New London Architecture

Pioneering the Revised World City: London’s next cycle

Tuesday 11 October 2022

Prof. Greg Clark CBE

Senior Advsor

Cities expert Greg Clark sets out the scale of the challenge for London’s next development cycle, and how London can seize the opportunity to lead the way as a revised global city. 

Redefining cities

2022 is not just the beginning of a ‘post-pandemic phase’ in the way that cities work. It is rather the start of a whole new cycle of global urban development and reinvented cities. In this cycle, which comes as we enter the 5th decade of a special century in which the world’s urban population is tripling in number and doubling in percentage, we will adapt to both pandemic accelerated behaviour changes and their market consequences, and also to a much wider set of drivers connected to urgent decarbonisation, revised globalisation, reversing entrenched disparities and inequalities, and leveraging accelerated digitisation. 

The prolonged lockdowns and accelerated digitisation of the past 2 years begged the question; what is the physical city now for? Do cities indeed have any residual value?  

This is much more than a ‘reset’, as it is sometimes described. It is more like a redefinition of what cities are, and it requires proactive leadership and initiative to shape and manage it. This new cycle could last for 20, 30, or 40 years. At its heart is the quest to foster a new ‘social contract’ for a post-20th century economy and its cities. If it works, our cities will emerge stronger from the pandemic, not weaker. 

The new ‘social contract’ is about a fresh settlement on the role of cities and how they should work. The pandemic revealed massive inequalities in our cities. The climate emergency, coupled with troubled capitalism and a revised version of globalisation require us to reassess the magnetic pull, and refine the underlying deal, at the heart of our preference for clustering people, systems, assets and activities together in the dense places we call cities. 

A New London Agenda

London’s last two cycles, from c 1990 to 2010, and from 2010 to 2020, have been largely successful, if success is measured by population growth, job creation, visitor appeal, and innovation leadership. 

But the last cycle also revealed the manifest difficulty that all successful big cities have in combining population growth and increased prosperity with sustainability, affordability, decarbonisation, and reduced inequality. 

The cities that have managed to combine population/job growth with better outcomes on the social/environmental measures are few and far between, but most of them are smaller rich cities who had some ‘spare capacity’ at the start. These cities have an existing high quality of life/higher income, investment capacity, have learned how to host innovation economies, and have an ability to sequence growth in their ‘carrying capacity’ via the shaping of a medium density, high amenity, well serviced and connected, and increasingly polycentric, city (Singapore, Munich, Boston, Vienna, Melbourne, Stockholm, Toronto, for example). 

London’s imperative is rather different

It must show how the transition to the redefined global city, with the new and accelerated drivers, can be achieved in ways that combine and unite new sources of jobs and prosperity, and population growth, with progressive measures that yield real outcomes on social and environmental priorities. 

This is not just difficult, it is also essential. It requires a new and additional set of tools, approaches, platforms, and systems that better link and incentivise the right mix of outcomes. At the level of urban and metropolitan governance, this toolbox just does not yet really exist in the UK. 

London’s inter-dependence with its regional neighbours and its ever-deepening economic links with the rest of the UK, increased by the recent uptick in hybrid working, learning, and consumption, make old administrative and political geographies even less helpful than before. 

For example, job growth in London might now be coupled with population growth in Nottingham or Cardiff as people chose to live further away, facilitated by hybrid working and less regular commuting. The borderless city is becoming a reality. London now plays a key role in driving change in many places well beyond the M25. Counter-intuitively, the growth in hybrid working may simply enable more jobs to be based in London, because some London workers will be able to live further away, thus increasing London’s effective housing market. There’s nothing new in this, but it is now an option for many more people.

How London did it

One advantage London brings to this post-pandemic quest is that it has an unerring appetite and zeal for reinvention. In the past two cycles, London has been a source of innovations from which other cities have learned. From cultural strategies to integrated transport authorities, to long-term planning, to district developments, infrastructure financing, congestion and emission charging, creative enterprise zones, innovation districts, cycle superhighways, ‘super sewers’ and much more, London has led the way in how larger cities have tried to tackle 21st-century urban challenges. 

Much of the leadership has been shared.  Mayors of London worked with Local Boroughs, and with Institutions, Businesses, and Investors to combine efforts in newly negotiated models to make things happen. The fact that London has done this in a context where there it has comparatively low levels of self-government and self-financing, just makes these innovations more impressive, and more applicable to much of the world (where there are similarly low levels of self-government and self-finance). London’s secret weapon has been that it is a ‘negotiated city’ rather than a ’constituted city’. 

What's Changed?

So, this new cycle is both a clear challenge for London, and a major opportunity. The reversal of the previously positive sentiment towards the ‘global city’ model of ‘concentrated prosperity/shared tax revenues’ has revised the national context, making it essential that London becomes more self-reliant, and adaptable to a new politics. Embracing the opportunity of the new cycle requires a different kind of determination from the last 2 cycles where London’s success was largely seen as a national, as well as regional, project. Perhaps this cycle will require greater endeavour because the national policy context may not be so conducive. 

The old ‘deal for London’ is dead

From roughly 1991 to 2010 the UK Government and the leaders of London worked to an implicitly agreed formula. London was encouraged to grow and succeed fuelled by its specialisation in the globalisation of finance, services, media, creative industries, information, and education. This was supported by international and domestic migration, and aided by EU membership. London’s growth in these ‘high productivity’ sectors raised UK exports, generated high tax revenues, and attracted international investment into the UK on a large scale. London’s net tax contribution to the UK Exchequer varied between £5 and £20bn per year for much of this period and the implicit deal was that London’s growth both financed public services and infrastructures elsewhere in the UK, and London acted as a gateway (and ‘attack brand’) for talent, tourists, and investor flows into the UK as a whole. 

The old deal was not the right deal

But this deal had at least four embedded problems in it. First, it relied upon the growth of a somewhat narrow range of industries in which London had an initial competitive advantage, but it did not anticipate either shocks like the GFC, or the growth of multiple centres of competition worldwide. 

Second, this deal entrenched the dependency of other UK cities and regions upon London which came to be widely resented, especially when London’s magnetic pull appeared to be undermining economic development efforts in other parts of the UK by ‘sucking in’ regional talent drawn to London’s labour market. 

Third, this deal did not equip London with the tools needed to address the unintended consequences of rapid growth, coupled with open exposure to globalisation, with effects such as overheating and financialisation of the housing market, hyper-competition for entry-level jobs that saw poor Londoners trapped in a race to the bottom for insecure and casualised work, and increasingly worsening air quality. 

Forth, this deal did not equip London with the financial system needed for long-term investment but rather focussed on bidding to secure UK Government co-sponsorship of a series of one-off projects (eg South Bank Regeneration, Market, Station and Stadium redevelopment, Millennium Celebrations and Facilities, 2012 Olympics, Elizabeth Line, HS1 & HS2) rather than devolving to London to means to self-finance its own infrastructure in future.   

The end of this old deal is lamented by many, but a different and better deal is sorely needed.

London 1980-2020, the back story

London was not just one of the ‘world cities’ that has emerged in the past 40 years. Since the new cycle of global urbanisation began in the early 1980s London has been a pacesetter and innovator. In tandem with New York, Paris, Tokyo, and more recently Singapore, Hong Kong, and Seoul, London is the pioneer of what it means to be a world city. Of course, there are different kinds of ‘world cities’ but that is another story.

In the 1980s, London’s inherited endowments, with its international outlook and global reach, favourable time zone, home language, cultural diversity, and ability to codify rules and standards in commerce, trade, finance, investment, media, education and sport, made it the place that exemplified and explained how a world city could work. 

As it welcomed (first) Japanese and American Banks, and then a wide range of finance, media, and technology firms, elite ex-pat professionals, creative leaders, international students, migrant workers, and global urban tourists, London generated new population growth by focussing on the dynamic sectors that were driven by global integration of the 1980s (Finance, Professional Services, Media, Information, and Education) underpinned by EU membership and workers, the post-soviet settlement, and rapid global integration.  

Globalising sectors clustered together, supported new enterprise formation, and were served by an open business climate, and a flexible pool of global, national, and local talent that induced population growth and created the context for reinvestment in infrastructures, systems, and places. These globalising sectors had specific built environment requirements in offices, CBDs, media centres, and the digital and passenger transport connections that would make a big city workforce productive. 

London’s growth spurred urban regeneration in markets, stations, stadia, docks, waterfronts, CBDs, and neighbourhoods as it re-equipped the city for the newly globally trading activities and the population growth (and urban appetite) they brought. London’s built environment was adapted rapidly toward the needs of globally trading sectors and a new professional class of global knowledge workers. 

London was a competitive location, bringing together its inherited assets and outlook, with a new verve to recreate the city for the modern era. It was one of 4-6 cities that succeeded in becoming the world cities of the final chapter of the 20th Century. 

As trade, business, and finance success accrued, so London made investments in its urban fabric, infrastructure, amenities, arts, science, culture, education, technology, cuisine and design. These features, systems, and amenities multiplied London’s advantages, and gave it a special quality of life equation, one that matched it business acumen. Open, global, connected, talented, confident.

London’s forward story

Now, five decades into the century of cities, a new equation is emerging. 

Post-pandemic, post-GFC, post-BREXIT, and in the context of the great challenge of our planetary future, a new phase of fractured globalisation with accelerated digitisation has begun. So, London is now re-inventing what it means to be a world city. 

Accelerated digitisation requires all places to play to their strengths. A sorting effect is in train between things that can be done effectively ‘online’, and things that must be done ‘in place’. The new world city is anchored in what cities do best, bringing together all activities that need to be conducted ‘face to face’ and ‘face to place’, with global connections and flows, enabled by digitisation,  and facilitated  by physical infrastructure and place making.

The opportunity is a big switch where cities shift out of mundane forms of consumption, production, and services and embrace new qualities that play to urban strengths, and are premised on what cities do well. The rich opportunities of habitat, innovation, and experience. 
A key effect of the rapid digitisation is to change the functional geographies of our cities with two key consequences. Firstly, hybrid working enables cities to be served by larger housing markets, effectively making all cities more regional. Secondly, neighbouring cities and towns are much more connected with each other by a shared labour force and common housing market. We now have large regions of multiple interdependent cities and towns emerging.  
Cities don’t compete with digital platforms, they complement each other, and harness them to make connected places work. The new super-connected world city is hybrid in multiple ways. It is physical and digitised, it is global and local, the city is a place, and it is also a platform. The hybrid city is a blended city.

The revised world city

This revised world city will build value through technology, creativity, innovation and human experience. It trades in knowledge, know how, networks, and unique combinations. It is the hub of circuits of trade in ideas, designs, prototypes, ventures, and applications.  

The revised world city will focuson the activities that are globalising now and provide a platform to shape them. This means that green finance, life sciences & bio-tech, AI & IoT, materials and earth sciences, and digital content, are increasingly to the fore. 

The new world city economy will be driven by 4 emerging forms of value creation: the innovation economy, the experience economy, the circular economy, and the sharing economy. Each of these plays to new forms of global exchange and new enterprise models, and requires an urban landscape that is agile, flexible, and resilient.   

A new social contract

The revised world city must build a different social contract to the model that went before.  In the last cycle the contract was about how the world city would serve the nation with jobs, tax revenues, connections and investment. In this new cycle the world city must build a new social contract that addresses planetary and social justice, and be more attentive to its relationships and exchanges. 

This new social contract creates a fresh license to operate for business and investors. It is intolerant of high carbon living, and much more focussed on access to clean air, healthy lifestyles, and affordable housing. It envisions a city that works for all of its citizens, not simply the high skilled or highly paid. 

This new world city also takes more responsibility for its relationship with other regions and towns outside its own borders, creating good neighbour policies and programmes, and collaboration for mutual advantage across a nation.

Advantage London

As we embark of the 5th decade of our urban century new tools have arrived. The tool-box of city management, public governance, and progressive policy is now joined by three new resources in the quest for good urbanisation. 
The first is a new suite of exponential and enabling technologies that drive new urban sectors, enhance city systems, and make city management a common task between business, government, and citizens. The second is private finance which has woken up to scale of the urban opportunity and the existential imperative to make cities work. The third is the new art and science of place-leadership, that integrates otherwise separated and fragmented inputs into ‘virtual governance’ premised on the imperatives of place rather than sectors or institutions. Place leadership builds new forms of social capital, belonging, and identity through deep participation. 
Taken together these three new tools can augment our urban leadership, and drive truly connected places that increase both the investment rate and the level of trust in our cities.       
London can be this new city of opportunity. It is pioneering a new kind of world city. The pandemic has accelerated developments that were already nascent in London. 

  • London was already tackling the climate emergency and embracing digitisation. It was already a multi-centred city with distributed sectors and a mosaic of communities. 
  • London’s interdependence with UK cities where it shares a talent pool, value chain relationships, and aligned sector strengths was already being complemented by London’s special relationship with the cities and towns of the Greater South East, with whom it shares a single labour market, housing market, infrastructure platform and logistics system. 
  • As London embraces new policies on energy choices and mobility modes, air quality and public health, employment and skills, so a new wave of business investment is already being triggered in netzero places, enterprise models, and the new urban resilience.

These pre-existing features are part of London’s new opportunity in 2022. As this new cycle evolves London will face competition from many more cities, but few of them with London’s combined advantages. The new cycle of world city growth may see up to 100 cities recognised as being leaders in hosting the newly globalising sectors. Most of these cities will want to learn from London and collaborate to mutual advantage. 

The prize for the UK is great. Not only can London help to lead the post pandemic recovery, but it can do so in ways which advantage other UK cities, and position the UK as a leader once again. To seize the opportunity, London can build the revised world city agenda, just as it did in the 1980s when this new century of the city began.  As the 5thdecade  of the century of the city unfolds, its time to focus on the opportunity for leadership that London has, and the roles the world expects it to play.

Opportunity London

The shift towards this revised world city creates multiple opportunities, especially for a pioneering city like London. there might be 10 dimensions to this opportunity:

 i.    This will be a more distributed city, underpinned by revised connections and choices. The new world city will enjoy the flexible super-regional network of other cities and towns that are interdependent with it and form a new value circuit that optimises choice. 
ii.    A recast geography of change foresees suburbs that also become hubs of commerce and creativity, city centres that take up enhanced rules in innovation, habitat and experience, and an expanded urban economy of advanced logistics, active travel, and localised manufactures. 
iii.    This city will be more focussed on economic diversity and social resilience and will seek to be less exposed to single sector shocks.
iv.    The urban fabric will be more adaptable and agile, using hybrid formats and omni-channel strategies for work, play, consumption, and leisure.
v.    The new world city is an electric city. It is the place where the big technology switches of our age in energy, utilities, mobility, construction, food, health, and communications will be played out.  The netzero path requires both an energy switch and an urban transition. This urban transition is the palate for multiple new forms of city making. 
vi.    The growth of AI and IoT platforms enables this new world city to be increasing customisable to the needs of citizens, workers, and visitors, and to be more efficient in how people and goods move around. There will be a premium on the reduction of wasted energy, resources, heat and time. 
vii.    Citizen participation and urban democracy will be rekindled to address sustainability and fairness. This new democracy will be digitally enabled and physically visible. Increased participation in decision-making will shape policies from land-use to electrification, to waste, and mobility. 
viii.    The new world city will be an intentional city. It will establish a new charter for how citizens, business, place and planet, are enabled to work together in joint endeavour.  There will be disincentives for free-riders and polluters, and the unintended consequences of apparently free choices (such as whether to drive an ICE vehicle) will increasingly be subject to policies that count and costs externalities.    
ix.    The new world city will be re-sequenced. Many more buildings will be agile and flexible, and whole districts will play different roles per time of day, day of week, and month of year. The new world city will use technology and pricing mechanisms to optimise this sequencing. 
x.    This new world city provides unique opportunities for reinvestment, reinvention, and repurposing of buildings, utilities, mobility, logistics, and all kinds of places.    

The new world city is above all a place of reinvention; taking the best of the old world city model of open-ness, productivity, connectivity, and value creation, and combining these with new mandates for sustainability, community, fairness, choice, technology optimisation and healthy lifestyles.  

Prof. Greg Clark CBE

Senior Advsor

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