Fragile Ideas II: can universities save their cities?

Manchester, England, the Eighties. As factory after factory closed, the city’s future looked bleak. What’s the purpose of an industrial city when there’s no longer a demand for industry? The city wore down, becoming a mere ghost of its former swaggering self. Manchester’s success story that decade was alternative rock band The Smiths and little more needs said.

Fortunately, throughout the strains of this period and of in-spite of the despondent soundtrack, Manchester remained a city that believed in making its own luck. It started to plan, it started to gather the people and organisations who were willing to fight for the city and from amongst them selected a new brightstar – the university sector, including the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University. Manchester, it was decided, would become a knowledge city of international calibre.

The new and public Visitors Centre at the heart of Manchester University's campus

The new and public Visitors Centre at the heart of Manchester University’s campus

A similar pattern can be found around the world today as former industrial cities – Pittsburgh and Detroit in the States,  Aachen and Malmö in Europe – bet the budget on their universities and university hospitals providing jobs in the short term and growth in the long term. Its called the “Meds and Eds” urban development strategy in the US the “triple helix innovation model” here in Sweden.

The approach is usually based on a certain type of strategy, the bringing together of government, what remains of industry and local knowledge institutions (universities, research institutes and hospitals) into a partnership, hence the “triple helix” name (gov/industry/uni).  These city stakeholders sit down and between them work out a strategy for reversing the fortunate of their city.

And it seems to work, Manchester today is a different place from what it was twenty years ago. Its a city of  innovation and start-up companies, its universities attract scholars of merit from around the globe (including Nobel Prize winners) and its the most popular destination in the UK for study. The city has got its buzz back – though possibly at the expense of its music out put, no offence to Take That.

The Manchester Corridor collects knowledge and innovation actors in one, connected space.

The Manchester Corridor collects knowledge and innovation actors in one, connected space.

Notably, the creation buzz has required a new type of city plan, one that consolidates researchers and innovators on to a much smaller central city site, the “Manchester Corridor” where interactions become both easier and more open to spontaneity i.e. bumping in to interesting people over lunch at the local cafe.

But, is Manchester and exception? Richard Florida suggests it is. In an extensive analysis that attempted to correlate metropolitan growth rates with the size of their Med and Ed sectors in US, Florida found no relationship. Having a university didn’t make you grow any faster. Though other researchers in Europe have found a match. The picture is not conclusive.

What I take from this is that its not just about having a university, its about the type of university you have – and the type of city you have. Universities are good at making ideas and smart people; they are not good at producing economic growth. This requires people with the skills and connections to translate ideas into fast-growing companies – that can then go on to hire smart people in order to grow further.  Intelligent universities need “canny” surrounds if smart cities are going to be produced.

Manchester, in part because of its heritage, could identify canny people who were able to grow ideas into businesses. It is this “canny milieu” that triple helix-type approaches tend to miss, reliant as they are on large scale, existing industries and conservative public stakeholders. Deal makers and money men are often forgotten.

Experienced entrepreneurs, risk-taking VCs, smart lawyers and great PRs – as well as business developers who get “service” rather than “product” – are needed just as much as great universities to turn around the fortunes of a city.

All  this suggests a greater challenge for new university cities such as Songdo in South Korea or Masdar in the UAE, where little social milieu at all let alone a milieu that can be described as cannny exists around the universities.

Cities can save themselves by becoming smart; smart means canny as well as intelligent.

This is the second in a series of three blogs looking at universities and urban development. The first article can be found here.


2 thoughts on “Fragile Ideas II: can universities save their cities?

  1. Pingback: Smart but unfair? Economic divides in knowledge cities seem sharper than elsewhere | Building on Ideas

  2. Pingback: Fragile Ideas III: the medium-sized city and building for beyond average | Building on Ideas

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