4 New Ways Of Thinking That Should Shape The Next Century Of Cities

In order to thrive over the next century, cities will have to change. Here’s how.

4 New Ways Of Thinking That Should Shape The Next Century Of Cities
[Image: Sci-fi city via Shutterstock]

Sometimes, in order to reflect on something, you have to step away from it. So, where better to contemplate the next century of cities than bucolic, centuries-old Ditchley Park, about 12 miles from Oxford, England? Last week, the Ditchley Foundation hosted over 30 academics, practitioners, government, and non-governmental organization leaders from five continents to contemplate the rapid urbanization of the globe.


As the CEO of an organization that is focused on accelerating innovation to improve the lives of low-income people in U.S. cities, I came to this gathering to share what we are learning, and to learn from other urban leaders around the world. While the conversations were wide ranging, covering challenges and opportunities across multiple geographies, economies, and political landscapes, I came away with four things that I think should significantly shape how we think about global cities over the next century:

Primacy of Cities of Alchemy

One participant coined this phrase and I love it. From the beginning of time, people have moved to or stayed in cities because they are perceived as places where they can change their lives. Simply put, the hope of economic opportunity and social mobility that cities provide is a magnet. There was a fascinating and robust discussion at Ditchley about whether or not urbanization and industrialization are inextricably linked. African cities with growing populations of over 300,000 were cited as evidence that urbanization without industrialization does indeed exist. Why? Despite the fact that high-density urban slum living conditions often provide worse quality of life than the poor might experience in rural areas, populations are drawn to the promise of opportunity; and to the existence of a density-driven, robust informal economy and, in some cases, of government supported social services, even if inadequate.

Mental models and channels to accelerate “chemical reactions”

We still seem to be looking at our 21st-century cities largely through a 20th-century lens. This is limiting the alchemy, not catalyzing it. Urban planning remains largely focused just on the physical environment, not on socio-economic results. Community is moving towards becoming a question of ‘geographic cohesion,’ not geographic place in a traditional sense. There was great conversation about not trying to retrofit old models of working, but rather adapting the way people and cities work with newly available channels and technologies.

The Internet, big data, and social media should result in more responsive planning, better service delivery, and broader citizen engagement. Technology should redefine transportation to seamlessly marry centrally scheduled buses and trains with more spontaneous options such as car and bike sharing, as well as the informal systems of cabs, motorcycles, and rickshaws that dominate in many developing countries. Ubiquitous, open public, and private data should make human health and well-being as easily and regularly measured as GDP.

Collaborative Leadership

My organization believes strongly that today’s complex problems can only be solved through new models of cross-sectoral, distributed leadership. We’re investing in the Integration Initiative and a partnership with the Boston Fed in small Massachusetts cities to test and prove out these models. So, I was really pleasantly surprised and energized by the clear consensus among participants that urban leadership for the future really must be different than it was in the past. They promoted a new concept of “apolitical consensus” or leadership that was about the “ringmastering of a whole group of different players to set and push a common vision.”

While there was admiration for strong, effective mayors like Mike Bloomberg and Richard Daley, there also was concern about a city’s legitimacy and prosperity resting only on one individual. Important questions were raised about how, and in what shapes, new models of leadership can be catalyzed and applied in cities with different types of economies and government structures. And there was some conversation about potential roles for different institutions and sectors, including a potential new role that harnesses the power of social enterprises.


History’s rightful place

Quite possibly the most interesting set of discussions were about history, models, and replication. There was a strong sense that history is critically important for context but that, despite the old adage, it rarely repeats itself (not absolutely, anyway).

There is no such thing as an entirely replicable model. Participants emphasized the importance of history in helping us to ask the right set of questions, such as: How do urban structures and institutions emerge (e.g., from market opportunities or the mitigation of risk)? What functions have been most consistently and successfully performed by government (at both the state and local levels), the private sector, or social enterprises? What have we learned about institutions of taxation, land ownership, and spending? How has “alchemy” for greater shared prosperity been successfully accelerated? Rather than trying to replicate, we should use these building blocks to create new structures that are appropriate to current conditions and local circumstances. A view that looks at both the past and the present allows us to learn from the entirety of the global urban experience.

Are these four points a blueprint for the next century of cities? No. Are they four things that should significantly shape our thinking about global cities for decades to come? I think so.

About the author

Ben Hecht has been the President & CEO of Living Cities since July 2007. Since that time, the organization has adopted a broad, integrative agenda that harnesses the collective knowledge of its 22 member foundations and financial institutions to benefit low income people and the cities where they live.