes required without building and driving coalitions. The more collaboration, the easier the big reforms that build greater formal competence are acquired. Well-orchestrated soft power leads to reforms that generate hard power. 

National governments recognize the opportunity of a century of urbanization but are largely unwilling to couple it with the decentralisation of power it requires. So, cities are orphaned by nation states.

We can already see a new generation of city leadership platform types beginning to emerge in multiple locations:

Over the past 20 years, Manchester, UK, has steadily built a grand coalition of nine neighbouring municipalities working together with universities, investors and businesses committed to a place-leadership agenda that has enabled delegation of new authority, the acquisition of new financial powers, and creation of a new leadership structures in a “combined authority” for the city region.

The Greater Sydney Commission is a new kind of city regional leadership platform where civic leaders are selected for their expertise to shape a long-term agenda beyond the short-term mandates and political cycles but accountable to, and influential upon, them.

Barcelona Global has been established as a coalition of corporations, institutions, entrepreneurs, academics, skilled migrants and investors who want to help shape the Barcelona of 2050. The coalition is working at the spaces within and between the formal levels of government: municipal, state, national, and EU levels of formal governance.

In China, the emergence of the great city clusters in the megaregions of The Greater Bay Area, Yangtze River Delta and Jing-Jin-Ji regions shows a new scale for subnational leadership to oversee and coordinate networks of interdependent cities.

In Colombia, we observe proactive citizen leadership in Medellín and civic-minded business leadership in Bogotá fostering new tools and platforms for place leadership to emerge.

As we emerge from a global pandemic, the quest for effective city leadership is more important than ever. New models of shared leadership are finally arriving, but is it too late? We need these models, as well as other innovative ideas and approaches, to become the fabric of our global urban infrastructure to have successful cities. Our collective future depends on it.

As we emerge from a global pandemic, the quest for effective city leadership is more important than ever. 

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