Three traits of cities that successfully attract talent (and of the successful universities of the future)

A few weeks ago I was honoured to chair a panel session in Lisbon on city strategies for talent attraction, bringing together speakers from Portugal, Italy and Germany. In my opening remarks I picked three traits of cities that successfully attract talent. Because all three rely on cooperation with universities, these are also the traits of the successful universities of the future:

  1. Universities jointly collaborate with the city. Of course, this only applies where there are multiple universities. But where this is the case, institutions work together, speaking to the city with one voice, pooling resources and avoiding multiple bilateral conversations. For some great examples of this, see my recent report looking at how the universities in Toronto have produced joint research projects to benefit the city, have come together to bid for UNESCO City of Culture status, and much more.
  2. They reach marginalised communities. Universities and cities work together to spread the benefits of internationalisation to communities that are geographically more distant or otherwise may feel ‘left behind’. My report for the British Council shows how Dublin, Glasgow, Hannover and Amsterdam are working to involve marginalised communities in internationalisation activities.
  3. An entrepreneurial use of space. Successful urban universities, when forced (often through limited space) to think creatively when developing new buildings and inner-city spaces, blur the edges between the city and the university. By mixing the two and reimagining public spaces, planners can bring different groups of people together and allow new ideas to spread. Ryerson University, featured in the Toronto report, is a great example (more here). Birmingham City University’s expansion near Curzon Street station is another (more here).

The conference was organised by The Class of 2020, a Dutch think tank looking at student living. At the conference they launched their 2018 Annual Trends Report including an article by myself on what we can learn from computer games about university-city collaboration. Read it here.

Trends Report

Commissions, conferences and the voice of universities

Universities can position themselves as integral to parts of the debate where their inclusion is less obvious

Last week Stephanie Flanders, former BBC economics editor, launched the emerging findings of the RSA Inclusive Growth Commission at the Core Cities summit in London. The Commission follows in the footsteps of the City Growth Commission, which informed much of the previous government’s policy on cities and devolution.

The findings argue that:

As a country we need to put social capital on a par with traditional physical infrastructure when we consider how to invest public resources in future growth. That means treating as investment, policies that are designed to bring poorer people and places up to the level where they can contribute equally to economic growth.

A similar message emerges in the ‘zero draft’ of the New Urban Agenda that will be set out at the major UN Habitat III conference in Quito next month:

We recognize that we must ensure equitable and affordable access to basic physical and social infrastructure for all, including affordable serviced land, housing, energy, water and sanitation, waste disposal, mobility, health, education, and information and communication technologies. We further recognize that provision must be sensitive to the rights and needs of women, children and youth, older persons and persons with disabilities, and other people in vulnerable situations such as refugees, migrants, and displaced persons, removing all legal, institutional, physical, and socio-economic barriers that prevent them from participating equally in urban life and the opportunities it offers.

(For more on why Habitat III is a big deal, see this excellent piece published on The Conversation.)

Many economists and policymakers have long advocated for increased investment in education and other social goods on par with physical infrastructure. The voices of the Inclusive Growth Commission and Habitat III will add weight to these arguments.

However, the beneficiaries of investment in social capital also need to speak up at the major conferences and forums. Bodies such as universities and hospitals can make the case for investment in their facilities, and the economic and social returns this generates. They can also position themselves as integral to other parts of the debate where their inclusion is less obvious, such as provision of public space: a strong case can surely be made for investing in open university campuses designed to bring people and ideas together and share knowledge. When I read these sentences in the New Urban Agenda draft, they seem almost written with universities in mind:

Public spaces, which consist of open areas such as streets, sidewalks, squares, gardens and parks, must be seen as multi-functional areas for social interaction, economic exchange, and cultural expression among a wide diversity of people and should be designed and managed to ensure human development, building peaceful and democratic societies and promoting cultural diversity.

Photo: Panorámica del Centro Histórico de Quito on Flickr

Four reasons to look at universities and urbanism in Ghana

Universities meet education and skills needs, but are also local development actors in their own right. In Ghana they can play an important role in both

Ghana faces a set of challenges similar to many emerging nations…

Ghana is an ‘African Lion’: a fast-growing economy, falling levels of vulnerable employment and rising productive employment led to Ghana becoming a lower-middle income country in 2007. However, there are skills gaps in the areas of medicine and health, engineering and technical skills, limited job opportunities in the formal sector for those leaving university, and the proportion of the labour force leaving tertiary education rose just 2 percent to 5.4 percent from 1992 to 2013.

…including the transition to a ‘knowledge economy’

In a paper submitted to the African Center for Economic Transformation, Baah-Boateng and Baffour-Awuah lament the gap that opened in per capita income between Ghana and South Korea from 1950 – when incomes were broadly similar – to today, when South Korea’s output is six times higher. They cite a World Bank paper that suggests ‘at least half of the difference is due to South Korea’s success in acquiring and using knowledge’. Their paper finishes with a strong set of policy recommendations (that are applicable nearly anywhere in the world), including the participation of industry in curriculum design, more internships during courses, placing university staff in industry, and government intervention to subside expensive technical courses at public universities.1

As I’ve noted before, creating better jobs requires making difficult decisions in education policy to match labour market demand.

Ghana

Ghana is a case study of global urbanisation…

In 2015 51.9 percent of Ghana’s population lived in urban areas, broadly similar to 54 percent globally in 2014. Ghana’s urban population will reach 72.3 percent by 2050, in line with 70 percent globally. Urbanisation is moving much faster than planning.

…which will bring challenges universities can help solve

UN Habitat recommends government collaboration with universities in Ghana to improve planning and to address sustainable urban planning principles. Accra, for example, is at risk of flooding and – as Rotterdam has demonstrated – universities can help city planners to simultaneously prepare against disasters and create a better place to live and work.

In the Greater Accra region, 40 kilometres from the capital, the new urban area of Ningo-Prampram is rapidly growing. Urban strategies stress the ‘very limited timeframe to avoid unplanned sprawl and transform Ningo-Prampram into a thriving and prosperous compact, connected, socially inclusive and resilient city, which would be a sustainable development example for the country of Ghana and for the region as a whole’. A ‘university city’ in the northeast would offer ‘residential areas and services for students, professors and researchers, developing innovative agriculture and forestry processes that are tested in the fertile central park and the northern irrigation lands, improving crop production and fostering food security’. This is an excellent example of the campus working with the city to test new ideas before rolling them out further – seen elsewhere in the form of smart campuses.

Photos: Cape Coast and Ghana on Flickr


  1. Although there are objections from within Ghana’s universities to relying on the taxpayer for funding. 

University campuses can be a testbed for smart cities

By seeing campuses as ‘cities in microcosm’ the development of smart infrastructure can lead to closer working between universities and local leaders

India wants 100 of them. China had 193 pilots of these running in 2013. At the moment they are largely conceptual, little known by the average person on the street, mostly ‘captured’ by commercial interests, and, as I’ve written about before, we are still some way from realising their transformative potential. But smart city initiatives will be an important part of future city development.

Universities can help shift smart cities from being merely a good idea to providing everyday benefit to citizens. They can do this through smart campuses – developing the principles of smart cities on a limited geographic area, testing new infrastructure and implementing lessons learned, drawing in students and researchers, and then working with city officials to roll these out more widely.

The University of Glasgow is expanding its campus by 25% over ten years. The university is working with the Future Cities Catapult on a project to ‘develop a strategy for a Smart Campus that will take into account changes in technology and learning whilst also protecting their heritage (both cultural and physical) and realising cost savings’. The Catapult has developed a definition of the smart campus that supports the university’s new strategy:

The Smart Campus actively learns from and adapts to the needs of its people and place, unlocking the potential of e technology and enabling world-changing learning and research.

Other universities have been working on smart campus projects. The University of Nottingham plans to develop a smart campus that is ‘efficient, safe, sustainable, responsive and enjoyable place to live and work, underpinned and enhanced by digital / internet based technologies’. They see the campus as ‘an ideal vehicle’ for researching, developing and evaluating a ‘diversity’ of smart city concepts, especially as the university is multi-site and encircles a major hospital. The project has attracted the interest of Nottingham City Council.

A case study of the University of Lille presented to the World Bank in 2014 applies elements of smart cities – smart sensors, smart data analysis – to a university campus based in a city. The angle of this presentation seems to suggest the campus could act as a city in microcosm and thus be a good test case for wider implementation, for example managing water, energy and transport on campus. There would also be other benefits to embedding ‘smart’ on a campus: immediate access to expertise and researchers, reinforcing partnerships with local government and with the private sector, and capturing learning in new education programmes that could be delivered to students alongside implementation on campus. Developing a smart campus is arguably easier than developing smart city, with most of the campus falling under the ownership of one institution. In essence, the presentation concludes, the smart campus could ‘promote the concept of smart city to the city’.

Vegas

Lessons

It’s important to prepare students and staff (the campus equivalent of a city’s residents) for smart campuses. After analysing the experiences of smart cities around the world, Nesta have found that many ‘top down’ smart city ideas have failed to deliver on their promise, and that smart city planners need to take human behaviour as seriously as technology, and to invest in smart people, as well as smart technology.

By blurring the public realm and the university estate, city residents can become involved in the development of smart cities

Local government and city leaders may be keen to test the concept of a smart city by supporting the development of a smart campus. By seeing campuses as ‘cities in microcosm’ the development of smart infrastructure can lead to closer working between universities and local leaders. And by softening the edges between a campus and a city, by opening up campuses as public spaces, providing community services and cultural events, by blurring the public realm and the university estate, other city residents can become involved in the development of smart cities.

At the same time, universities can learn from the experience of smart cities. For example, whilst technology is an important component that underpins smart cities and campuses, they need to be developed with people at their core.

Universities are ideally placed to both apply the lessons from smart cities in the development of smart campuses, and to ‘test’ smart infrastructure that can be rolled out to smart cities.

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.