Archive for the 'society' Category

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.


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.

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.

Bigger, more urban, more diverse

December 12, 2012

(c) Andy Gilmore

The latest Census data confirms three things we already knew. First, Britain is becoming a bigger and more culturally diverse society. Second, net migration is one of the main drivers. Third, this diversity is largely urbanised – especially in London.

Beneath these headlines are many complications. Diversity is shifting across a number of dimensions at once – country of birth, ethnicity, religion and language. Official ethnic groupings are increasingly inadequate to capture what’s going on: see the huge growth in ‘other white’ and other ‘other’ categories.

Many of these trends will continue, with Leeds University researchers projecting a 20% minority ethnic population by 2051. But there is no obvious evidence that diversity is eroding national identity – 91% of residents identify with at least one UK national identity.


These demographic changes are among the most profound of our lifetimes. So what are the economic and social impacts of these shifts?

My research is taking first steps towards answering the economic questions. European Urban and Regional Studies have just published this piece, which gives you a nice overview.

There is more detail in these working papers on the economics of super-diversity, the long term impacts of migration in cities, ethnic inventors, and diversity, entrepreneurship and innovation in London firms. This last piece, joint with Neil Lee, is coming out shortly in Economic Geography.


We’re only beginning to understand some of these long term, dynamic channels. So it’s an exciting – and important – time to be working in the field.

Many of the key people will be in the UK in April for the 2013 NORFACE Conference. If you’re around, I’d encourage you to join us.

Manufacturing hipsters

June 19, 2012

I’ve just finished Enrico Moretti’s terrific new book, The New Geography of Jobs. Moretti is an annoyingly young and brilliant economist at UC Berkeley who made his name with seminal papers on agglomeration, knowledge spillovers and multiplier effects. He’s now following Ed Glaeser and Paul Krugman out of the seminar room into the mainstream.


Moretti’s argument is in three parts. First, globalisation has made the knowledge economy increasingly important as a source of productivity and wealth in countries like the US (and the UK). Each ‘innovation economy’ job supports five others, two in other professions and three in local services.

Second, these big shifts have very uneven impacts. Cities concentrate economic activity. Places’ initial advantages matter. People’s ability and willingness to move is limited. So social and spatial disparities tend to grow – even though higher living costs in richer cities partly cancel out higher wages.

Third, our policy responses need to change. Unlike Glaeser, Moretti likes some area-based initiatives. But he also pushes strongly for public science, better public education and raising high-skill immigration.

So far, so familiar – see Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City, or Richard Florida’s The Great Reset. But Moretti arguing that it’s precisely these long term trends and their implications that need to be deeply understood. (Meanwhile, Glaeser gets one mention in the index – the same as Marlene Dietrich – and Florida gets a discreet knife in the ribs in Chapter 5.)


The book also has great range. Moretti combines serious urban economics and economic geography with a number of excursions – on the historical origins of Hollywood, Berlin and culture-led regeneration, the dynamics of shared workspaces, cleantech investment, gentrification and ethnic inventors.  In many pop academic books these passages feel bolted on – a break from the high-level narrative. In this case they’re actually doing some intellectual work.

One of the richest passages comes early on. In the most successful cities, Moretti suggests, the innovation economy is supporting the return of urban manufacturing. He visits the site of the old Levi’s factory in San Francisco to find ‘dozens of workshops offering hand-crafted products’ – such as bespoke clothing line Cut Loose and the DODOCase iPad case factory.

Across town on Pier 17, Tcho has taken over an old warehouse and converted it into a craft chocolate factory, importing vintage German machinery and high-tech computerised gear. (The chocolate is absolutely amazing.) In London, S.E.H. Kelly (limited-run menswear), The Kernel (craft beer) and Berg’s Little Printer are riding the same wave.

The growth of high-end manufacturing in cities seems rich with possibilities. But Moretti convincingly shows that it’s fundamentally a niche phenomenon. First, this kind of manufacturing is essentially the result of wealth created elsewhere in the city. Although these firms can trade globally, their key market remains local – in that sense, they’re a form of high-end local service.

Second, an important part of these products’ appeal is that they’re unusual, or unique. Both the thing – and the experience of buying it – are positional goods. That business model then allows firms to cover high manufacturing costs. Scaling up would involve either jacking up prices even higher, or moving production to lower-cost locations – precisely what such firms are reacting against.

The most extreme example of this is also the best known. American Apparel gear sells precisely because it’s made in LA (and because of its softcore ads, of course). If Moretti is right, it literally couldn’t be made anywhere else.


A more profound transformation, which the book doesn’t touch on, is the emergence of small-scale digital manufacturing. With 3D printers,economies of scale matter much less: there’s no need to retool a production line, and almost infinite customisation should be possible. The technology is already good enough to make specialised car parts, and some nice art objects.

Micro-manufacturing is deeply disruptive – especially when combined with zero-cost marketing and sales online.  Craft manufacturers will adopt it. But it’ll be the technology, as much as the brand positioning, that’s doing the hard work.

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.

Is migration good for British cities?

January 16, 2011

The LSE Migration Studies Unit have published a new paper of mine, looking at the long term economic effects of migration in British cities.

In a nutshell, I find migration is good for productivity and wages, less good for low skill workers’ employment. Let’s explain why …

The paper takes stock of the UK’s last big ‘migration cycle’ – from the mid-1990s to 2008. During this time net migration spiked up from 30-40,000 people per year to around 198,000 by 2007 . Most of those people ended up in urban areas, although some rural areas saw rapid growth too.

We’d expect this kind of shift to change both the size and the composition of cities’ population and workforce. We’d also expect a mix of short term ‘shocks’ to labour supply, and more subtle changes to urban economic structure.


Sure enough, I find:

1)     Net migration to UK cities helps raise the productivity and wages of British-born workers, especially the higher skilled

2)     Net migration is linked to lower employment rates, especially among lower skilled UK-born workers.

I think I can interpret these as causal effects. (For the econometricians, results survive a battery of robustness checks, including a shift-share IV specification.)


For policymakers, there are two big stories here.

The good news is that the diversity migrants bring is good for UK productivity, and helps raise average incomes. A number of things are probably driving this – high skilled migrants, diversity-innovation effects, and the benefits of diasporic communities in trade links.

The bad news isn’t about migrants taking British jobs – that’s too simplistic. My research and other evidence suggest various things are happening here. It’s partly about deindustrialisation. Established migrant communities went where the jobs were in the 1960s and 70s, and have stayed in old industrial towns as jobs have gone. And it’s partly about employer behaviour – during the 1990s the UK has seen increasing numbers of low-quality entry-level jobs, plus increasing use of employment agencies, many of whom use largely migrant labour. As a result, low-skilled Britons face a combination of poor jobs, limited access and competition. In effect, the labour market locks them out.


Like a number of others, I think migration is good for UK plc, and good for British cities. Policy should be encouraging high-skill migrants in – through universities and workplace channels. At the same time, we need tougher regulation of poor employers and employment agencies, as well as restrictions on lower-skilled workers.

That needs a more sophisticated system than a migration cap – although the Coalition’s latest proposals suggest they are trying to introduce some flexibilities into what most businesses and experts think is a basically flawed idea.


Now, these findings are significantly different from most (but not all) research in this field. It’s worth explaining why, and why I think this paper adds value.

First, I’m looking at the long term – I have a 16-year panel, rather longer than most other studies in the field.

Second, I’m looking beyond the labour market – I’m able to identify some short term wage and job ‘shocks’, but I’m also able to look at dynamic effects on urban economies, such as productivity and cost of living effects.

Third, I pay careful attention to space – most research on the local effects of migration compares outcomes across regions or local authority districts, which are either too big or too small to represent functioning economic zones. By building a new dataset of real urban economies, I’m able to pick up effects other studies might have missed.

This is work in progress. So as ever, I’d welcome your comments.

Speaking in Manchester

October 31, 2010

I’m presenting a couple of papers at a Regional Studies Association Conference at Manchester University on Tuesday 2 November. The conference is titled Regions in a Shifting Global Landscape, and both my presentations will look at connections between cultural diversity, innovation and urban/regional economic development.

The first is work in progress, and looks at the role of ‘ethnic inventors’ in the UK. It’s the first UK work of its kind, so I’m excited to be doing it. In the US, ethnic Indian and Chinese communities play a huge role in the science and technology sectors, especially in places like Silicon Valley. I’m interested in whether anything similar is going on here – in cities like Manchester, or our own Silicon Fen. My initial results suggest we may have a similar diaspora of British-Indian high-tech inventors emerging. More on that on the day …

The second paper, done with Neil Lee, looks at whether London’s cosmopolitanism helps the capital’s firms to innovate. We find small but pretty robust ‘diversity effects’ for London businesses. That raises the question of whether other big and diverse British cities – like Manchester or Birmingham – might benefit in the same way. We hope to crunch some more data on this in the coming months.

Here are the conference details. Hope to see you some of you there.

ps. I realise the picture is only loosely related to diversity, innovation or Manchester. But I like it, so it’s going up.

On yer Boris Bike

August 25, 2010

Who actually uses Boris Bikes? Commuters, civil servants and city types. Who doesn’t? Shoppers and posh people. That’s the story so far, as suggested by data from the London Cycle Hire Explorerflagged in Londonist, and recycled in Wednesday’s Evening Standard.

The Explorer app is simple but powerful: it shows the 10 most and least popular docking stations across the capital. Obviously it’s early days, and usage will change (see below). And I’m just eyeballing the data – no fancy analysis here. First impressions:

1) Commuters are the main users – the most popular spots are mainly around the major stations – Waterloo (354 bikes yesterday), King’s Cross (305), London Bridge (256) and Liverpool Street (226). This is why TfL already wants to spend another £81m on new bikes and docking stations.

2) Biking to meetings and running errands also seem popular – viz heavy daytime (and lunchtime) use during the week in Covent Garden, (196) Strand (189) and Fitzrovia (187).

3) Weekend biking is on – judging by the past week at least, there’s no obvious drop-off on Saturdays or Sundays in the most popular spots. That suggests some tourists might be venturing out too.

4) There’s a bit of an East/West divide – six of the least popular docking stations are in West London, mainly Kensington (28 bikes) and Chelsea (25-29). I would have expected some use around Paddington and White City, but perhaps the Westway is putting people off. Support for scary road theory comes from other cold spots around Elephant and New Kent Road (26 each).

5) Alternatively, bike use is low in well-off neighbourhoods where residents prefer to drive, such as Kensington and Chelsea, Bayswater (27) and St John’s Wood (20). Or where serious shopping is going on (all of the above).  Obviously that’s just postcode stereotyping, but still – I bet there’s something in it.


The open data is incredibly helpful, and not just for urbanists. At one level the bike scheme is a gigantic social experiment – give people new tools for getting around the city, step back and see what happens.

There are useful parallels here with new technologies, especially portable gear like mobile phones. The lesson from these is that technology changes us, but we change it too, and unpredictably. In the jargon, use is endogenous to the user.  Texting is the classic example of user-driven innovation for mobiles: open platforms like Android are doing something similar for smartphones.

A lot of this happens through experimenting and messing about, and this is already happening with blue bikes – via mashups like the Explorer, or Barley-ish attempts at stunt riding. More interesting stuff is bubbling up at this user forum.


In turn, that suggests Boris Bike dynamics might look very different in a year’s time. So far, riders are currently making 19,000 journeys per day, not put off by bikes variously described as ‘like flying Ryanair’ (Jon Snow) and ‘like driving a tractor’ (anonymous friend).

That number could rocket up when Pay as You Go rates are introduced, and the early adopters are joined by loads of tourists and casual users. We could see new hotspots around St James’ Park, Baker Street and Tower Hill. And even bike snobs like me might get round to trying the thing …

Getting ahead in the countryside

July 7, 2010

The big city’s the place to find fame and fortune, wouldn’t you think? Not according to the Commission for Rural Communities, whose new report claims ‘rural areas have more entrepreneurs’. This seems odd – aren’t cities supposed to help ideas flow, with banks to lend money, and customers to sell to?

All the evidence suggests innovation is heavily urbanised, for example. So what on earth’s been going on in the British countryside? Is the fresh air good for the brain?

The report’s here. It’s nearly 200 pages long, so to save you reading it I’ve done some digging. The relevant findings are:

1) A survey of bank lending finds that in 2008 and 2009, rural areas had more start-ups per working-age population than urban areas (p131)

2) GEM survey data for 2004-2008 finds higher rates of ‘entrepreneurship activity’ in rural areas than urban areas. Strikingly, the survey suggests rural entrepreneurship rates are ‘as high as inner London’ (p133).

The report uses good definitions of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’, based on this DEFRA typology. But there are questions about which rural areas we’re talking about – more on that in a moment.

Let’s start with start-ups. First, there’s not much urban-rural difference in business birth rates – 13.9 per thousand people in rural areas, 12.7 in urban areas. Second, in absolute terms there are far more start-ups in cities than the countryside – hardly surprising since c.80% of the English population live in urban areas.

Third, there’s noise in the data – the survey in question covers 93% of all bank lending, which is pretty good, but doesn’t adjust for the rest. If 80% of those loans were to city firms, a reasonable assumption, the urban-rural difference is less than one percentage point.

‘Entrepreneurship’ is a slightly more nebulous concept, and it turns out the GEM data needs a big pinch of salt. For one thing, the survey is based on just 43,000 firms across the UK – which might risk sampling error if you’re looking at small rural areas.

More seriously, GEM actually measures something called ‘total early-stage entrepreneurial activity’ – which is a weighted index including ‘nascent business activity’. This could include things like writing a business plan, but not actually doing anything with it. (I’ve also no idea how the Index is built because GEM doesn’t say.)

In the CRC small print, GEM concedes it’s tracking ‘propensity to be entrepreneurial’, rather than *actual* entrepreneurs. It’s hardly convincing.

So, case not proven – on the basis of these numbers. However, let’s suspend disbelief and assume there is a new generation of rural whizz-kids. What might explain this?

It could be a lifecycle effect – people downsize or move their families out of the city, starting new businesses in the countryside. Migration data suggests there could be something in this – young single people move into cities, older people with partners and children move out. Other studies suggest people gain skills and learning in cities, taking these with them when they leave.

There could also be a technology effect. The CRC’s start-up figures suggests that most loans go to business services like accountancy and consulting, a lot of which can be done by phone or online (anecdata – my accountant operates out of deepest East Sussex).

That implies a third point – many of rural areas are actually around the edges of big urban areas. In the jargon, they’re ‘peri-urban’ – pleasant, leafy communities with decent schools and public services, and good links into the urban core. Not surprisingly, these neighbourhoods tend to come near the top of ‘best place to live’ surveys.

In turn, that suggests some final lessons. Don’t overspin your data. The city and country have more in common than you might imagine. And ultimately, enterprise is less about place than about people.

Geography and social justice

May 20, 2010

This is the first of two posts on ‘shrinking cities’, or as civil servants might put it, ‘places with a long history of economic underperformance’. In the UK, this means cities like Hull or Stoke-on-Trent with low average incomes and higher-than-average deprivation rates; abroad, places like Leipzig, Cleveland or Detroit.

The politics of improving life for people in under-performing places is extremely sensitive, as Policy Exchange discovered when they appeared to suggest moving people out of ‘failing’ Northern cities. Recently there’s been more interest, via LSE’s ‘Phoenix Cities’ book, Julien Temple’s ‘Requiem for Detroit?’ and from the Centre for Cities (see Dermot’s helpful summary, and my thoughts from last summer).

Why now? First, during the 2000s a lot of economic development funding went into cities. But this has not always improved residents’ overall welfare. As the business cycle turns, city leaders are looking for new ways forward. Second, there’s now less regeneration money around. Between 2011 and 2015, central government departments like CLG may face 20-25% spending cuts. So Whitehall policymakers are looking hard at if, where and how to spend.

At the recent AAG Conference in Washington DC, Michael Storper offered some helpful thoughts on all of this.

Spatial disparities exist, Storper argues, because there are benefits of clustering economic activity, and these persist over time. Agglomeration economies help explain why cities exist, and why they still matter. Theory and real world experience also suggest that long term convergence is unlikely.

So agglomeration leads to disparities between places. At the same time, increasing returns to skills lead to disparities between people. And because higher-skilled people tend to sort into more successful cities, we often get poorer people concentrated in poorer places.

The question for policymakers is what, if anything, we should do about this? Storper outlines three responses.

We could aim for ‘spatial equity’, compensating people and places who lose out. This feels appealing – but what does it really mean? Is holding successful places back fair to their residents? And how do we actually equalise outcomes? Even the UK’s very centralised public services haven’t got rid of postcode lotteries.

Another view is that we invest in poorer places. This is the traditional regeneration perspective. Structural economic change has long term impacts that markets won’t deal with – physical decay, poverty, crime. And there are efficiency costs to this – not least higher spending on benefits. Area-based policies tackle these externalities, get markets working again and places back on their feet.

This has been pretty much the UK approach for the past two decades. It’s given many cities a public makeover – and has made them nicer places to live. But most evidence suggests that improving places doesn’t easily translate into improving outcomes for people. Trickle-down regeneration works about as well as trickle-down economics.

People can move, and it’s hard to assess area-based initiatives if some recipients leave the area. ‘Regeneration thinking’ also doesn’t say how to balance limited resources between helping poor places recover, and helping growing places do better. CLG’s Regeneration Framework has a go, but isn’t completely convincing.

A third view comes from urban economics, especially Ed Glaeser (and now, Richard Florida). In its simplest form, this says we should focus on people, not places. People are mobile; investing in their mobility and human capital improves their economic prospects. Investing in immobile places does not, especially as convergence is unlikely.

To me, this feels like the right starting point for policy. This view is also increasingly fashionable in UK policy circles, and partly explains the bad press traditional regeneration has been getting. But as Storper points out, it’s more complicated than it looks to implement. There are three big policy points.  

First, it’s not clear everyone is truly ‘mobile’. People are free to move; but less skilled people have less information or resources to migrate between cities. Policy interventions might improve mobility, although we don’t have strong evidence here – increasing choice in the social housing system could help, also expanding housing supply in more successful places. Research and experiments should look to fill this gap.

Second, it implies we maximise economic welfare. But we know people think beyond money. Some local responses to Policy Exchange’s report reveal people happy to live in ‘failing’ Newcastle and Liverpool – because they like being there. At an LSE screening, critics of Julien Temple’s film similarly pointed out that nearly a million people still live in ‘failed’ Detroit.

Urban economists explain this in terms of spatial equilibrium. People sort by economic prospects, and prefer different kinds of communities. Low wages get traded off against low cost of living and/or better amenities. In spatial equilibrium local labour, housing and ‘quality of life’ markets all clear, so that real wages equalise across all places. Ongoing SERC research finds some UK evidence for this.

The spatial equilibrium approach implies we don’t need to worry so much about disparities in nominal income. But in some poorer places, especially given mobility barriers, we may want to adopt measures (better quality housing, tackling crime) which will improve residents’ wider wellbeing – and thus raise real incomes.

Finally, national politics and local delivery are both critical. The UK is generally less tolerant of inequality than the US. Our politics is steeped in notions of fair play and universal standards: we’re a long way from accepting apparently large income disparities on the basis of hard-to-explain equilibrium concepts.

British over-centralisation also makes it politically difficult to do anything about managing decline: London policy apparatchiks seem to be telling other cities what to do (which they are). This is one reason why the Housing Market Renewal programme has often been so painful, why Policy Exchange got in trouble, and why the Coalition’s emphasis on localism is important. In future, devolution and actually doing managed decline need to go hand in hand. I’ll explore these ideas further in the next post, and take a look at some international experiences along the way.

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