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Competitive Cities: five keys to success.

Competitive Cities: five keys to success.

Professor John S. Ratcliffe
Director - Faculty of the Built Environment, DIT
Honorary Visiting Professor, University of Salford

Cities : the backcloth

Cities : the backcloth

There is a general recognition that the 21st century will be the century of cities. Cities are moving centre stage, and both the commercial and cultural world increasingly is characterised by cities rather than by countries.

Sudden and sustained urban growth, however, gives rise to serious forces of change - social, demographic, economic, environmental, technological and governmental. Because of this, cities are the focal point for present problems and the cauldron of current controversies. It is in cities that the future quality of peoples lives will be determined. The crucial question, therefore, is the same everywhere. How can urban planning and development policy be framed and executed in such a way that everyone shares in economic, technological and social progress, enjoys cultural diversity and a sound environment, and participates democratically in shaping where they live?

Thus, sustainability is the watchword for the new millennium, and a guiding theme for all human activity. Not the least of all challenges ahead is that of sustainable urban development. Though cities differ significantly, they share one particular key ambition in the context of sustainable urban development - that of enhancing their economic competitiveness while at the same time reducing both social exclusion and environmental degradation. Cities of all sizes, locations and conditions face this dilemma - and share the need to develop new processes of decision-making to reconcile their quandary.

Cities, furthermore, are fast coming to function as the basic motors of the global economy. Indeed, it is argued that there is a new form of global city-centric capitalism where cities operate as territorial platforms for much of contemporary post-Fordist economic activity and as important staging posts for the operations of multi-national corporations. Cities are said to thrive on the creativity, productivity and innovation-enhancing effects of dense and multifaceted urban milieus that are simultaneously embedded in worldwide business networks (Scott, 2001).

Recognising that cities are complex adaptive systems, subject to significant change and considerable uncertainty, conventional planning approaches are beginning to give way to, or at least be supplemented by, more futures oriented methods and techniques such as environmental scanning, foresighting, prospective, strategic conversations and scenario planning. These are explained elsewhere (Ratcliffe, 2002), but from various exercises and projects conducted by the author, and drawing upon findings and observations from a wide range of academics and practitioners, the following five essential ingredients to be found in successful competitive cities are:

These will, in turn, be explored and in the following sections in order to provide some kind of recipe for success in the competitive world that cities now face.



Voguish though it be, the 'vision thing' is vital. It must, however, be a shared vision, understood and subscribed to by most of the citizenry. All too often, such vision statements are conjured-up by politicians or professionals working in relative isolation, or compiled remotely from a lexicon of conceptual whiz-words and phrases pilfered from other exercises conducted elsewhere, then surreptitiously processed through a charade of public consultation. Anyone involved in the formulation of 'mission statements' in the corporate world will know the stratagem. The vision for a city cannot be 'bought off-the-rack'.

As a futurist, with a firm commitment to furthering the cause of sustainable city development, the author unsurprisingly avows the concepts, methods and techniques to be found in the futures field. Here, such approaches as 'foresighting' and the 'prospective', supported by tried and tested techniques like environmental scanning, strategic conversations, scenario planning and futures workshops, provide a formidable framework and an adjustable set of tools to help communities explore and determine possible and preferred futures.

Visioning processes, drawn from the futures field, represent the main way in which citizens can be involved in the imagination and, less often, the construction of the future. The principle behind such visioning methods is that future images can affect present behaviours, guiding choice and influencing decisions. This approach focuses on 'desirables' and emphasises 'values' (Masini, 1999), giving people the opportunity and the instruments to consider, comprehend and construct those images collectively. It aims, moreover, to examine ways in which those images or visions can be turned into reality. First, by selecting only the most striking and salient images, and then by framing solid and visible strategies for action.

Four dimensions for any visioning process can be distinguished.

Urban visioning within these dimensions is an attempt to generate a momentum for change, and a core element for success is to develop a widespread culture of institutionalised leadership to promote continual self-improvement. In this way, it is suggested that visioning becomes a change agent, which has to manage public participation, generate flagship ideas, establish benchmarks for success and trigger goal-setting (Landry, 2000).

In simple terms, visioning normally is organised along six main steps

In exploring and determining a vision for a city it is important to establish the 'values' concerning utility, security, order and beauty that are held by the various communities comprising the citizenry, actual and aspirational; to agree upon an 'identity' for the city capitalising upon its cultural, social, economic, physical and historic strengths; and recognise the need for effective 'branding' of that identity and those values. This will involve defining themes, considering options and setting strategies. It might also include the production of such instruments as charters, declarations or manifestos to act as a rallying point. Landmark events such as major sporting events, international conferences or entertainment festivals can also alter perceptions about a city and showcase its virtues.

No evaluation of the visionary process would be complete without mention of 'leaders' and 'leadership'. It is a subject that has spawned a myriad publications over recent years. In essence, however, municipal leadership is all about articulating a vision, harnessing the power of new ideas and mobilising civic energy.

There are, however, some significant trends which affect the nature and demands of leadership, such as: the declining ability to have central control over information and its distribution; leaders are now more facilitators or stewards than figureheads or commanders, using coercion and persuasion rather than authority or direction; leaders are increasingly subject to greater accountability; and more of the middle-class are involved in civic affairs, and they are difficult to lead. Nevertheless, perhaps the last word on leadership should rest with Acerbiades who declaimed over 2500 years ago:

"A leader is one capable of defining the present and the future for others so that they perceive no longer with their eyes but with his".



The common challenge for cities across the world is 'competitiveness', and the key to competitiveness is entrepreneurship. Successful cities of the future will be those that engender an environment in which creative and innovative individuals and organisations can gather, grow and thrive. In the context of enterprise, a vivid message was conveyed by Jane Jacobs (1992) who wrote:

"the basic idea is to use whatever commercial strengths and resources a locality already has, but that it has been neglecting, wasting or overlooking".

The future is no longer the preserve of conventional economic theories, traditional management models or ready-made mass ideologies, with all the passivity and lack of personal responsibility these concepts imply. The new century, it is argued, will belong to the individual and the achiever, to those capable of exercising their independence, responsibility, professionalism and initiative, whatever their role in government, business, civic affairs, the voluntary sector, industry, or society at large. Fostering and promoting a spirit of enterprise, therefore, becomes an imperative part of this future. All the actors are involved - economic, social, cultural, educational and political - at one level or another. It is not simply a matter of encouraging the spirit of enterprise, but also of creating a framework conducive to project generation and development. Moreover, learning systems in the city as a whole, must concentrate upon 'shaping people' nor merely 'spreading knowledge'.

In looking at economic development based on enhancing competitiveness the key issues involve tangible assets, particularly those organised around specialisations, linkages between universities, research communities and the private sector, clustering, and stocks of social capital, as well as natural features. Moreover, that local economies must constantly reinvent themselves through structural and microeconomic adjustments. Adroitness is a critical characteristic to conceive and sustain. Policies to foster entrepreneurship should, therefore, enable each city or locality to respond quickly and effectively to problems in relation to the enhanced mobility of capital, management, professionals and skilled labour, and technology innovation. Cities need to create "something in the air" that fosters firms growth. If a local response is inadequate or too tardy to capture new opportunities that arise in a competitive economy it will be by-passed, leaving declining sectors, communities and cities behind. The establishment of local systems that can develop and maintain flexible economic and social responses to challenges from global changes is a whole new policy area (OECD 2002).

The guru of 'competitive advantage', Michael Porter (2001), maintains that competitiveness is not just a function of the capacity and competence of the individual firm, but resides, too, in the general milieu or locational environment that surrounds it. Moreover, that competitive advantage rests not so much in natural resource endowments as it does in forms of social and political organisation. There exists, in this way, huge possibilities for constructing new relationships between business and government in fostering a spirit of civic enterprise to upgrade the competitive advantage of the city in question.

Much has been said and written over the past decade about the 'knowledge based economy', but what is clear is that successful enterprising cities benefit from pools of what has been termed place-specific tacit knowledge. Cities are the places where knowledge as a 'strategic resource' is created. Knowledge in this sense may be considered with regard to all industries including financial and business services, retailing, tourism, cultural and media industries, as well as manufacturing. The continued success of a city depends on the strengthening of the knowledge base for all dynamic growth industries. It is argued, therefore, that a policy to promote city competitiveness must focus on rebuilding the learning dynamic in the cities, including research and innovation, institutional development and inter-firm networking .

In this way, as well as providing essential theoretical and academic knowledge, education and work training must embrace new tasks deriving directly from today's realities : information and communications technologies, foreign languages, cultural opening-up, public debate, enterprise, the environment, relationships between the generations, citizenship and life in society.



All municipalities should work on the principle that every town or city can be the best in world at something. Policies, plans and proposals should consequently be crafted to fit the unique circumstances of each individual area. Such 'particularity' should also identify the special assets of a given territory, and take steps to maintain and enhance them so as to sustain a distinctive edge.

Specialisation for a city, like urban entrepreneurship, needs creativity and innovation. These terms are often used interchangeably, but creativity is really the process through which new ideas are produced, while innovation is the process whereby they are implemented. Thus, a city may be very creative, but may not have the analytical, evaluative and financial skills to develop innovative solutions. Creativity is the necessary precondition for innovation, but it has rightly been stated that innovation is what counts in maximising the potential of a city (Landry & Bianchini, 1995). Nevertheless, certain cities may productively specialise in creativity while others concentrate on innovation.

A useful 'cycle of innovations' is described by Hopkins (1995) which identifies three specific phases - origins, launch and dissemination.

It should be appreciated, however, that the concept of clusters focuses not so much on the agglomeration of a single industry, but on the externalities across industries. Such externalities, in the form of a range of productive relationships between business, industries, universities, trade associations, services, cultural activities, leisure facilities, local government agencies and other civic institutions, take on great importance in the context of modern city competition. Moreover, a cluster is much more than simply an economic organisation facilitating production efficiency. The essence of a cluster it has been argued lies just as much in the exchange of insights, knowledge and technology, and in offering a structure that offers the incentives and flexibility to innovate and specialise (Porter, op cit).

An excellent example of clustering, and a relatively recently observed phenomenon, is the 'creative cluster'. The creative industries have emerged as one of the fastest growing sectors of the global economy. Cities all over the developed world are looking to the creative industries to bring them new wealth, to sharpen their city image and to help address social inclusion issues.

As the dust starts to settle after the initial high-tech storm blows over, it is clear that reality dictates that high-technology information and communications industries remain a driving forces in the future economy of towns and cities - in good times and bad. Effecting a synergistic relationship between towns and cities and the new economy is, however, a daunting task. It requires addressing soft issues such as quality of life as well as hard ones like wiring the city. A 'digital divide' is seen to be appearing between those cities which have integrated information technology into their urban planning processes, and those which have not. The basic attraction factors are fairly familiar: a pro-business climate; a highly educated, well trained workforce; the availability of capital; a large number of fast-growth technology firms; and proven public/private sector co-operation.

At the end of the day, however, it will still be difficult to forecast who will prosper and who will fail. Nevertheless, it is safe to suggest that in any event a city must invest in two prime determinants - quality of education, and quality of life.

Social Cohesion

Social Cohesion

Successive scenario exercises conducted by the author around built environment futures have identified a recurring 'pivotal uncertainty' that describes the onset of civil strife and the breakdown of law and order in the inner-city as a result of worsening social exclusion and increasing marginalisation among large parts of the local populace.

Nevertheless, cities in all parts of the world are already experiencing serious internal turmoil and breakdown, both directly and indirectly as a result of globalization. Cities, of course, have always been foci of social problems, often related to the inherent phenomena of social segmentation and heterogeneity that predictably occur in dense population centres. Unusually high levels of income inequality, however, have heightened these problems in a sharply dysfunctional form. On top of this, there is unprecedented large-scale immigration which has turned many cities into vortexes of cultural, racial and ethnic variation. Thus, cities are confronted with potentially explosive social conditions as they develop and grow in an ever more complex, enmeshed and uncertain world. Formidable obstacles face any attempts at radical reform - however well-meaning. What is increasingly obvious, though, is that any programme of reform is unlikely to be successful if it consists solely of top-down types of mandate. Equally important is the bottom-up imperative of reconstituting the public interest to elicit the consent and social re-integration of all elements of urban society. The very nature of citizenship itself, moreover, needs to be placed under fresh scrutiny.

New wealth creation processes, allied with improved communications technology, have shown geographical place to be less important than ever before. A diminished sense of locality, a depreciation of shared space, and a loss of social identity has led to any feeling of community increasingly being defined by partisan interests as much as by local geography. Further, it has been argued that even at the level of neighbourhood there may be little sense of community, because the factors that nurture it - social homogeneity, immobility and the need to co-operate - are gone (Landry, op cit). These changes also produce a new geography of exclusion and a diminution in quality of urban life. There is, therefore, an urgent need for creative city planning which addresses social exclusion.

A proper sense of place and a respect for community values play a part in all this, but are immeasurably enhanced if the people concerned are involved in shaping that place and managing that community.

The challenge of social cohesion threatens economic prosperity and social stability, as well as constituting a personal tragedy for those affected. Exclusion takes many forms : children without real prospects for their future; low educational attainment; isolation; homelessness or inadequate housing; high levels of debt; limited access to transport and essential services, including information and communication services; limited access to police and justice; poor health; and lack of citizens rights. It also has many secondary symptoms such as social fragmentation, civil disorder, a growth in racial tension, youth alienation and delinquency, crime and policing problems, drug abuse and mental health problems. All these factors have encouraged the development of segregated cities where certain distressed neighbourhoods have become locked-out of wider social and economic development.

Such social exclusion is a mounting cost to society as a whole, and a serious drain on the local as well as national economy. Clearly, a new set of pro-active strategies to overcome these divisions is necessary.

Successful and competitive cities, for example, will have to plan and prepare for a multi-cultural future. The massively impressive strategic plan and prospective for Lyon, in France, titled Millnaire Trois, has, as the first of its five 'strategic lines of action', the vision for "An international, culturally receptive city : accepting people in terms of their cultures, identities, and collective and personal histories". (Grand Lyon Prospective, 2000). Here it is argued that :

"The social, economic and cultural stakes involved in opening-up to the world are manifold : getting to know and understand oneself; encountering others in ways that make globalisation easier to cope with; welcoming others as a means of attracting and retaining skills and talents; skirting the prestige/elitism trap and grounding the city's influence in local events and community projects; in brief, building on mutual differences".

Portentously, and perhaps a little pompously, it can be claimed that rediscovering the importance of open and direct dialogue between cultures will be one of mankind's major challenges in the years to come.



A new paradigm is emerging - one with a fresh spirit of collaborative, democratic governance. Central to this is a shift from 'government' to 'governance'. Government normally being taken to mean the hierarchy of organisations and distinct procedures of the public sector, including both formal political and executive functions, driven by representative politics, political parties, experts and officials. Governance, alternatively, being described as (Pierre, 1998):

"A process in which local political institutions implement their programmes in concert with civil society actors, and within which these actors and interests gain influence over urban politics".

The concept of governance relates, therefore, to a new array of arrangements for partnership and collaboration between government organisations, business associations and community groups of various kinds. Without doubt, many of those working in urban planning, management and development have experienced considerable shifts in the tasks they perform, the policy agenda they are expected to realise, the policy discourses they use to justify their actions, people and networks they relate to, and the ways they are expected to go about their work (Healy, et al, 2002).

Cities across the world are facing a range of challenges. To begin with, there is economic globalisation, economic restructuring, competition between cities, and the restructuring of welfare states, all of which basically lie beyond their control. Then there are : the budgetary limitations which have reduced the level of public resources available for urban investment; the processes of administrative decentralisation and regionalisation bringing increased responsibilities for cities; the changing relationships between the public and private sectors in the provision of services and utilities of all kinds; the growing polarisation in incomes, employment quality and job security; the fragmentation of the labour market, and the decline in manufacturing and rise in service sector industries; and the increased pressure from supra-national agencies for financial convergence and orthodoxy. On top of all this, social and cultural changes are taking place which generate additional demands on city governments to provide better environments and a generally higher quality of life. Governance itself, with all its complexity, uncertainty and changeability, is the key challenge that faces all cities.

Central to the notion of governance is the concept of 'social capital'. Social capital has increasingly been used to express the capacities available within the wider social context upon which governance activity, business initiative and cultural life can draw. It has become one of the most popular expressions to describe an attitude, approach or model towards governance that reverses traditional notions of the behaviour of institutions. As a crucial resource for the viability and effectiveness of institutions, social capital refers to (Putnam, 1998) :

"the norms and networks of civil society that lubricate co-operative action among both citizens and their institutions. Without adequate supplies of social capital - that is, without civic engagement, healthy community institutions, norms of mutual reciprocity, and trust - social institutions falter."

Indeed, in the context of the capacity of city governance it is sometimes referred to as the social capital of places and seen as a 'public good' the erosion of which jeopardises the institutional life of a city.

  1. In determining the vexed and thorny question, repeatedly posed, of "who governs the city?", there is a fundamental need to define "what and where is the city?" so 'boundaries' of all kinds need to be established. Ideally, there should be some form of 'umbrella' city regional governance structure with power to resolve inevitable disputes between competing government agencies, authorities and institutions. Not necessarily another level or layer of government because "governments have to learn how to steer rather than row".
  2. There should be a closer and more refined integration of city governance functions, with a stronger formal structure, and higher levels of accountability and responsibility for elected representatives. City governance should be underpinned by a strong citizen organisation for the city.
  3. There is a need to identify obstacles to implementing better policies and a power to enforce strategic projects for the greater good, against minority private interests. The concept of subsidiarity, pushing decisions and delivering services to their lowest appropriate levels, should be promoted.
  4. There is a growing expectation of private sector agencies to demonstrate principles of urban/city corporate social responsibility. Those affected by a problem should be involved in its solution, and a conducive environment for open-minded learning and problem solving should be created. Solutions themselves should be culturally, socially and economically sustainable.
  5. Tackling the basics of law and order through enhancing safety, security and cleanliness should be seen as a high priority.
  6. The aim should be to move from 'planning' to 'managing' change. Targets and benchmarks to direct and measure progress should be set. An efficient financial framework should be established with effective forms of measurement to ensure that the cost of policy measures is reflective of the benefits received, and effected means of monitoring to secure proper accountability and transparency.



One leading consultant has put the common key to concocting successful and competitive cities as having visionary individuals, creative organisations and a political culture sharing a clarity of purpose (Landry, op cit). Further, that the key actors in such cities possess certain collective qualities (ibid).

"... open mindedness and a willingness to take risks; a clear focus on long-term aims with an understanding of strategy; a capacity to work with local distinctiveness and to find a strength in apparent weakness; and a willingness to listen and learn."

It is argued by the author that the emerging fields of futures, studies, foresighting, prospectives and scenario planning to provide the necessary insight, imagination and innovative thinking to facilitate the advancement of successful competitive cities.


Allen, J. and G. Cars. (2002). "The Tangled Web - Neighbourhood Governance in a Post Fordist Era". In Cars, et al (eds) Urban Governance, Institutional Capacity and Social Milieux. Ashgate, Aldershot.

Grand Lyon Prospective, (2000). "Millnaire Trois : A united, competitive conurbation : 21 priorities for the 21st century". Bulletin 21, September.

Hopkins, E. (1995). "The Life Cycle of Urban Innovations". Urban Management Program Working Paper Series Vol. 1. World Bank, Washington DC.

Jacobs, J. (1992). OECD - Metropolitian Cities Review.

Landry, C. (2000) "The Creative City", Earthspan, London.

Landry, C. and F. Bianchini. (1995). The Creative City. Demos, London.

Masini, E. (1999). "Rethinking Futures Studies" in Sardar Z. (ed). Rescuing all our Futures. Adamantine Press - London.

Parkinson, M. (2000). "Urban Regeneration Policy : Reflections upon the European Experience". Paper at Property Investment in Urban Regeneration Seminar, University of Ulster, September.

Porter, M. (2001). "Regions and the New Economics of Competition". In Scott, A. (2001), op cit.

Putnam, R. (1998). Foreword in Housing Policy Debate, Vol. 9 (1) pg.v-viii.

Ratcliffe, J. (2002). "Imagineering Cities : Creating Future 'Prospectives' for Present Planning". CIB Tokyo Conference on Urban Regeneration, September.

Scott, A. (ed). (2001). Global City Regions. Oxford University Press, New York.

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