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The Purpose of a City: economic development or something more?

Why do we choose to live cities?  What are they for?

Well, for many of us they are ‘Where the jobs are’.  We don’t choose to live in or near them.  We do so because that is how our economy is configured.  We are drawn into they city and ‘enslaved’ by it and the economy is exists to serve.  But many of us are, on the whole, happy slaves as the city fathers and their investor friends ensure we are regularly supplied with both  ‘bread and circuses’, superficial means of appeasement, from which they too can often make a handsome profit.

And, on one level, this is a purpose of the city.

To organise a modern population effectively and efficiently for the benefit of employers and those who bankroll and tax them.  They are above all else economic entities, where ‘culture’ and ‘community’ play secondary roles as part of the mechanisms for appeasement while the primary narrative is about the economy, productivity, profitability and gross domestic product.

As Margaret Thatcher put it “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”

But, we can look at a city differently.

We could choose to believe that “Head, heart and soul are the method; the object is to change the economy”

We can choose to see the city as a collection of people who have converged on a specific location because it offers them opportunities to do the things that they want to do, to be the person that they want to be and fulfil their potential.  In such a city the primary relationship would not be one of ‘enslavement’ to an economy but as a collaboration of powerful citizens in a participative democracy.  A city where citizens primary responsibility is to each other and to the future.  Where an economy is produced that serves people, both now and into the future.

Such a city would almost certainly not depend primarily on the development of its physical infrastructure, (Supercasino anyone? Or perhaps a high-speed train or station entrance to inspire the business folk?) but on psychological infrastructure.  A network of relationships, support and encouragement that valued people, regardless of wealth or education, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or age.  A psychological infrastructure in which help could be asked for and offered. A city in which collaboration, association and innovation in the pursuit of progress was everyone’s business.

Now THAT would be a city I would want to live in.


Hans Rosling Visualises Health and Wealth in 200 Countries over 200 Years

Disrupting Poverty in Leeds – The Results Factory

Leeds aspires to be The Best City in the UK.

But to the 23% of Leeds’ children who live in poverty, rising to almost 50% in some communities, this must seem a very distant goal.

What can we do about it?

The Results Factory is about generating ideas and making them happen. In under 3 hours, we will come together, develop ideas and leave with action plans. Whether you need people to help get a project up and running, or whether you have time you want to use, we’ll find practical ways to start disrupting poverty in our city.

Our aim is to leave with clear actions that will make a difference.  You don’t need to be a professional in the field or have particular expertise.  All we need from you is an open mind and a desire to change things.

So, join us at 1.30pm on Friday 20th January to help us to Disrupt Poverty in Leeds.

Jonathan Meades on Brand and Regeneration

The Problem of GDP

Would Social Enterprise Deliver a Better World?

Just imagine a world where every business is a social enterprise.

There was nowhere to spend your money that was not taking a portion of it to reinvest in social change, to alleviate hardship and increase social justice.

You eat at a restaurant that uses part of the price of your ham hock to help the homeless find a job.  You pay a premium on your office space so that your landlord can re-invest some of your cash into supporting entrepreneurs in the local poor folk.  You buy your petrol from an oil company that takes a slice of your cash to improve marine conservation and invest in promoting democracy in the oilfields of the planet.

Every time you buy something someone puts a smile on the face of the world.

The more we consume the better things get!

Growth is genuinely good! Isn’t it?

Well perhaps, because all of these social enterprises are also genuinely sustainable in a one planet economy, all paying a fair wage for a days work, and are well capitalised as investors recognise investing in social change is in their long term ‘self interest’ too.  The return they get on their capital is worth much more than just money.  It is a planet fit for the grandchildren.

How would the market for ‘social change’ play out in our new socially enterprising economy?  I suspect that saving Pandas and Snow Leopards might do disproportionally well while less popular causes like ‘kids in care’ or special needs education may not get a look in.

Life for us shoppers might get a little more complicated as we look to factor in not just cost, quality and decency of the corporate that we buy our goods from – but also whether they are investing effectively in causes that we want to support.

But what a vision!

A post capitalist economy where entrepreneurs and markets set the agenda and provide the fuel for social change.  And perhaps just a quango or two checking the veracity of their claims for ‘re-investing profits’.  We could call it SEQC – the Social Enterprise Quality Commission.

What could possibly go wrong?

‘The Impotence of All Governments…’

A provocative phrase used by Jeremy Paxman last night to describe the inability of any government to effectively manage an effective path through the current economic crisis.

But we could extend it to many other areas of our lives.  The impotence of governments to:

  • build the affordable houses that we need
  • provide the stable macro-economic climate in which trade can thrive
  • keep significant numbers of our citizens, young and old, out of poverty
  • equip people with the skills and attitudes required to thrive in the 21st century
  • reduce carbon emissions to a level that mitigates the risk of significant environmental trauma
  • provide affordable, sustainable and efficient mass transit systems

Here in Leeds we have got to the point where all political parties see the construction of a new station at Kirkstall as some kind of triumph.  Building one station that will serve a few thousand people in a city of 8000 000.  A new station that will provide the key infrastructure link to enable further private sector development in that area of the city.  I just hope that any future planning application gets the balance of affordable housing right, otherwise I suspect we will see the poor once again displaced in the failing policy of economic cleansing that provides the blue print for so much of what passes for ‘urban renewal and regeneration’.  The ‘partnership’ between the local authority and the developers will no doubt be tested as one side pushes for more affordable housing and community amenities while the other pushes for a more profitable plan, while holding their twin political jokers of ‘job creation’ and ‘development’.

I suspect the only people that should really be rubbing their hands are the directors and shareholders of the construction companies and to a much lesser extent, perhaps mopping their brows with relief, will be those get to pick up their shovels on yet another construction hurrah.

So if government is pretty impotent then what are the alternatives?  What might work to help us tackle some of these long  standing and seemingly intractable problems?

Well, for me the future is ‘Bottom Up’.  It is about the engagement of large numbers of people in figuring out what really matters most to them and then forming associations around common cause.

The challenge will be to form associations rather than factions, but this is the process of ‘civic enterprise’ and done well strengthens democracy while building a much more powerful citizenry.  The role of elected officers and other public servants in working with these civic associations, enabling them and supporting their work wherever possible and helping them to add value to the democratic process may be crucial.  Representative democracy is creaking.  Perhaps a more participative democracy where different associations learn to creatively negotiate their collective futures provides a way forward.

It is about governments, national and local, no longer pledging to lead us to the promised land through judicious policy development, 15 year Visions and glossy manifestos tied to the electoral cycle and recognising that now their job is to help all of us to build the kind of communities that we want to live in.  The job of community development is our job and not theirs.

Bottom Up Is The New Black!

Think this is all hopelessly naive?

Then pop along to a Friday Picnic, A Cultural Conversation, Latch, Canopy, Progress School, Elsie, TEDxLeeds, LDF2011, Simon on the Streets, Ideas That Change Lives, PACES, Innovation Lab to name just a few where bottom up is becoming the new black.