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Five ways to connect people to economic opportunity

This is a response to the Group Blogging Event for the Meeting of the Minds in 2014 entitled ‘How can we better connect people to economic opportunities?’

Over the past few years I’ve worked on large-scale economic development projects in the UK and city scale projects in Australia.

Many city development projects are worthy and important but they fail to inspire people, they fail to entice the mythical investor and they fail to create jobs.

These days cities need to be open, experimental and risk taking if they want to stimulate local entrepreneurs. Global cities like London and New York do this well – that’s one of the reasons they are magnets for talent. Middle ranking cities can often be too conservative and risk averse.

But cities can connect people to economic opportunities. Here are some ways they do this across the world:

1. Inspire people any way you can – Jaime Lerner is one of the most imaginative city leaders you could ever meet. His great talent in Curitiba was creating relatively simple approaches to changing the city which delivered benefits for the city and also for its people.  He calls it Urban Acupuncture. I was privileged to host him in Adelaide and he regaled me and others with wonderful stories. A great believer in the power of art and culture he brought local teachers together with the best artists and performers for week long workshops in a disused mining village, to energise and inspire them.  By this means, he thought, they in turn would inspire their pupils.

2. Local people tell their stories to help tourists connect – everyone has a story to tell. Tourists love to meet local people. Most of us like to see behind the scenes. We can engage local people to tell the stories of the city. They can support local tourism – not just in obvious places but also in relation to their day-to-day lives.  Most cities offer very few possibilities for tourists to connect with local people in interesting ways. This is one way to do it. My inspiration is City Safari in Rotterdam.

3. Layer what you do well now in multiple ways–  Every city has the seeds of its renewal already. The problem is only a failure of imagination. There is something special about every city that people will pay to experience. You can produce something people, across the world, want and need. A small city that has inspired me is San Daniele in Italy.  Everywhere you look it’s all about prosciutto and proudly so.

4. Solve a problem for the world – many cities aim to be the first place in the world that does something well. Cities used to compete to have the tallest building. Now they compete in the area of climate change. That’s great.  But it’s even better if the problem is approached with a spirit of generosity.  A city that is determined and takes a long term view will spark local innovation and entrepreneurialism. These services and goods can be traded and will create jobs. This is a way to attract attention, build your ‘brand’ and sort out problems. A city that has inspired me in relation to this is Bilbao in Spain. It has turned its problems into lessons and inspiration for the world.

5. Experiment in a myriad of ways – say yes wherever possible and take risks to inject life into your city. Do no harm! But do something. The more cities are prepared to experiment and take risks the more they create a public administration fit for the 21st century. Most city administrations are hard wired to avoid risks. But this attitude can kill off the good ideas needed to create new jobs and opportunities. It’s lethal. Cities need public administrations that says ‘yes’. Or at least. ‘Let’s give it a go’. A city that inspires me is Bristol and its Mayor, George Ferguson.

There is no magic formula to connect people to jobs. But it’s also not hard. There are lots of opportunities to build on city strengths and their weaknesses. Cities that say ‘yes’, help their citizens navigate the first rungs. These cities stimulate their citizens to create and to take risks. This builds upon itself.

This post is written as part of the Meeting of the Minds blogging event – more information is at cityminded.org/urban-opportunity

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