On mayors

A new batch of elected mayors are arriving in England next year. They will have an important ‘soft power’ role, acting as a figurehead for the region, developing an international presence, marketing the area, and influencing government policy. They will also be responsible for strategic decisions over areas devolved as part of their individual devolution deal. Universities should make it their business to work with the mayoral candidates in their region.

More on the Universities UK blog, and accompanying factsheet.

Sim University

In Sim University YOU are the vice chancellor!

Introducing the latest instalment in the award-winning Sim franchise: manage your own university!

Will you guide a multi-faculty university to the top of the global league tables, or sit at the helm of a small specialist institution?

Will you become a pillar of your local community, helping the disadvantaged and working with small businesses? Or will you look to attract international students and form multi-country research partnerships?

You’ve just been hired. You have a board of governors on your back, local newspapers watching your every move, and students looking for jobs after graduating (and a great time before then). League tables are constantly tracking your rise or fall.

How will you balance the books and grow your reputation? Will you launch an aggressive expansion campaign, constructing lots of shiny buildings to attract students and staff, or focus on forming partnerships? Will you open overseas campuses, or build incubation centres for student startups?

How will you keep your staff and students happy? Will you pay salaries above the local average, or give free laptops to students? Your star academic is ruffling feathers – do you fire them or promote them?

In Sim University YOU are the vice chancellor!

Exclusive to the UK Brexit edition: prepare for the Teaching Excellence Framework, lobby the Home Office on student visa regulations, form regional alliances, and dabble in Higher and Degree Apprenticeships!

university_sc4-1

The case for simulators

Simulators can be a valuable testing ground. In a fascinating tour through the history of city building games, Richard Moss notes how urban planners used the original SimCity (released 1989) to test existing ideas and inspire new ones:

Playing SimCity helped develop our understanding—or mental model, as Will Wright [Sim City’s founder] calls it—of the urban environment that so much of the world’s population lives in, and it took some of the mystery out of why urban planners make the seemingly bizarre decisions that they do.

If you thought you could improve traffic flows by making the roads five times wider and staggering residential blocks with commercial and industrial ones, you could try it and see (spoiler: it doesn’t work—traffic always expands to fill road capacity, and such a zoning policy would lower land values and increase pollution). If you believed a nearby rail line was increasing crime in your area, you could model your city in the game and experiment with changes.

…the city builders of tomorrow will likely be all about exploring the future of real-world city design. After all, city builders were always—right from the very beginning—about building a utopia, and our best hope of one day achieving a perfect built environment is to practice in simulations first.1

Modern simulators have become increasingly sophisticated. One city planner has said that SimCity 4’s traffic simulator is ‘actually more advanced than what most traffic engineers use in real life’. The game has been used to model suburban sprawl.

She built more police stations in Providence than probably exist in all of Southeastern New England, swapped out the electric power plant for a nuclear one, and bulldozed the church

Others have used simulators as tests of competence for leadership roles. In a great article about the real mayors of SimCity, Jason Koebler tells the story of the 1990 Democratic primary election in Providence, Rhode Island, where a 15 year old freelancer for the local newspaper invited five mayoral candidates to compete against each other in a game of SimCity. One candidate didn’t take the test too seriously. She ‘built more police stations in Providence than probably exist in all of Southeastern New England, swapped out the electric power plant for a nuclear one, and bulldozed the church’. In a strongly-Catholic area, some felt this lost her the primary.

Some fare better. Koebler writes how in 2002 mayoral candidates in Warsaw, Poland played SimCity 3000. Lech Kaczynski won the competition, won the election, and eventually became the president of Poland.

So might there be a case for a university simulator? Universities are highly complex and higher education policy is interlinked with wider policies on economic growth, employability, skills, education, cities,2 internationalism and immigration. No two institutions are alike, and some are unrecognisable from one another. But I still think there could be some merit in a university simulator. I don’t suggest Sim University would make a good selection exercise for prospective vice chancellors, but we could test new ideas and also understand the complexity of effectively managing a university. I might be the only person who would play it though…

Images from SimCity 4


  1. Here is an example of a game created by a professor from the University of Southern California School of Architecture that aims to contribute to the discussion about the future of cities. 
  2. Incidentally, SimCity 4 confirms the important role universities play in cities. Josh Dzieza in the Daily Beast: ‘Education in SimCity is a sort of wonder drug: if you build a university, people get sick less, commit less crime, build solar panels on their roofs, get wealthier, and are generally better off. They also start to complain more about bad city services and pollution, so depending on what sort of Sim mayor you are it could have drawbacks.’ 

The future is local (and so are global challenges): the example of Rotterdam

Mayors are on the rise globally, but they need to be backed by a wide partnership inside and beyond their city

A recurring theme of this blog is how cities, rather than nations, will be on the front line tackling global challenges in the future.

I was fortunate to attend the European Social Services Conference in The Hague last week. The headline was ‘The future is local!’ and the event explored how public services can collaborate more effectively with local communities and their citizens in combatting poverty and social exclusion.

One of the headline speakers was Ahmed Aboutaleb, Mayor of Rotterdam. Across the world mayors are on the rise, not least in the UK with a recent raft of devolution deals including directly elected mayors for cities and regions, and likely to provide an alternate route to power for ambitious politicians.

Universities and colleges are included as partners for delivery, sources of expertise, and opportunities for sharing knowledge

Mayor Aboutaleb talked of the need to strengthen regional government, and of the opportunities higher education could provide for lifting the next generation out of poverty. I took the opportunity to visit Rotterdam, and it provides a good example of a city on the front line, gearing up to tackle large-scale problems. With 80% of the city below sea level and one of the largest ports in the world, Rotterdam is especially susceptible to climate change and has an ambition to become 100% climate-proof by 2025. The city’s adaptation strategy presents climate change as an opportunity for growth through developing smart solutions and making the city a more attractive place to live and work – and I found Rotterdam to already be an exceptionally well-designed city. Universities and further education colleges are included as partners for delivery, sources of expertise, and opportunities for sharing knowledge to other areas. Unsurprisingly, Rotterdam is also one of the 100 resilient cities (see my earlier post on resilience).

Rotterdam is a good example of a city with an effective mayor, backed by a wide range of partners, tackling international challenges. The self-styled Global Parliament of Mayors will have its inaugural meeting in The Hague (which is clearly the place to be) in September 2016, bringing together 125 cities – ‘large and small, from North and South, developed and emerging’. The group has the explicit purpose of crafting solutions to challenges, although, as a semi-critical Guardian writer notes, ‘what they might really be interested in is a global parliament of cities, rather than mayors, and that idea – a networked, global assembly of citydwellers, sharing hard-won insights into what works and what generally does not – strikes me as a far better plan’. Mayors are on the rise, but an effective mayor will need to be backed by a wide partnership inside and beyond the city.

Photo: Jurriaan Snikkers on Unsplash