Why is good public transport one of the necessities of a successful city?

October 1st, 2010

Most of us take utilities like water, electricity and even wireless internet access for granted as necessities to flourish in modern cities; but what about good public transport? Many would argue that successful cities are walkable or even cyclable which is a fair point; but doesn’t successful transport in these situations at least serve as a backup choice?

Public transport has lots of faults from being crowded, humid, late, over-priced; but it usually provides a flow to a city, an option to get from A to B for anyone from school child to pensioners, but I think most importantly it compresses the flow of traffic by moving more people per square meter than ordinary cars do.

Councillor Peter Box mentioned during the CLES labour fringe event that public transport needs to be integral to the way we work, that it must not be an add-on. Other good points that were mentioned were:

  • Desrisking private investment in public transport  – Neil McInroy, CLES
  • Coherent policies with transport at the core – Cllr Peter Box
  • Social justice in investing in bus services – Willie Bain, MP

Hustling – a creative approach to city solutions.

May 10th, 2010

The following was originally submitted for the first issue (issue 0) of 48 hour Magazine but unfortunately did not make the cut. I thought I would share it with the world anyway.

Is hustling an essential part of creativity and innovation – an archetypal trait of an urban innovator?

For me the archetypal hustler is the risk-taker, the marginalised creative person on the edge of society; the type of person that has little to lose but something to gain from being creative and innovative. In its purest format in western societies, this could for instance be an illegal refugee or a person without a work permit.

Cities are the home for most of us – it is the place of resources, infrastructure, opportunities galore and the ideal playground for mass creativity and innovation. Cities are constantly growing, with more than half the world’s population now living in cities. To address this influx of people to the existing space cities will constantly need to innovate. This rapid growth will gives interesting challenges to the infrastructure like power grid and drainage pipes to support more people.

A number of people who will want to be creative and innovative for a plethora of different reasons, ranging from personal greed and gain to survival.

As Charlie Leadbeater writes in a paper from British Council’s Creative Cities conference in Warsaw 2008:

“And there are many other spaces – marginal, unlicensed, criminal – in which creativity thrives in cities, where people have to improvise because they have few resources or are outside traditional institutions.”

The question is whether hustling – not in the sense of cheating but more understood as challenging and bending conventional wisdom – is a prerequisite for successful innovation. But hustle on its own doesn’t do it – it needs to be matched by hard work and perseverance.

An example of this type of hustling is Reverse Graffiti. The technique consists of cleaning off dirt, leaving behind beautiful patterns or messages often with a strong community element. This is an innovative approach to an art form which is usual illegal – regular graffiti – while doing public good by cleaning the city. However, there is a stalemate because for political reasons local authorities do not want to endorse street art, probably because this could attract other forms of street art like ordinary graffiti. The British artist Moose, who has even been close to being arrested for his way of cleaning the city.

There is a wonderful YouTube clip from Aarhus, Denmark where Moose talks about his work and also shares some of his experiences of doing reverse graffiti. The technique uses stencils and high pressure water pumps to clean of algae off walls and leave only the pattern of stencils behind – in Aarhus it was a dog’s bone. Another technique is to cut into layers of posters and using the contrast between the colours in the posters in the different layers. Finally, there is a technique for cleaning off existing paint, a technique where credit cards suddenly come to a new good use.

Are successful cities about speed and velocity?

May 2nd, 2010

In a recent interview with CEOs for Cities, Richard Florida talks about how the velocity of cities, or the speed of which people move, do business etc., is crucial to success of cities? The argument goes that any additional 5 minutes spent commuting is essentially a loss in productivity. The message seems to be: Internalise lost time and gain productivity.

While I am sure that there is a financial gain in looking at speeding up processes and optimising processes for efficiency – it is also interesting that a study on Pace of Life showed that side effects of a higher pace of life also had side effects of “people in fast-moving cities are less likely to help others and have higher rates of coronary heart disease”.

However, there are other considerations to take into account. Studies show that there is a correlation between the length of commute and quality of life and it looks like this “waste time” is not only a waste in terms of lost productivity but also impacts on people’s quality of life.

Personally, I think there might be other criteria than speed and velocity that are crucial to cities – let me know what you think?

See the full interview with Richard Florida elaborating on this theory on the CEOs for cities YouTube channel:

Remember the local and the locality.

January 9th, 2010

In recent writings both Sarah Longlands and Matthew Taylor suggest that our immediate surroundings seem to have an increasing importance in our everyday lives. Personally, I think this could possibly be a reaction to economics before the credit crunch when some ecomonic models, like like long tail, seemed to defy locality and use the global scene as their local market but with which result – we could ask ourselves whether this contributed to brining our economies to their knees.

I really enjoyed Sarah Longlands’ article on City Regions on the CLES website and think this is an interesting follow-on to Neil McInroy recent blog post Snuggles Cities – on cities and polycentricity.

I agree with the point of view that by introducing the larger frameworks of city regions, local social enterprises of a limited size and working in the local environment could be challenged when facing the scaling up of projects. And although this would of course give opportunities to partner with like-minded organisations and win bigger contracts, there is a danger that organisations sever their bond to their locality and the community they are immersed in. As Longlands writes:

 ”a consequence of the city region governance is that we may find that there is less emphasis, and less value, placed on activity and knowledge at the “local” level. However, CLES believe that this would be a mistake [...]  when it comes to delivering support to local communities and knowing your customer base, nothing beats the quality of local knowledge. From CLES’ research, we know that social enterprises play an important role in supporting communities, particularly those who are most deprived, through employment and their supply chain. This investment in localities is a vital part of supporting the resilience of local economies.”

On a very similar note but from a slightly different perspective, Matthew Taylor of the RSA mentions in a recent blog post, called For good ideas – go local, two challenges has heard over and over again from public service leaders and managers:

  1. a growing ambition to reduce social exclusion, increase attainment and improve life chances with the expectation of declining resources,
  2. there was the emphasis on the urgency of greater co-ordination and collaboration between public sector institutions and agencies.

Matthew Taylor wisely concludes:

 ”So the message out in public sector land is; we have to do things very differently if we are meet growing needs with shrinking budgets, and that crucial to the capacity to reform and innovate is a much higher level of collaboration, focussed around a shared strategy and a strong sense of place.” 

Snuggle Cities

January 3rd, 2010

In a recent blog post, Neil McInroy from Centre for Local Economic Strategies, introduced the concept of Snuggle Cities.

I like the idea of snuggle cities where polycentricity of cities is seen as a value to to an area and the relationship between the different centres is seen as being important. Where many polycentric cities seem to have one predominant centre the idea of snuggling as bed partners is also the idea of none of the centres taking hegemony over the others but they all co-exist with respect for each other. As Neil writes

“the trick is to create economic development activity in these places, which does not erode the success of the [predominant financial centre]. They can’t collide. They are forever joined and are in bed together and they need to cosily ‘snuggle’ together.. “

I understand this snuggle as a constant negotiation of the relationship to the other centre, a constant repositioning in terms of one’s strengths and what different. This dynamic, if it works, can be a tremendous benefit for cities and city regions. The challenge, as I see it, is to persuade representatives of the existing strong centres to enter open-heartedly into this equal relationship and the constant negotiating of this relationship.


April 19th, 2009

What a wonderful word to describe the lack of innovation and creativity in business and organisations. In a recent IdeaCast, Umair Haque explains how business in the current downturn fail because they fail to truly renew themselves. Instead they innovate by reapplying outdated innovations to existing products, patching dated models rather than totally rethinking their products in a twenty first century context. These businesses end up being unresponsive or zombie like to the changing world around them – an example of this is the car industry where the concept of cars is not rethought but rather cars are adapted with older technologies.

Facebook friends step into the limelight

April 19th, 2008

Danish prime minister, Ander Fogh Rasmussen, yesterday celebrated his 10 year anniversary as leader of the Liberal party, Venstre. The PM chose to celebrate the day by going for a run with his Facebook friends. He also mentioned how Facebookhas been a positive inspiration in his daily work and thanked the Facebook friends for their positive comments on his wall.

It is interesting to see how Facebook has moved from being social networking tool to being a tool for powerful politicians to engage with their stakeholders; and the empsasis and investment that politicians put into a tool like this. 

Internet creates new class divisions

February 28th, 2008

New Danish research (by Børsen and Geomatic) shows that the internet divides the Danish population in two categories

  1. heavy internet users generally are highly educated, have a high income and live in urban areas in the vicinity of higher education institutions.
  2.  On the other side of this digital divide are people in rural areas.

Usually, I think of the internet as flattening hierachies and class divisions. However, as Johan Peter Paludan says it is an illusion that geography becomes irrelevant in the knowledge society. This means that the internet reinforces the old polarisation between town and country.

Oh that magic feeling.

January 19th, 2008

Recently, I have been really frustrated with downloading files from the internet, as the combination of Windows Vista, McAfee and a D-Link router does not seem to be a match made for continuity – downloads constantly seem to break off and time our :-( I have specifically had problems downloading podcasts through iTunes, but also just downloading large files.Finally, this evening it suddenly dawned on me that using a freeware, I might be able to resume broken download and eventually get my podcasts down in full length :-) I found a small but so far extremely useful application called FlashGet which seems to do the job – wonderful. Wonderful this magic feeling of finding a simple workaround after spending days trying to sort out the issues by updating hardware firmware etc. to no effect. Isn’t it great to get these small breakthroughs :-) I can even download the Simon Lynge album that I have bought NovaTunes without worrying about having only 5 attempts.

Public service broadcase and license fees

January 11th, 2008

Tom Loosemore has an interesting discussion of when you are liable to pay the license fee. Apparently in the UK, you have to watch the BBC in order to have to pay license.

In Denmark it is enough to be in possession of a mobile phone (or any other electronic device) that has the capability to show one of the national TV channels:

It looks like there is still some way to go here in terms of harmonisation within the EU, but watch out if you borrow a computer from a friend in Denmark, you may have pay a license fee while you browse the your Facebook profile and enjoy a latte in your local café.