Global Cities Desperately Need New Leadership Models

Global Cities Desperately Need New Leadership Models

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Global Cities Desperately Need New Leadership Models

By Greg Clark

The world’s population centers are the critical places for the future of our planet. Where people settle and how they coexist with the planet will define the endgame in the story of human life. Will we spoil our habitat or remake it?

Whether we think of such cities as consumption markets, infrastructure hubs, innovation ecosystems, decision-making centers, sharing platforms, or visitor destinations does not really matter. They are all these things—and much more. We have come to call them “cities” because they serve and seek to empower citizens, but this word is now so overused and sometimes so contentious that it may just be better to think of them as population centers—places where people are concentrated. In the quest to avoid human extinction, such places are ontologically important.

On this planet, there are some 10,000 cities where we humans make our home, according to Cities in the World, the European Commission, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Meanwhile, the United Nations World Population Prospects says we are on the road to 9 billion city dwellers by 2080. Currently, about 600 cities drive our global economy and fuel our national treasuries, 200 cities are the centers of national policy and lawmaking, and 100 cities are the hubs of corporate enterprise.

Anyone who wants to argue against the idea of an urban world needs to articulate the alternative. How would you distribute and serve 9 billion souls without using cities as the primary platforms? What are the environmental and social consequences of alternative models?

We know, from all the amassed science of success, that leadership is critical to how countries and companies survive and thrive. We read books about national heroes and about great corporate leaders. But we focus less frequently on how population centers are led and guided by wise people and what the leadership imperative is for a place that is not a nation and not a business venture. The leadership of cities is a niche discussion.

In our post-pandemic, climate-alarmed world, being a city leader is just about to become the most important job on the planet. The next 50 years will be a great reckoning, and it has already started. Can we equip our cities to avoid the extinction of our species?

Three ideas should drive our quest:

  1. Cities are seriously underpowered. Most of our cities are subjected to an inadequate version of democratic government that leaves them with the wrong municipal geographies, insufficient financial resources, weak policy frameworks, short-term mandates, and overly dominant national governments that do not understand the interactions of different forces locally in a given place. National governments recognize the opportunity of a century of urbanization but are largely unwilling to couple it with the decentralization of power it requires. So cities are orphaned by nation-states.
  2. Place leadership is a collective task. Public bodies, civic groups, asset owners, investors, and businesses must work together with citizens to shape choices and frame change. Cities are both a means to optimize the interplay of different changes, such as in energy, transport, environment, and public health, and also a platform for collective behavior change among citizens and businesses. Cities can motivate and inspire the changes we need, because they enable and require sharing of the same place for multiple purposes by large numbers of people. Place-based leadership can induce innovation.
  3. Soft power is therefore essential for cities to succeed. Cities need to be convening platforms for innovation and joint endeavor. They cannot achieve the changes required without building and driving coalitions. The more collaboration, the more easily the big reforms that build greater formal competence are acquired. Well-orchestrated soft power leads to reforms that generate hard power.

We can already see a new generation of city leadership platform types beginning to emerge in multiple locations.

Over the past 20 years, Manchester, U.K., has steadily built a grand coalition of nine neighboring municipalities working together with universities, investors, and businesses committed to a place-leadership agenda that has enabled the delegation of new authority, the acquisition of new financial powers, and the creation of new leadership structures in a “combined authority” for the city region.

The Greater Sydney Commission is a new kind of city regional leadership platform where civic leaders are selected for their expertise to shape a long-term agenda beyond the short-term mandates and political cycles, but are accountable to and influential upon them.

Barcelona Global has been established as a coalition of corporations, institutions, entrepreneurs, academics, skilled migrants, and investors who want to help shape the Barcelona of 2050. The coalition is working at the spaces within and between the formal levels of governance: municipal, state, national, and European Union.

In China, the emergence of the great city clusters in the megaregions of the Greater Bay Area, the Yangtze River Delta, and the Jing-Jin-Ji region shows a new scale for subnational leaders to oversee and coordinate networks of interdependent cities.

In Colombia, we observe proactive citizen leadership in Medellín and civic-minded business leadership in Bogotá, fostering new tools and platforms for place leadership to emerge.

As we emerge from a global pandemic, the quest for effective city leadership is more important than ever. New models of shared leadership are finally arriving, but is it too late? We need these models, as well as other innovative ideas and approaches, to become the fabric of our global urban infrastructure in order to have successful cities. Our collective future depends on it. 

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Greg Clark is group advisor, future cities, at HSBC Group.

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