Smart but unfair? Economic divides in knowledge cities seem sharper than elsewhere

Data on income inequalities in American cities released last month by the Brookings Institute makes uncomfortable reading for those of us who trumpet the emergence of “knowledge cities” as a sustainable solution for our future prosperity.

The Brookings Institute gathered data on income distributions from America’s largest 50 cities, comparing the income of those on the bottom of the ladder with those at the very top.  Of the “Top Ten” most unequal cities, three are world-leading knowledge hubs that support universities of global status in or around them – San Francisco, Boston and Chicago – and a further two – Washington and New York – support robust academic clusters admits their more diverse economies. Worryingly, it seems that the cities that play host to the pinnacles of human intellectual achievement, also play host to the pits of human poverty.

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In part this result is due to the extremes of wealth that success within our knowledge-driven age permits. Running or working for a successful tech start-up in San Francisco can make you very rich, as the founders and employees of What’s App can testify to.  And this is right, people who have worked hard and taken risks to build these new types of industry should be rewarded.  What is worrying is that the success of these knowledge economies seems not to benefit its more vulnerable workers or indeed its middling workers. They actually seem to be worse off because of it. Tech companies especially employ PhDs or cleaners, with few of the entry or middling jobs that could lead to a more even distribution of income.

Increasing tensions in knowledge cities, such as the blockading of the Google bus stops in San Francisco, show that this is not a sustainable situation; it might even be dangerous. Cities with high levels of inequality are in general a bad thing with higher rates of crime and disruption, amongst other significant challenges. For knowledge cities this problem is exacerbated.

Protestors gathered around that takes Google workers from central San Francisco to the company's campus show the tensions developing.

Protestors gathered around that takes Google workers from central San Francisco to the company’s campus show the tensions developing.

As Geoffrey West and colleagues have shown, knowledge thrives in cities. The close proximity of many different people with many different ideas leads to a disproportionate number of new ideas and innovations being produced; cities make smartness.  If the fabric and population of a city becomes torn by inequalities, this vital creative capacity is threatened. Smart ghettos in otherwise impoverished and tense cities will not deliver the diversity of thought and perspective that significant innovations require.

What to do about it? The universities and knowledge companies that dominate these cities are proud of their global ambitions and reach, rightly so. To this they must add a local agenda. What do they really do for their city?  How do they spread their knowledge and wealth? What steps could they take to build a brighter future for everyone in their city? Old “factory cities” learnt to get good at this – after much industrial and social strife. They invested in housing, schooling and public facilities that ensured a secure environment and stream of local employees with the right type of skills.

A Farmers Market at UCL in London makes the university more useful to more and different people.

A Farmers Market at UCL in London makes the university more useful to more and different people.

Whilst such a comprehensive approach might be over-bearing in this more flexible and mobile age, there are ideas that can be picked up. Universities in particular can take a public responsibility for the successful and sustainable development of their cities, supporting scholarships for local residents and putting knowledge back in to the community through outreach programme in local schools or through creating public facilities such as Learning Centres that are for the city, not just university.In the UK University College London has a Farmers Market on its campus once a week, surely a win-win; a previous post on this blog about Manchester and its universities suggests further steps at an institutional level.

A smart city that is inclusive, well-functioning, fair (enough) makes us all better-off.


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