How universities can help ‘smart cities’ become transformative (and why leapfrogging is difficult)

Cities are constantly in states of flow, and can easily be locked into patterns of behaviour that over time can have serious consequences

We are some way from realising the transformative effects of smart cities,1 and further still from these effects benefiting the poorest in society. I have a couple of thoughts on their potential:

  1. Can smart cities be to cities what smartphones are to ‘dumb’ phones? A button (non-smart) phone today seems closed and antiquated compared to the limitless panoply of apps and the functionality of touchscreen phones. Or will the ‘wide experiential gulf’ between the top-end smartphones and generic low-end smartphone handsets be replicated in tomorrow’s smart cities? I suspect there will be wide variations in effective implementation, and I suspect the impact will be far less dramatic and sudden than the shift from ‘dumb’ to smart phones. Cities have been developing for thousands of years and smart infrastructure needs to be embedded and layered upon existing foundations. But a transformative, positive wave of impact is possible.
  2. Can this wave of possible impact enable some cities to ‘leapfrog’ their development? Comparing cities again to phones, think of a country with limited phone networks skipping the installation of telegraph poles and landlines and instead building a fast mobile network. Kenya, for example, has excellent mobile phone reception in remote areas but limited landlines. So could a smart city allow urban areas with poor healthcare, high crime, limited access to, for example, banks and bus routes, and areas of general deprivation to leapfrog some of the traditional, slower means of development? Unfortunately, smart cities are no shortcut, and mobile phones are an unusually effective leapfrogger. Instead, you usually need to have gone ‘medium tech’ before you can go ‘high tech’.

So what is needed? Cities will need to be both adaptable and smart. Underpinning both is social capital. The World Economic Forum has developed a four part taxonomy of city competitiveness, with ‘soft connectivity’, a city’s social capital, a critical factor. Education is the ‘ultimate soft connectivity’, and cities can specialise in knowledge intensive niches by capitalising on education. Education and soft connectivity make investments in hard infrastructure and new technology more productive.

Cities are constantly in states of flow, and can easily be locked into patterns of behaviour that over time can have serious consequences. A city with a highly skilled workforce, with access to continuous education and training opportunities, is also a highly adaptive one.

An adaptive city is a resilient city. Work by Nesta has shown that 87 percent of highly creative workers are at low or no risk of automation compared with 40 percent of jobs in the UK as a whole. You can complete an online survey to determine whether your job is at risk of being taken by a robot. Whilst automation is likely to solve many more problems than it creates, a successful city in future years will adapt to these changes, attracting creative industries and highly skilled jobs.

The objectives of ‘smart’ and ‘adaptable’ cities are mutually reinforcing, with a smart city a more responsive one, and an adaptable city more likely to benefit from the insights delivered through data and technology. Universities play an important role in developing and testing new technologies, curating and understanding data (and the infrastructure behind it), and conceptualising and operationalising the ‘Internet of Things’ – a network of physical objects that collect and exchange information.

City leaders and universities will need to work together to harness the benefits of smart cities. The UK Future Cities Catapult is a good example of this, bringing together businesses, universities and city leaders to turn ideas into prototypes, including developing sensor networks and unlocking urban data. There is particular focus on smart cities in emerging economies. The Catapult has just signed an MOU with the China Center for Urban Development, building on smart city collaboration two years ago between Bristol and Guangzhou, and last year between Manchester and Wuhan. And in 2015 India set a target of 100 smart cities, focussing on satellite towns of larger cities and modernising existing mid-sized cities. It will be interesting to see whether any ‘leapfrogging’ takes place within these cities, and how inclusive the benefits are.


  1. There are many definitions of smart cities, but I like the European Commission one: ‘a place where the traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies, for the benefit of its inhabitants and businesses’. 

New research: More universities means faster growth

New research published today from the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics:

We compiled new data based on UNESCO’s World Higher Education Database detailing the location of 15,000 universities in 1,500 sub-national regions across 78 countries over the period 1950 to 2010. On average, doubling the number of universities in a region increases that region’s subsequent income by over 4%. There are also spillover effects to other regions in the same country, creating a growth multiplier.

More in the blog post here and the full article here.

The myth of the dying university

Universities are brokers and coordinators and ideas machines and leaders at a time when decision making is becoming more local

I’m struck by how often people predict the death of universities. I was at an event recently when a director of a very large education company compared universities today to the music industry in 2002: unwilling to embrace innovation, with the education equivalent of a Napster – perhaps online learning – waiting around the corner to smash the sector to pieces. The analogy of university campuses as CDs and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) as MP3s is a nice marketing trick for management consultancies, but it dangerously underplays the important role of universities in their locality (more on that here).

Most recently such predictions (often found in the comments sections of online newspaper articles) have been in response to the rise of higher-level apprenticeships and government targets of creating 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. A common narrative is that ‘traditional’ degrees don’t provide workplace skills, going to university is a waste of time, and there are too many graduates. The evidence disagrees.

Such comments aren’t new. Back in 1997 Peter Drucker, the famous business and management author, predicted that

Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.

Admittedly we won’t know whether he’s right until 2027. However, I’m quietly confident we’ll see big university campuses for centuries to come. Some may close and others will expand. But ‘going to university’ – physically going to a set of buildings and a space with an identity and lots of other students and teachers from many different places and with different perspectives and ideas – is a huge draw for students.1 But the main reason I think he’s wrong is the role of universities in their cities and regions, and the importance of knowledge institutions in knowledge economies. Universities are brokers and coordinators and ideas machines and leaders at a time when decision making is becoming more local, and powers and decisions are being devolved to towns and cities and regions.

We can also look at what’s happening in the most populated countries in the world. If universities are dying, surely the most vibrant and ambitious nations would be investing their resources elsewhere? Just last week it was reported that China is opening a new university every week. India’s February 2016 budget proposes a scheme to create 20 world-class universities.

The scope and direction and strategy of higher education will shift in coming years, but universities are here to stay.

Image: “Plan of land under control of Public Wor” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by  State Records SA 

  1. As an aside, a few weeks ago I was fortunate to hear a great presentation by Paul Roberts, who, in a fascinating 30 minute tour through centuries of campus planning, explained that the most competitive universities of the future will be those with a city-centre campus location, and provided a convincing case of the value of universities as physical spaces. I’ll review his book in a future post. 

Will the term ‘third mission’ become obsolete?

I argue that third mission activity is becoming core activity, and discuss issues of localism and internationalisation, in an article published today on the Universities UK blog:

Nearly all universities have in their name the city or region in which they are based. Along with other so-called ‘anchor institutions’ such as hospitals, universities are deeply embedded in the local economy, working with businesses, meeting skills needs, educating future workforces, and have an important social connection with the local community.

However, perhaps more so than other anchors, universities are ideally positioned to bridge local, national and international. With the focus on localism, universities can help improve their locality, but also transcend it, pulling in their institutional, research and alumni networks to help connect their locality to the wider world. Universities have a ‘connective anchor’ role.

Read the full piece here.

The future of Chinese higher education: what we can learn from geopolitics

With the continued ‘rebalancing’ away from the coastal cities to the inland provinces, we will see investment in inland universities

I’m currently reading two excellent books that cover, in part, the future of China. The first, Inside Out India and China: Local Politics Go Global, argues that we need to understand what happens outside of Beijing and New Delhi – the politics and economics in the localities, and in particular the relationships between periphery and centre – to understand the future. A theme is the settlement of Han Chinese in areas of potential instability, or areas prioritised for growth. For example, Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang province and the scene of violent uprisings in 2009, has seen dramatic expansion:

Xinjiang covers one-sixth of China – the largest province by territory. It borders seven countries and has almost 22 million inhabitants representing thirteen ethnic groups. Most residents are still rural, but the province is quickly urbanising thanks to the Han Chinese settlers who now constitute about 40 percent of the total population… Beijing has been pouring cash and people into the region… Seven new expressways and eleven new railway lines are being planned or built. The goal has been to link Xinjiang not only to central China but to Central Asia and Europe.

This is echoed in the second book, Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics, described by one reviewer as ‘a good bluffer’s guide for the members of the newly elected Foreign Affairs and Defence Select Committees’, and provides insight into the way geography shapes the choices of world leaders. It tells a similar story to Inside Out:

It was long said to be impossible to build a railway through the permafrost, the mountains and the valleys of Tibet. Europe’s best engineers, who had cut through the Alps, said it could not be done…. But the Chinese built it. Perhaps only they could have done. The line into the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, was opened in 2006 by the then Chinese President Hu Jintao. Now passenger and goods trains arrive from as far away as Shanghai and Beijing, four times a day, every day.

They bring with them many things, such as consumer goods from across China, computers, colour televisions and mobile phones. They bring tourists who support the local economy, they bring modernity to an ancient and impoverished land… But they have also brought several million Han Chinese settlers.

I draw from this a maxim: where you encourage migration, you direct political and economic energy.

What could this mean for higher education in China?

  1. The C9 League, regarded as the most prestigious Chinese universities, are largely based on the east coast (see image at top). With the continued ‘rebalancing’ away from the coastal cities to the inland provinces, we will see investment in inland universities, both to attract the best students and provide training and education to suit local needs, and increase local research capacity.
  2. Focus will continue on improving Chinese universities in general. We know that China leads the world in the rate of expansion of investment in higher education and innovation. In 2012, China’s total expenditure on research and development exceeded one trillion RMB – that’s almost $0.5bn per day! 1 10% of this is directed to the C9 League. Until recently, the government encouraged the brightest Chinese students to study abroad. As Chinese universities improve in quality, expect a corresponding increase in the number of the brightest Chinese students studying in China (bearing in mind that the 18- to 22-year-old population will decline by 2025).2 This pivot is symptomatic of China’s increasing confidence in the quality of its research and teaching, and a more general economic focus on innovative, knowledge-driven industries.
  3. In line with this, China will continue to increase the numbers of scholarships and fellowships to students from other countries, following in the footsteps of the extensive scholarship programmes offered by Western countries (for example, the UK has seen year-on-year growth in its Chevening and Commonwealth scholarship programmes, despite widespread government cuts). Scholarships are often regarded primarily as weapons of ‘soft power’, and it certainly helps when an international alumnus becomes president. However, scholarships also encourage the finest minds to develop their ideas in your country, they increase multiculturalism, they lead to academic collaboration, and they are a pretty sound domestic economic investment, given most of the money is spent in the region of the university.

  1. The same Nesta publication reports that in 1998, 830,000 students graduated with a higher education qualification in China. By 2012, graduate numbers hit 6.2 million, and by 2020, they are predicted to reach 10.5 million. This would account for almost a third of the world’s total, and more than the USA and EU combined. Although there are questions over the quality of education, there are longstanding efforts to improve the standard of research and socioeconomic impact of Chinese universities (such as Project 211, focused on a subset of universities). 
  2. Interestingly, China will need to sell this shift above all to parents. Traditionally parents save for their children’s education from a young age; education is sold directly to parents rather than through any state financing or loans as seen in many other countries. 

Nations, cities and universities

Bruce Katz, centennial scholar at the Brookings Institution and former Professor in Social Policy at LSE, recently wrote a blog arguing that “In 2016, Nations May Govern But Cities Rule”. He says:

the locus of problem-solving is devolving downward. Cities have become the engines of national economies and the vanguard of economic and social innovation. In 2016, devolution will accelerate, and the solutions to our toughest problems will increasingly come from local leaders, acting in close concert with institutional investors, global corporations, and higher levels of government.

His outline of new instruments, intermediaries, and institutions for problem solving is well worth a read. He makes the point that informal devolution is outpacing formal devolution, calling for ‘rapid, locally-tailored solutions that take a holistic approach to problem-solving – approaches that deploy the expertise, capacity, and resources of the public, private, and civic sectors in collaboration’.

I make a similar point in an essay published by the Government Office for Science that looks at the role of universities in future cities. Cities will tackle some problems traditionally shouldered by states. Many of these problems are interdisciplinary, and universities are ideally positioned to help provide an interdisciplinary response.

One point Katz doesn’t mention is that, although cities will indeed increasingly rule, connections with other cities becomes increasingly important. A ‘system of cities’ takes into account the different specialities of cities, the different challenges and opportunities and local knowledge and physical assets, and how cities can complement each other. The problems of the future will increasingly be tackled by cities themselves, supported by universities and a wider system of cities.

Read the Government Office for Science essay on the future of universities and cities here, and my post on systems of cities on the Government Office for Science blog here.

Two international education centres opening this year

Two large multi-partner research projects on international education are opening later this year. The ESRC/HEFCE-funded Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) (website) is the ‘first UK social science research centre dedicated to the systematic investigation of higher education and its future’ says the press release, noting the sector is ‘less researched than other major social sectors such as health, manufacturing industry and government’. The CGHE will be led by the UCL Institute of Education, partnered by Lancaster University and the University of Sheffield, and will open in October 2015. Importantly, this work will have an international focus, with ‘researchers from the Netherlands, Ireland, the United States, Australia, South Africa, China, Hong Kong and Japan’. I would also like to have seen some more universities from the global south represented too, but it is still early days for collaborations to be set.

Secondly, DFID is funding a multi-country research programme called Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) studying education systems in developing countries (website, press release). This work is focussed on children in school rather than higher education, noting the success over the past 15 years in getting more children into school but the need for more evidence on the interactions within education systems for policies to be successful. However, better primary education systems can only be a good thing for a long term, highly skilled workforce, with more children able to later attend secondary education, and attend university, and excel at both.

Both are further recognition that the education agenda is critical to development efforts, anywhere in the world.

Universities and Big Data

It’s great to see the International Conference On Sustainable Development is returning for the third year running this September. I was fortunate to present at the first event at Columbia University, New York, in 2013.

My research examined the great insights that organisations such as the UN have gained by adapting Big Data techniques for international development, and looked at whether civil society could similarly harness this technology. My premise for doing so was part of a lofty ideal – to ‘decentralise’ development, to move the centres of development power away from multinational bodies and towards smaller players. You can read the conference paper here (PDF file, pp. 26-35), including case studies of corruption, cocaine and malaria.

Big Data presents exciting opportunities for understanding and tackling development issues. Agencies such as UN Global Pulse are pushing this work forward, opening offices in Jakarta and Kampala. Small organisations and civil society will increasingly work with Big Data as the hurdles to harnessing meaningful insights decrease. Large organisations such as Amazon.com have long used Big Data as a foundation for understanding customers. But there is a key role for universities too, and not just through using Big Data to improve teaching and learning. As Simon McGrath notes, higher education has a role in engaging with some of the recent ‘big development ideas’, from the call for a ‘data revolution’, through enthusiasm for ‘evidence-based policymaking’, to the rise of the ‘what works’ agenda.

Big Data isn’t a panacea for solving all development challenges. Universities can help frame Big Data within the wider context of development processes, they can rigorously scrutinise methods and policy conclusions, and can use Big Data to complement the wider research agenda. At the same time, universities often work both locally and internationally, and can draw on the benefits Big Data is delivering to both small organisations and multinational agencies.

Two ways to push university-business collaboration

At the core of increasing collaboration between universities and businesses is getting people from each to talk to one another.

I’ve written elsewhere about the benefits of collaboration. When universities work with businesses, economic growth happens. Broken down further, when universities work with businesses, businesses can access new technology and knowledge and apply this to their work, become more innovative, and improve the skills of their staff. Universities can improve the employability of their students, and test new research in a ‘real world’ setting. When the two work together, new jobs are created, productivity increases and everybody benefits.

At least, that is how the theory goes. How does this work in practice? Strip collaboration to the core and you’re left with the need for people from universities to speak to businesses, and vice versa. Here are two ways to encourage this – one nudging businesses towards universities, and one students towards small employers:

  1. Innovation vouchers provide funding for businesses to access external expertise. They reduce the risks that businesses (especially small ones) face, and can attract larger investments and build partnerships. Appropriately tailored and effectively marketed, these relatively small investments benefit universities and businesses, and long term can boost growth and employment. You can read more on how vouchers work and their benefits from the OECD and Universities UK.
  2. Careers services can promote the benefits of working for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), and encourage students to take up a placement, internship or job at an SME. Students may have misconceptions about small businesses – that they aren’t as innovative as multinationals, for example – that can be dispelled by a few well-chosen case studies.

The CBI recently published an excellent guide to university-business collaboration with a practical focus. Although this, and the above links, are UK- or European-focused, they are equally applicable (with tailoring to local context) to low-income countries. This is a particularly exciting area and a source of long term economic growth and innovation.

Working for economic transformation

Last week the Overseas Development Institute published an excellent report, Working for economic transformation, on generating better jobs in low income countries. The report notes that countries need to make decisions in education policy to match labour market demand:

Promoting higher-level technical or university education, more expensive per student, can help facilitate the leap to more productive sectors. But this can come at the cost of reduced funding for junior levels of education, which might allow for a wider boost to low-productivity employment. It can also help to exacerbate inequalities in education, with tertiary places more often taken up by those from wealthier backgrounds. Increasing investment in lower levels of education tends to have a greater effect on improving attainment outcomes among the poorest. At the same time, expanding educational enrolment and attainment may reduce available funding necessary for higher-quality education, such as for school facilities, teacher training and wages. (p.28)

In other words, there is a budgetary choice to be made between strengthening schools (junior levels of education) or universities (higher levels of education), and there are clear opportunity costs for each.

In policy terms, however, education should be seen as a continuum from school to college to university, and higher education has a role to play in strengthening the stages that come before it. This role needs to be explored and expanded and encapsulated in government policy: universities can train the teachers and advise on curriculum design to strengthen junior education. Their links with businesses can ensure future skills needs are being met throughout the system. At the same time, universities can work with businesses, especially small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to support their growth and in turn their demand for highly skilled graduates. Facilitating internships and placements for students in industry further strengthens these links, and provides a technical and enterprise focus to degrees. As the report concludes:

Setting employment at the centre of development agendas requires a whole range of policies, plus coordination among these policies and of the dynamics between different sectors of the economy. Education policies need to be matched with the requirements of growing industries with productive employment potential. (p.39)

The continuum between junior and higher levels of education becomes particularly important when we consider development policy. One consequence of the Millennium Development Goals focus on achieving universal primary education is the pipeline of students who could potentially go on to study at university as the MDGs draw to a close this year. Treating each stage in isolation risks missing the opportunity to greatly increase the amount of highly skilled jobs created worldwide in the years ahead.