Archive for the 'culture' Category

Urban incubators, inequality and innovation

November 3, 2017

inc

The growth of shared, flexible urban workspaces for startups and SMEs is now a striking, and very visible feature of British cities.

Over the past decade or so, startups and small firms in retail, manufacturing, arts, the cultural industries and the digital economy have been making creative use and re-use of urban spaces — through newish practices such as co-working and pop-ups, as well as reconfiguring older forms such as high street units and industrial estates.

We can see these new practices across the city — in centres and in peripheries, in economically vibrant neighbourhoods and more deprived places. Since 2007, for example, there’s been a particular explosion of co-working, incubator and accelerator provision in London: in 2014 there were at least 132 spaces, 50% of which had arrived since 2012. Today there are at least 156 co-working spaces alone.

This colourful and rapidly-changing landscape raises a lot of questions for researchers and policymakers.

Now read on …

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Jane Jacobs: City Limits

May 18, 2016

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

City Limits is a lovely 1971 film about Jane Jacobs. You can watch the whole thing here; it’s about 30 mins long. Directed by Laurence Hyde for the Canadian National Film Board, the documentary features Jacobs talking through her ideas, interspersed with some terrific footage of Toronto, New York, London and other cities around the world. I’m indebted to Martin Dittus for digging it out of the NFB archives.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

The 30-minute film is worth watching for many reasons. For starters, Jacobs herself appears in much of it – sat in a park, shopping in a market, buying a newspaper, and at one point clambering into a helicopter to survey Toronto from above.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

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At the same time, the film is a great summary of Jacobs’ big ideas about how urban neighbourhoods – and cities – work, when they succeed and when they fail. Jacobs is a superb writer, but she never spells it out for you. The film does, and in the author’s own words:

A city is an organism, and a very complex  one, and an ever changing one.  I would like us to see cities as ecologies – because that’s what they are. As surely as the ecologies of the natural world. The ecology of a city is of the same order of complexity as the ecology of a woodland. And this is what proper city planning ought to be directed to.  

This is the essence of a crucial chapter buried in the back of The Death and Life of Great American Cities: ‘The Kind of Problem a City Is’ (page 558 in my edition). It’s the research design for the book: it’s also Jacobs’ whole way of doing urbanism.

jacobs34 jacobs21 jacobs16(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

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Watching the film reminds me how prescient Jacobs was. There’s a surprising sequence on cultural diversity, which Jacobs presents both as an amenity, and as a channel of innovation:

Foreign districts introduce extra dimensions into a city. They often introduce new kinds of food, new customs, new music, even new kinds of clothing. And they’re a lot of fun for people who aren’t familiar with those customs, foods and so on. … that’s the way things spread in cities. And from cities to other places.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

This innovation argument is the big idea from The Economy of Cities. ‘Jacobian externalities’ are knowledge spillovers across sectors: these are self-reinforcing, and help cities become resilient to economic shocks. What I hadn’t previously spotted was that Jacobs sees *cultural* and *economic* diversity as so closely intertwined.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

Jacobs also makes some subtle points about mobility and technology. She came to prominence in New York opposing Robert Moses’ megaschemes for urban motorways and ‘sum clearance’:  not surprisingly, then, much of the film is concerned with congestion and pollution. But Jacobs has a much more profound argument:

People worry that there’s too much progress – in fact it’s just the opposite. … Automobiles don’t represent     progress any more – they’re pretty old …

There’s no solution in saying people should live close to their work and shouldn’t travel. People change their  jobs, goods have to move. So the problem is mobility – but the automobile isn’t providing much of an answer.

In other words: the car-based city is old thinking. The future is mass transit, bikes, and mobility as a service, enabled by technology. Scroll forward to 2016, and that future is taking shape all around us.

In 1971, however, this meant ‘Dial-a-Bus’ [link7] – a prehistoric Uber Pool, summoned to your house by landline and whisking you and fellow commuters to the local train station.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

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Jacobs was a thinker and an activist, not a consultant. It’s not as easy as it looks to derive practical guidance from her work – not least because she is the original full-field urbanist, drawing together history, built form, economics, social structure and culture into her analysis. Watching the film is a salutary reminder of this; it also emphasises how much Jacobs’ work draws on close observation of specific places she knows well.

Death and Life … tends to be distilled into four urban design tropes: high density, short city blocks, mixed use, old buildings. Result: every 1990s block of flats with space for a shop at the bottom (but VAT rules that incentivise developers to knock down old buildings). That’s clearly not enough to make a street or neighbourhood ‘work’, if it has no relation to the demographics and socio-economic life around it. The film is a neat reminder that we shouldn’t reduce Jacobs to design code box-ticking. But it also highlights just how tricky it is to roll her ideas into generalised practice. ‘What should a city be like?’ asked Reason in 2001. Jacobs’ answer: ‘it should be like itself’.

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(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

The film also highlights how much Jacobs’ thinking about urbanism is a product of its time. All around her cities were losing people to the suburbs, and losing old urban grain to modernist, car-centric city form. Many neighbourhoods were emptying out. In London and New York today, all of that has flipped around: populations are growing, high-value activity is back, and we have an urgent crisis of housing and cheap space.

Ed Glaeser famously has a go at Jacobs in The Triumph of the City, arguing that preserving old buildings simply chokes off the supply of bigger, newer ones, and the subsequent gentrification pushes out the artists and mixed communities she sought to preserve. I’m not sure that’s completely fair: she was dealing with a different era’s problems. But it also seems that she had fairly little to say about today’s urban crises. That is the message from of this 2003 Brick interview, conducted three years before Jacobs’ death. She’s asked whether today’s cities are in better shape. She replies:

In some ways there’re worse and in some ways better. The things that are worse I don’t think are so much focused or anchored in cities as they are in our North American culture as a whole … I think that things are getting better for cities in that there’s not the great ruthless wiping away of their most interesting areas that took place in the past … however, I think the urban sprawl outside of cities has gotten much worse.

In the Reason interview she goes a little further, citing Portland, Seattle and San Francisco as ‘attractive places … where good things are being done.’ The interviewer asks about gentrification and rising prices. She bats away the question.

By this point her  writing had also moved on to other issues:  the nature of work, economic ecosystems. Clearly, she wasn’t much interested in going back to the street.

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It’s early morning, and the city is beginning to dance. The camera follows Jacobs as she crosses a busy street. A man walking beside her notices the camera and gazes in increasing curiousity at our heroine, trying to place her. Unable to do so, he wanders away. Lost in thought, she disappears into the crowd.

jacobs9 jacobs8 jacobs10 (c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

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Here’s the link to the film again.

 

Microsolutions to megaproblems

December 9, 2015

I have a chapter in this nice new Policy Press book, After Urban Regeneration, expertly edited by Dave O’Brien and Peter Matthews.

Here’s the intro [pdf].

The book takes a critical look at urban policy in the UK, particularly in the post-crash period, and explores the way thinking  about regeneration has changed under austerity, and under localism.

It tests the idea that we’re now in a ‘post-regeneration’ era; it also takes a close look at the way communities and ideas of ‘community’ have been used to design, deliver and justify programmes on the ground.

My chapter covers the recent history of UK economic regeneration, sets out what we can expect programmes to achieve given the mega-trends shaping urban economies and communities, and also explores how the ‘what works’ agenda can help, both in developing the evidence base and in hands-on policy design. Cities and communities have been in tough times for years now, but I try to find some grounds for cautious optimism.

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The editors put together a strong and diverse team: we have excellent contributions from Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Antonia Layard, Kate Pahl, Liz Richardson and Chris Speed, as well as my Birmingham colleagues Catherine Durose and Phil Jones.

You can get the paperback here, or the hardback for a terrifying cost.

First-Person Flaneur

November 1, 2015

 

(c) 2015 Laurence Lek

 

Bonus Levels is a series of beautifully realised recreations of London locations, re-imagined as Ballardian dreamscapes, elements of an impossible city. In After Us, creator Lawrence Lek describes his work as ‘architecture as site-specific simulation’, in which existing parts of the cityscape and its institutions are ‘reconfigured and subverted’ by some apocalyptic or economic shock. I think this can help us think about real-world urban change too. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

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In ‘Dalston, Mon Amour’, some familiar landmarks of the Kingsland Road – the Rio Cinema, Gillett Square and once on-trend Efes Bar are rendered empty and open to the elements after a biblical weather event. Terraformed by desert and water, Renais’ film plays in the background as the sky darkens.

 

(c) 2015 Laurence Lek

 

You can certainly treat this work as satirical – hipster touchstones crumbled into dust – and Lek is clear that this is part of the point. The use of video game aesthetics is also nice, although as Lek points out, ‘the player begins when the game is already over’: it’s first-person flaneur. The game framing also exacerbates the dreamlike quality of each episode – background sounds pan around, and there are sudden changes in perspective or time of day.

There’s also a deeper, uncanny power to it. Places we knew and hold dear, transformed into dreamspaces. As Adam points out, Vermilion Sands, The Sprawl or De Chirico are never far away. But also – for some viewers – their own memories are reconfigured. As Lek argues, the more time you spend in each episode, the more meaning your own mind layers over it.

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I experienced a real-world retelling of my own world a few months back, in farcical form, as a group of us were taken on a guided tour of ’Silicon Roundabout and Tech City’. The tour had felt like a good idea as part of a new paper we’ve been writing on the East London tech scene: in practice it involved much psychodrama.

As the tour went on, for example, I was alarmed to find that the guide’s spiel included numerous factoids taken from my own research, fed back in slightly distorted form. Even worse, as we left Old St roundabout we were taken to the Foundry, a now-deceased bar and venue my friends and I spent much time in during years gone by, and which was shut down amid much protest. The guide described it as an ‘important cultural institution throughout the 90s and some of the 00s’: opening up a chasm of lost time in the process. The site now houses the Hoxton Pastry Union, an almost comically resonant symbol of the changes the neighbourhood has since gone through.

Sharing this moment with friends afterwards, it became clear what a powerful charge it packed.

 

 

A more formal way to think about Lek’s project is a series of spatial imaginaries, Bob Jessop’s term for the mental maps we all use to get purchase on everyday life. More formally, Jessop means imaginaries to act as mapping systems or ‘fixes’ that allow agents to navigate otherwise impossibly complex late capitalism.

Imaginaries – like Silicon Roundabout / Tech City itself – are necessarily partial, pushing some elements to the fore and ignoring others. They are thus ripe for the kind of reconfiguring and questioning Lek engages in.

Part of the paper I’m working on looks at Here East, the vast Olympic Broadcast and Media Centre which is being rapidly transformed into a new, maker-focused neighbourhood. On a recent visit the site was still under construction, but we got a clear sense of the developers’ vision.

 

(c) 2015 Max Nathan

 

Notice how the rebrand involves both a new name, a new industrial niche, and a spatial repositioning of the site, away from Stratford and into Hackney, specifically the artist-centric milieu of Hackney Wick which sits just over the canal.

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I was happy to see that Bonus Levels has also engaged with this territory. ‘Delirious New Wick’ is a hysterical rebuild of E9 and the Olympic Park, in which the Games’ iconic structures float above the park and are accessed through teleporters. A gorgeous Burial soundtrack runs in the background as we float high above the city, before descending onto the ruins of the Westfield mall, now partially submerged in an Arthurian Lake. It is heady, brilliant stuff.

New articles published in Economic Geography, European Urban and Regional Studies

April 29, 2014

(c) Max Nathan 2011

Since last summer I’ve been pretty focused on helping get the What Works Centre off the ground, so I’m posting these two articles rather late in the day.

The first is online at European Urban and Regional Studies. It’s my over-ambitious attempt to build a framework for thinking about the economic impacts of diversity in cities, drawing on my own work as well as the growing international literature. Specifically, I critique and try to move beyond Richard Florida’s thinking on these issues.

Here’s the abstract:

In recent years, most European countries have experienced substantial demographic changes and rising cultural diversity. Understanding the social and economic impacts of these shifts is a major challenge for policymakers. Richard Florida’s ideas have provided a popular – and pervasive – framework for doing so. This paper assess Florida’s legacy and sets out a ‘post-Florida’ framework for ‘technology, talent and tolerance’ research. The paper first traces the development of Florida’s ideas. ‘Florida 1.0’, encapsulated by the Three Ts framework, has performed badly in practice. There are problems in bringing causality to the fundamental relationships, and in consistently replicating the results in other countries. ‘Florida 2.0’, though suggests that Creative Class metrics have value as alternative measures of human capital. This create space for a post-Florida agenda based on economic micro-foundations. I argue that the growing body of ‘economics of diversity’ research meets these conditions, and review theory and empirics. Urban ‘diversity shocks’ shift the size and composition of populations and workforces, with impacts operating via labour markets, and through wider production and consumption networks. While short-term labour market effects are small, over time low-value industrial sectors may become migrant-dependent. Diversity may help raise productivity and wages through innovation, entrepreneurship, market access and trade channels. Bigger, more diverse cities help generate hybridised goods and services, but may also raise local costs through crowding. All of this presents new challenges for policymakers, who need to manage diversity’s net effects, and address both economic costs and benefits.

The full piece is here. There’s no pre-print available, but you can access this paper in the IZA Journal of Migration which covers some of the same ground.

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The second piece is out in Economic Geography, and is co-authored with Neil Lee. This is an empirical study testing links between firm-level demographics, innovation and entrepreneurship. We use a recent sample of London businesses, and uncover some small but robust diversity effects.

Here’s the abstract:

A growing body of research is making links between diversity and the economic performance of cities and regions. Most of the underlying mechanisms take place within firms, but only a handful of organization-level studies have been conducted. We contribute to this underexplored literature by using a unique sample of 7,600 firms to investigate links among cultural diversity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and sales strategies in London businesses between 2005 and 2007. London is one of the world’s major cities, with a rich cultural diversity that is widely seen as a social and economic asset. Our data allowed us to distinguish owner/partner and wider workforce characteristics, identify migrant/minority-headed firms, and differentiate firms along multiple dimensions. The results, which are robust to most challenges, suggest a small but significant “diversity bonus” for all types of London firms. First, companies with diverse management are more likely to introduce new product innovations than are those with homogeneous “top teams.” Second, diversity is particularly important for reaching international markets and serving London’s cosmopolitan population. Third, migrant status has positive links to entrepreneurship. Overall, the results provide some support for claims that diversity is an economic asset, as well as a social benefit.

The full piece is here, and a pre-print version is here.

The world according to Brûlé, part 2

June 18, 2013

(c) Fischli & Weiss

Tyler Brûlé is in trouble again. Monocle have published their annual ‘global quality of life’ index, and as editor he has received a good deal of flak from FT readers for his latest column. Some people dislike his choices; others his methodology; others his attitude. That’s understandable: ‘For readers in Chicago, yet again your appalling homicide rate knocked you out of the running’, says Tyler at one point.

I’ve got some sympathy with attempts to rank cities against each other – after all, everyone loves a league table. But it’s very hard to do this in a way that has much general meaning – especially if, like Tyler, you’re a high-maintenance frequent flyer who rarely seems to be anywhere for more than a few days.

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Here’s what I said a while back:

First, let’s remember what we’re trying to do with city rankings. All of this is – very loosely – trying to achieve what urban economists call ‘spatial equilibrium’. This is where people and firms sort themselves across space, trading off economic, social and environmental pros and cons so that everyone finds their best place to be.

… Indexes are usually commercial products aimed at specific users. In Monocle’s case it’s globe-trotting cosmocrats  with Japanese friends; for Cushman Wakefield’s Cities Monitor it’s developers and property investors; for the Economist and Mercer, CEOs. So policymakers – who have to think beyond single interest groups – should approach with caution.

Second, actually measuring the ‘real cost of living’ is very hard to do. No-one has the definitive answer. I’ve been helping on a SERC project looking at these issues – the best work is from the US, where government economists have access to price data on thousands of items at very local level (like this paper by Bettina Aten). But even here, the researchers don’t go near the kind of soft measures Monocle is using.

Third, we need to remember that this is all about tradeoffs. In spatial equilibrium, actors are balancing economic, social and physical welfare. The main sources of urban growth and vitality – critical mass, big labour markets and ideas flow – tend to have a flipside, namely congestion, pollution and expense.

For that reason, the most liveable cities – where people might want to be – aren’t necessarily the ones where people need to be. This is why it feels odd that places like London, NYC, Hong Kong and Los Angeles don’t rank higher on the liveability rankings. In these global cities the pull of place is very strong. As Jared Diamond points out, in many ways cities like LA are terrible places to live, but millions of people still choose to be there.

Monocle readers may well live in one place and work in another – so this matters less to them. Tellingly, Brûlé eventually reveals that having tried Zurich for a few months, he moved back to much less ‘liveable’ London. His compromise is to be based in the UK and flit between Zurich (winter), Copenhagen (summer) and Tokyo (business trips). Nice work if you can get it!

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‘Poor Tyler Brûlé, condemned to orbit the earth like some kind of 21st century Flying Dutchman‘, says one FT detractor . Ouch! I guess he can take some comfort from being the star of his own, uncannily accurate parody site. And, of course, persuading people to keep paying for his business class chat.

Top team diversity

April 9, 2013

(c) 2012 Suzi Hall

Like many Western countries, the UK has become substantially more ethnically and culturally diverse. The 2011 Census makes this crystal clear. Since 2001, the foreign-born population in England and Wales has jumped from 4.6 to 7.5m. At the same time, the ‘white British’ ethnic group shrank from 87.5-80% of the population.

What are the economic impacts of these deep demographic shifts, and what do they mean for cities? Certainly, population change has been most striking in urban areas: notably, London is now a ‘majority minority’ city for the first time in its history.

Urban factors may also affect how ‘diversity effects’ play out at firm level. Although the public debate is still focused on migrants, jobs and public services, a number of academic researchers are turning their attention to the wider impacts of immigration, minority communities and population diversity. Globally, there are now studies exploring effects on firms’ productivity, innovation, entrepreneurship, or trade patterns; and channels that may influence house prices, or the mix of local goods and services.

There’s been little parallel UK research to date – but in a new SERC Discussion Paper (supported by LLAKES) I explore the links between the composition of 6,000 English firms’ ‘top teams’ and company performance. Unusually, my data allows me to look at both ethnicity and gender mix.

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What might we expect to see? Owners, partners and directors set firms strategic direction. So the make-up of a ‘top team’ might generate production externalities through diversity (a wider range of ideas/ experiences, helping problem solving) and/or ‘sameness’ (via specialist knowledge or better access to international markets). These channels may be balanced by internal downsides  (lower trust) and external barriers (discrimination), so that overall effects on business performance are unclear.

Big cities might then amplify or dampen these channels. Agglomeration economies might help productivity, and firms may benefit from large, cosmopolitan customer markets. Alternatively, firms in cities might face more competition, or minority-headed businesses might face discrimination.

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My results suggest a non-linear link between top team diversity and business performance, which is net positive for process innovation and net negative for turnover. Further tests on diverse and minority/female-headed firms find positive links for diverse top teams, negative for minority and female-only top teams.

Looking at the influence of urban areas, I find some evidence of complex amplifying and dampening effects. In London, for example, diverse firms are less likely to engage in process innovation; but overall, firms in bigger cities are more likely to.

My data make it hard to identify causal effects, so I interpret these results as pure correlations. The implication is that while diversity has internal and external benefits, penalties from being ‘too diverse’ probably result from external constraints. In turn, that suggests policymakers need to encourage corporate diversity, while taking discrimination more seriously.

In a companion paper on London firms, Neil Lee and I found strong links between firm-level diversity and innovation. This paper suggests diversity-innovation links for firms outside the capital too. Core city leaders should pay attention.

That’s not my name

January 30, 2013

(c) wired / architecture 00

Last week I was at LSE for a seminar on place and neighbourhood branding, ably organised by CityDiplo. Also on the panel were Suzi Hall (LSE Cities) and Ian Stephens (Saffron). It was a great evening, with a sharp and highly engaged audience.

I ran through some new work on the politics of naming in East London’s digital economy, and how the competing brands of Silicon Roundabout and Tech City are playing out on the ground (which I’m writing with Emma Vandore and Georgina Voss).

Suzi gave a great run-down of her work on ordinary streets and vernacular spaces in South London, and Ian delivered a nice overview of official branding strategies for Nine Elms.

The CityDiplo team have now put up a podcast of the session. Presentations should follow shortly.

A Tale of Tech City

July 3, 2012

We launched A Tale of Tech City yesterday at Google Campus. It went very well – lots of robust discussion, and happily, general acclaim for the report.

The Centre for London project is joint work with Emma Vandore and Rob Whitehead, and takes an unvarnished look at the East London digital ecosystem.

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We ran a lot of numbers. By crunching the BSD, the best data there is, we find the East London scene is a lot bigger than anyone thought – at least 1500 firms (a conservative estimate), probably more like 3300 (drawing a wider line).

We also did seven international case studies to see how London stacks up in global terms. (Hint: Silicon Alley, not Silicon Valley.)

We then went out and did in-depth interviews with a lot of local firms, plus others working in finance, workspace and policy.

We identify six challenges for East London businesses, and make suggestions for tweaking the strategy and policy mix. In particular, we argue for a stronger focus on business development, helping young London firms become global players – and for Government to temper expectations for a new cluster in the Olympic Park. These things can’t be masterplanned.

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Those messages got the thumbs up from GLA Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse, Hackney’s Guy Nicholson, Unruly’s Sarah Wood and from Matt Biddulph, who all joined me on the platform. The Tech City Investment Organisation is now running with some of our ideas – see here – and there are signs of an Olympics Media Centre rethink too.

You can download the whole thing here.

We’ve had pretty good press so far, with coverage on the BBC (here and here), Financial Times, Wall St Journal, Guardian and the Independent … plus a nice write-up by Richard Florida in The Atlantic.

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I’m now starting to think about further work. Two promising avenues are looking across the digital economy in the rest of London, and exploring NY-LON in depth – there are some striking parallels between the London and New York scenes. Get in touch if you’d like to talk about either of these.

London’s economics of diversity

March 10, 2012

I gave a talk on my diversity and firms research at LSE London on Monday. You can now read summaries on LSE’s British Policy and Politics blog and the SERC blog.

LSE London have also posted up the slides and a podcast. I hope they’ve included the bit at the beginning where Powerpoint stops working …

The paper’s been picking up some interest – thanks to The Economist’s Free Exchange blog – and you can read the whole thing here if you so wish.

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