Heatmaps: hotspots, coldspots and the bits in-between

Cities and universities each have pockets of internationalisation and collaboration that can be mapped. The result is a heat signature: unique for each pattern of universities and place.

Back in 2017 when I was presenting my work on internationalisation for the British Council at conferences I would ask the audience to picture in their minds a big map of a city they knew and to shade in red the areas where there was most international activity.

For most cities, the deeper shades of red would be in the centre of the city: the central business district, the tourist hotspots, the shopping streets and, often, a university (especially if it bears any resemblance to Hogwarts). There could also be ‘pockets’ of internationalisation in more marginalised areas where universities set up a summer school, ran public events, built student residences or held community engagement activities.

The thinking was that universities could help bring the benefits of internationalisation to these ‘cold spots’. I’ve been thinking about the concept of a heatmap of university-city interaction in more detail and sketch out some initial thoughts below.

What is hot?

Beyond international activity, there are many other interesting dimensions a heatmap could capture. A basic map may capture any initiative between universities and city hall, between universities and businesses, or between universities and communities or community organisations. Darker shading may represent scale of activity or depth of engagement or a longer history of working together.

Less tangibly, it could represent informal collaboration, or any activity where the university reinforces the goals of city hall or supports communities, or vice versa. Activity that undermines other actors might emit a chilling shade of blue; a warming red means partners working towards similar goals.

Heat could represent individuals participating in higher education or people otherwise engaging with a university – from attending a public lecture to using sports facilities. It could capture the flow of these people to and from their home or workplace and the university, showing how their engagement is shaping transport use and public spaces. Movement patterns will differ from university to university and each tell a unique story (Toronto’s universities are jointly studying the travel behaviour of 600,000 students).

Instead of mobility, the flow of money or investment in and out of universities could be measured. In doing so we would veer into the territory of university impact studies and input-output analysis. Given the limitations of such studies, a heatmap approach with added contextual data may offer a more complete picture of regional impact. A broader impact heatmap may look at perception data or a combination of economic, social and cultural measures.

A map could show ownership. Most obviously this could be the land and buildings owned by the universities (perhaps a more granular version of this data from the UK showing the dominance of the Oxford and Cambridge estates). In cities that have a degree of ‘ownership’ of institutions (through regulatory controls or funding mechanisms) the degree of autonomy could be mapped.

Or we could (try to) map where collaboration or engagement is less or more than expected. This mirrors nuanced higher education participation data produced in the UK (my post on that here) which maps the proportion of young people participating in higher education compared to that expected given GCSE-level attainment and ethnic profile. How we measure or define what is expected given the different make up of cities and universities is an interesting question, and leads us nicely to…

Mapping complexity

Heatmaps offer a nice visual representation of the heterogeneity and complexity of both universities and cities. ‘The city’ is made up of countless constituent parts, and it is similarly difficult to generalise ‘the university’ as a single actor. Even the most outward-looking university will have departments and teams with strong engagement with people outside the institution and others which remain mostly insulated from outside.

We can apply heatmapping to universities. Here’s the organogram for Hungary’s University of Physical Education (ranked highly in Google Image Search), with a completely fictitious heatmap applied that could apply to international or community or business engagement. You can get even more detailed: within each unit you could shade each individual. And university structures change over time, and in turn so does the heatmap shading. You could do a similar exercise across a map of the campus.

The organogram for Hungary’s University of Physical Education
The organogram for Hungary’s University of Physical Education

A unique heatmap signature

Every city and every university will have a unique heatmap ‘signature’. This is partly affected by the structure of the city itself: a heatmap for Paris would look very different to London or Dublin or Baltimore or Toronto. A long history of city planning, the decisions of millions of individuals and thousands of businesses and organisations, political and cultural and social and economic forces lends urban areas a unique fingerprint. In Paris social housing is concentrated in the banlieues or suburbs that form a ring around the centre of the city, whereas in London social housing is woven into the fabric of the city. The result can be intense spots next to each other, or softer scattered blobs.

Universities are actors that make decisions but simultaneously are themselves shaped by wider forces. Dublin City University is in a historically poorer part of the city whereas Trinity College Dublin is right in the centre, forging their own unique heatmap signatures. In Toronto the four main universities have very different footprints and very different heatmap signatures. In London, three universities that may be seen by some as institutionally similar are engaging in vast campus expansions in new areas of the city. The heat signatures for UCL, Imperial and Kings College London will show a new, emerging concentration of heat in their new campuses, a second centre of gravity which – depending on what you are measuring and the success of their developments – may over time have implications for their existing sites, the surrounding areas and all the bits in-between. London South Bank University is focusing on working with local partners such as further education colleges in the borough of Southwark; again, the signature for LSBU would look quite different to UCL. Precisely where you are located matters.

Heatmaps may also be a good way of visualising activity on the ‘periphery’ – a focus of recent academic inquiry from higher education to smart cities.

A US university's campus map...
A US university’s campus map…
...with a fictional heatmap
…with a fictional heatmap

Is there a dark side to universities?

Not all university impact and engagement is positive. Complaints may be relatively trivial – from students taking over too many houses to making too much noise or not paying enough local taxes. But they can also be more serious criticisms: universities that exacerbate ‘existing cleavages of class and race’ in the race to redevelop and expand their campus, or otherwise reproduce wider inequalities in society. Such conversations often emerge when universities embark on urban regeneration projects – a prime candidate for heat mapping – and the debate often intersects with wider discussions of gentrification and community identity.

The Guardian explored some of these issues earlier this year in coverage of Johns Hopkins University’s ambitious development plans in east Baltimore. The piece quoted several locals:

“This is gentrification, a big institution pushing out a vulnerable community for its benefit,” says Lawrence Brown, a critical urbanist who teaches in the school of community health and policy at Morgan State, Baltimore’s historically black university… Marisela Gomez, a physician and activist in the fight for fair treatment of displaced residents, is blunter. “Every community that’s black and brown and low-income in Baltimore is at risk.”

There’s also an acceptance that the city needs the university. “We need Hopkins to succeed, because that’s the anchor institution in east Baltimore” says the leader of the ‘Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development’ group. And the university recognises the interdependence of the university and the city: “It is inconceivable that Hopkins would remain a pre-eminent institution in a city that continues to suffer decline”.

Baltimore rowhouses (image credit)http://baltophoto.org/rowhouse-5167-BPXN3IC8V
Baltimore rowhouses (image credit)

Needless to say, mapping such interactions needs to be supported by broad contextualisation. And ideally mapping would reflect some other, significant, changes taking place, such as a blurring of the edges around the campus:

With fences, skywalks and forbidding facades broken by loading docks, the medical campus sent hostile signals to its surroundings, and got hostility in return. Assault and theft were common; beggars set up at traffic lights. “Fundamentally it was a hunker-down strategy,” [Ron] Daniels [president of Johns Hopkins University] says. “The traditional thinking was that the best way to protect the university was to ensure that its perimeters were effectively controlled, and that you were creating safe zones within them.” … By contrast, the new office and lab buildings in the EBDI [East Baltimore Development Initiative] feel like they welcome – and want to generate – foot traffic. It is nothing fancy: ground floor retail, some steps and patios, small setbacks creating spaces to meet and gather.

Messiness and other issues

The shift from forbidding facades to open spaces could be tricky to map, as could other ‘novel’ sites such as mixed-use buildings that combine shops, cinemas and lecture theatres, or – to give an example from northern England – five-a-side football pitches on prime university estate to get young people comfortable being on campus.

There are other limitations. Maps can be stubbornly one-dimensional: they often show a fixed point in time, whereas patterns will change from day to night and times of the year. Unless they can show effectiveness or durability or inclusivity there is a risk of giving the illusion of successful engagement; some projects could create bold heat maps despite having largely negative effects.

With the development of ‘smart cities’ you can, in real time, transpose data onto the map. Although sensor information may show supposed engagement, the data is technical and the metrics unlikely to accurately reflect social realities. Maps need to capture phenomena such as ‘splintering urbanism’, whereby urban infrastructure can drive social and spatial inequality.

Lastly, consideration should be given to how to represent regional, national and international dimensions. To pick just one facet of international links, universities that are close to global flight hubs perform better in league tables, and cheap flights mean more research partnerships; similarly places with a direct flight to Silicon Valley raise more venture capital. But these links won’t benefit all people in the city or parts of the university and a heatmap could help us consider how benefits can be spread further.

If you want yet more reading, here’s a short article recently published by NCEE where I set out the long-term focus universities can bring to planning.

Main image adapted from photo on Unsplash

…and then they all ran into the sea

Without new talent, cities will die

Paul Krugman, Nobel prize winning economist and long-time columnist for The New York Times, is also one of the fathers of New Economic Geography. NEG is described as ‘One Economic Theory to Explain Everything’ by a Bloomberg columnist in a handy explainer.

Anyway, I was reading a transcript of a conversation between Krugman and Masahisa Fujita (another parent of NEG) in the journal Papers in Regional Science. Just before the end there’s this helpful reminder of why protectionism and closed borders is so bad for cities:

…agglomeration of a large number of heterogeneous people (essentially, professional workers with heterogeneous skills/knowledge) in a city or industrial district can naturally be expected to contribute to the diffusion, generation/innovation, and accumulation of knowledge, and hence to economic growth. This would certainly be true in the short-run. But this is not assured in the long-run unless there is a sufficient infusion of new blood. (pp.161-162)

Economic growth relies upon new people who help to develop new ideas – clearly endangered by the likes of Brexit. On a lighter note, the transcript (recorded in Puerto Rico) ends as follows:

K: Of course, I agree with you. But, …
I: Hey Paul! Why are standing up? Where are you going?
K: Talking under the Caribbean sun for over two hours has literally fuelled my now burning desire to jump into that ocean.
F: Yeah, all I can think of now is to savour this Caribbean moment with a quick dip and a large beer under the cool shade.
K and F (in unison): Hasta la vista!
Sounds of two big splashes 
I: … Hey, Paul, Masa! Wait for me!
Another big splash is heard, followed by hearty laughter

How to create print-quality maps using open source software

Using QGIS and Natural Earth Data to make bespoke maps

I’ve always been a fan of maps, from an illustrated picture atlas of the world that I used to pore over as a child, to a battered USSR-era Cyrillic map of Somalia that I bought from an antique store in Estonia. I also enjoy reading about maps – from the excellent exposition of global politics via ten maps in Prisoners of Geography to articles about the creation of Google Maps. It turns out creating maps is also quite fun.

In the past I have used online tools such as Stamen maps, using OpenStreetMap data, or the Google Maps-based Snazzy Maps. But for bespoke print-quality map creation you need to turn to GIS software.

Introducing QGIS and Natural Earth Data

I was inspired to try QGIS, an open source programme available to download here, after reading an interview with Steven Bernard, Interactive Design Editor at the Financial Times, and seeing examples of the finished maps he had created.

Steven has an excellent YouTube walkthrough guide that I recommend following from start to finish. It takes you through downloading QGIS and installing Natural Earth data to advanced styling and designing animated markers.

You build upon a blank map of the world:

Map 01

Which quickly grows in complexity:

Map 02

I needed to create a map showing four specific European cities, and so the map needed refining and tidying. Here’s the final map in QGIS:

Which can then be exported at print resolution, or (in this case) exported as a SVG file for editing in a vector graphics programme. This allows the labels to be adjusted and other visual tweaks made.

QGIS is a hugely powerful program offering a great deal of customisation. The user manual is 420 pages and perhaps best works as a backup reference, with the YouTube walkthrough offering an accessible way to jump in and create your first map.

Political trends vs. universities and regions

Three recent perspectives foresee important roles for universities and cities

How might universities and city regions respond to the rifts in the population and apparent rise of populism exposed by Trump and Brexit? From the cacophony of reporting on the consequences of the political events of 2016, three recent perspectives caught my eye. All emphasise the need to better understand the roles of regions and universities.

Cities and bottom-up innovation

Bruce Katz calls for cities and metropolitan areas to power the United States forward under a Trump administration:

A wide range of policies relating to taxes, trade, the environment, immigration, infrastructure, and health care seem likely to be upended. But some things will stay the same—metropolitan areas will continue to drive our national economy forward, and they will remain the geographies most capable of bridging the partisan divisions that plague our national politics. In both of these respects, local leadership will now be more important than ever…

Over the next several years, the hard business of investing in the future and uniting the nation will not be conducted in Washington. Rather it will occur in our localities, where leaders and residents in our cities, suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas will work together to find common ground and purpose.

Universities as the main links between nations

Philip Altbach and Hans de Wit look to history:

Will we see again a de-Europeanization and nationalization of higher education in Europe emerging, in the light of greater criticism of European integration, the growth of nationalist populist movements, and tensions between Russia and western Europe and the United States?

Academic cooperation and exchange have been in many cases, including during the Cold War, the main relations between nations: they continued to take place and even were stimulated so as to pave the way for further contacts. We have to learn from these lessons. International higher education is substantially different from earlier historical periods, as well as from the Cold War. Its scope is also different, with increasing political and academic power influences from other regions of the world, especially Asia. But, even though we should be realistic that international cooperation and exchange are not guarantees for peace and mutual understanding, they continue to be essential mechanisms for keeping communication open and dialogue active.

A resurgence of regional enterprise

An editorial in Regional Studies provides an unusually speculative forecast for an academic journal (the piece is worth reading in full):

The implications for cities and regions of the fracturing of the international order are highly uncertain. Resurgent popular nationalism would have profound consequences for all territories by inhibiting foreign direct investment (FDI), external trade and access to scarce skills, and forcing more reliance on local capabilities and domestic production. Some argue that a reversal of globalization would dampen economic progress and suppress opportunities for the world’s poorest places and populations. Alternatively, patriotic impulses that challenge ossified structures and global cartels could provoke a resurgence of regional enterprise and organic growth. Well-conceived policy reforms that disrupt business inertia could engender another Schumpeterian wave of innovation and creativity based on smaller-scale production. Dynamic regional multipliers might be spurred by efforts to localize resource flows so as to secure the supply of food and scarce materials, to cut energy consumption and to regenerate degraded ecosystems. Enhanced democratic constraints on business short-termism may also curb financial speculation and encourage longer-term investment in the real economy.

Furthermore, international disengagement might serve to bolster local and regional identities and renew a sense of place and belonging. This could elevate the obligations on civic leaders and rebuild confidence in the role of city and regional institutions. Against this, heightened perceptions of fear and insecurity could foster a ‘new tribalism’ through separatist movements, ethnic tensions, insurgent splinter groups and other inward-looking forces that escalate conflict and pull countries and regions apart. Much depends on whether democratic institutions are capable of responding to the genuine concerns of citizens and can meld different interests and values together in pursuit of shared agendas and collective solutions. Meanwhile, if the Paris climate deal leads to restrictions on fossil fuel extraction in favour of clean energy, this could make many regions reliant on oil, gas and coal reserves vulnerable to stranded assets and obsolete power generation systems. The case for regional studies is accentuated rather than diminished in all these scenarios. Systematic analyses of how different territories are adapting to the unravelling of globalization and introducing more holistic and resilient strategies to cope with the turbulence are urgently needed.

In other news, I have written a short piece for KPMG on a new era of university-city partnerships. A longer piece will follow later this year.

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

Engines and Powerhouses evidence published

In what now seems like the distant past, before the Brexit vote and the change of government, the House of Commons launched an inquiry looking at the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine and government policy towards regional growth. (You can read my thoughts on the Northern Powerhouse post-referendum here).

The written submissions to the inquiry have just been published. Of the 50 submissions, a quick count suggests that least a quarter are written by a university, a university group, or an institute based out of a university. Clearly universities are taking the regional growth agenda seriously.

Following the change of government, the committee will now look ‘more broadly at Industrial Strategy, rather than focussing on specific regional models’. Hopefully some of the good practice and lessons learned around forming strong regional links will be taken forward.

Work by Centre for Cities, looking at lessons learned from the Rhine-Ruhr (Germany) and Randstad (Netherlands) regions, found that these areas were successful not because of transport connections between their respective cities, but that ‘strong regional economies require strongly performing cities at their heart’, with a high concentration of knowledge-based businesses and highly skilled workers. This perhaps explains the high level of university engagement with regional policy in the UK.

The Rhine-Ruhr and Randstad regions were part of the inspiration for the Northern Powerhouse. Hopefully the importance of knowledge and skills as the basis for strong economies won’t be lost with a wider focus on Industrial Strategy rather than specific regional models.

I wrote Universities UK’s submission to the inquiry – read it here.

Photo: Kranhaus, Cologne on Flickr

Is connectivity important for universities?

Just as isolated cities will struggle to attract skilled workers and international businesses, universities that aren’t connected will struggle to become conduits of knowledge

The central paradox of the modern metropolis is that ‘proximity has become ever more valuable as the cost of connecting across long distance has fallen’, writes Ed Glaeser in Triumph of the City. Proximity means people, businesses and universities are packed closely together, enabling new ideas to grow, knowledge to spread and innovation to flourish. Although video conferencing may be free, ideas spread better face-to-face. The growth of knowledge allows the city to triumph.

This thinking isn’t new. In 1890 Alfred Marshall wrote:

When an industry has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same skilled trade get from near neighbourhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously. Good work is rightly appreciated, inventions and improvements in machinery, in processes and the general organization of the business have their merits promptly discussed: if one man starts a new idea, it is taken up by others and combined with suggestions of their own; and thus it becomes the source of further new ideas.

However, this is not to say that connectivity isn’t important: connectivity is vital for cities.1 Dense, local knowledge economies need to be connected to global markets; they need to be, returning to Gleaser’s analysis, ‘conduits for knowledge’. For example, Bangalore is an ‘urban education hub’, a concentration of IT firms and thousands of skilled workers, and a conduit for knowledge through the co-location of local and international businesses. In a virtuous cycle, the proximity of skilled workers and knowledge firms in turn increases the city’s attractiveness to international businesses and its connectivity.

Connected universities

Higher education underpins these knowledge economies through research, education and training, and providing a space for innovation and creativity. But how important is it for universities themselves to be connected?

Universities can help improve their locality, but also transcend it

Universities are ideally positioned to bridge local, national and international. With their local roots (and many universities were founded to serve their community) and their wider institutional, research and alumni networks, universities can help improve their locality, but also transcend it to help connect their locality to the wider world. And just as isolated cities will struggle to attract skilled workers and international businesses and find it difficult to develop a knowledge-based economy, those universities that aren’t connected will struggle to become conduits of knowledge.2

Bangalore2

Measuring connectivity

I was interested to read that the two largest falls in the 2016 Universitas 21 ranking of national higher education systems were Canada, down three places to ninth, and Bulgaria, down five places to 48th, due mainly to a ‘fall in ranking on connectivity’. The methodology defines connectivity as ‘the two-way flow of information between the higher education sector and the rest of society’. A closer look shows that Canada actually performed quite well on this measure (top ranked for connectivity are Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, the United Kingdom and Belgium) but Sweden and Hungary fell. There are six measures for connectivity:

  1. Proportion of international students in tertiary education, 2013.
  2. Proportion of articles co-authored with international collaborators, 2013.
  3. Number of open access full text files on the web, per head of population, July 2015.
  4. External links that university web domains receive from third parties, per head of population, 2015.
  5. Responses to question ‘Knowledge transfer is highly developed between companies and universities’, asked of business executives in the annual survey by IMD World Development Centre, Switzerland, 2015.
  6. Percentage of university research publications that are co-authored with industry researchers, 2011-13.

In a future post I will brainstorm a wider range of possible connectivity measures. For example, these measures don’t capture connections between city governments and universities. These don’t necessarily need to be international; good connectivity means smaller cities are well linked to their larger neighbours. UN Habitat’s 2016 World Cities Report notes that:

The only certainty about the next few decades is that… uncertainty and risk will become permanent features of society and governance, and this Report argues in favour of “a city that plans,” as opposed to a planned city. Consequently, institutions must also be endowed with the capacity to learn and adapt on a continuous basis. This requires pro-active investment in dynamic regional innovation systems, ideally buttressed by effective metropolitan authorities. If they are, as required, to promote resource-efficient built environments and underlying infrastructures, local governments must support regional innovation systems that connect “green” businesses, universities, think-tanks, social movements, social entrepreneurs and State-owned enterprises. Where these are in short supply locally, agreements can be made with larger urban centres in the country or in other parts of the world. (p.119)

Often universities are at the centre of knowledge economies, or innovation districts. Their exact location is important, yet so are their wider connections. Well-connected cities will often have well-connected universities at their core, and a well-connected university will support – and be supported by – a connected city.

For universities, as with cities, proximity does count, but so does connectivity.

Photo Credit: Bangalore Junctions by Scalino via Compfight cc


  1. And growing in importance. In a book about connected cities, Parag Khanna writes that ‘connectivity is destiny’. ‘Diplomacy among cities is the return of an ancient pattern. But it also dis-intermediates state structures. Cities building physical and institutional connectivity among each other, as well as growing demographic and economic power, is how they become the drivers of this new system’. (See also, ‘are interregional relations the new international relations?’
  2. I would stress that a connected university does not necessarily equal a research-intensive university. Many business-facing institutions or those focussed on opening opportunities to disadvantaged local communities excel in their mission because they are able to lever wider connections in their work. 

Are interregional relations the new international relations?

Universities can link important second-tier cities that are often growing faster and are more innovative

Relations between regions will be the new international relations. The diplomats of the future will represent cities. That, at least, is my hypothesis based on two trends:

  1. The focus on cities as emerging units of governance, taking on the problem-solving responsibilities traditionally held by nations. I’ve written about this before (for example here). The focus on cities is due to more than population growth and new buildings, which we often associate with the term urbanisation. Yes, cities are growing. But they are also political actors and centres of ideas and innovation.

  2. The need for these cities to work with each other. I’ve written about this here. Agglomeration economics are not new – the northeast megalopolis in the US is a prime example – but relations also need to stretch beyond individual clusters.

Similarly, there has been quite a lot of attention paid recently to universities and place, but not so much on how universities work with other universities and partners across and between places, and the connecting role they have between local, national and international. The focus on cities and their connections magnifies the importance of universities in cities, and the connections they can help broker.

Two recent articles in Times Higher Education mirror this. The first frames universities as problem solvers. Michael Crow writes:

…universities should take responsibility for the betterment of society; that we can and should be measured by the impact that we have on the public good… Education should move beyond singular academic disciplines as the point of focus and towards multidisciplinary programmes and schools capable of understanding and solving complicated real-world problems.

Second, Clare Melhuish references historian Thomas Bender, who

has compared urban universities to immigrant neighbourhoods in US cities, where residents live in both local place and in a trans-local, diasporic culture at the same time – grounded, while globally connected. From this perspective, universities need to develop a long-term view of how they nurture and evolve those everyday interactions.

In a recent post I asked what might happen if we were to frame development in terms of cities (and the towns in their orbit and the spaces that separate them) rather than nations. Here are four initial thoughts:

  1. Networks of cities (such as this one or this one) will greatly increase in importance. Most people would struggle to name a group that brings together city or regional leaders, but there are countless well-known examples of gatherings for heads of state. I think international networks of cities are in their infancy and will greatly grow in profile and influence.

  2. Similarly, bilateral relationships between cities and regions become more significant. There is growing evidence of this. To take an example of relationships between British and Chinese cities: earlier this month a Confucius Institute opened at Coventry University, a new collaboration between the university and a longstanding partner – Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics (JUFE) in Nanchang. And there are already smart city collaborations between Bristol and Guangzhou, and between Manchester and Wuhan.

  3. Freed from the constraints of nations, we start to think about groups of people. For example, the pioneering work of Andy Sumner found that 72% of the world’s poorest people live in middle income rather than low income countries (in particular India). In part this work helped increase the focus on inequality and highlighted that poverty is often a distribution problem between regions in countries rather than an international distribution problem.

  4. Development issues don’t conform to nation states. Simon Maxwell, the former director of the UK-based Overseas Development Institute, recently gave a speech exploring development agency choices in a new landscape. Reflecting on the shrinking number of low-income countries, he talks about development agencies focusing less on specific ‘target’ countries (except, perhaps, the small group of ‘fragile’ states) and more on the ‘essential building blocks’ of global public goods. These include preventing the emergence and spread of infectious disease, tackling climate change, enhancing international financial stability, strengthening the international trading system, achieving peace and security, and generating knowledge – all challenges that cross borders and require extensive cooperation. He concludes:

the emphasis on global public goods suggests turning an old mantra on its head: not ‘think global, act local’, but ‘think local, act global’.

Universities already have strong links across regions, and in particular international links that aren’t solely between one capital city and another. They link between the important second-tier cities that are often growing faster and are more innovative, but have a lower profile. They draw on alumni, research, staff and institutional relationships. They think local and act global. They can play an important role in facilitating new regional connections.

Photo Credit: Shenzhen cityscape by BBC World Service on Flickr

Brain drain and mobile talent: where international development and higher education overlap

Efforts to improve retention or to attract skilled people will fail if the place itself isn’t an attractive destination to live and work

Development practitioners call it brain drain. In higher education it’s called graduate retention. In the UK difficulties in retaining graduates in most cities outside of London is an obstacle to rebalancing the economy – a recent study found 15 graduates leave Yorkshire for London for every one moving the other way. In development-speak, brain drain from one country to another is traditionally seen as leading to a ‘human capital’ deficit in the migrant’s home country.

In some cases, an exodus of skilled workers has been encouraged. Devash Kapur explains how Zimbabwe, under the leadership of Robert Mugabe, has encouraged migration of ‘disgruntled groups’ to maintain authoritarian rule. Much of the Zimbabwean middle class, having the financial means to migrate, has fled to South Africa. Such migration benefits Mugabe, who maintains power and minimises opposition, whilst Zimbabwe receives remittances from the diaspora in South Africa, and South Africa benefits from skilled workers (in particular demand as many highly trained South Africans in turn have emigrated elsewhere).

Others such as Easterly and Nyarko argue that there could be some upsides to brain drain. A few examples:

The migrants themselves are better off, by revealed preference since migration is voluntary.

The migrants may send remittances back to boost the incomes of those left behind.

The migrants may have a positive effect on politics or institutions from abroad.

The migrants may facilitate trading networks that increase source-country exports to the destination country.

I admire work that challenges conventional thinking, and I think most of this analysis holds up at both the level of the individual, and at a macro or national level. What’s missing is the gap in-between: the impact on those places beyond the capital city, the ‘second tier’ cities, the towns and rural areas who lose their skilled workers and human capital. The retention of skilled workers in towns and cities outside the capital allows these places to become sustainable generators of their own human capital, training and educating the next generation who will work and study there, and in turn help that place to grow and to prosper. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Another argument worth exploring from Easterly and Nyarko is this one:

The migrants may return home permanently or temporarily, bringing back technology.

If we substitute ‘technology’ for ‘skills’ (and other assets like networks and experience of other systems and cultures), similar arguments are made for higher education in the UK. Graduates move to London for their first job after graduating, but return to their home town – perhaps to start a family, or buy a house – for their second, third or fourth job. The graduates return more ‘valuable’ than they left, and the town benefits. Similarly, students studying abroad will return to opportunities at home, as seen in Asia. There is a ‘boomerang’ effect, with short-term investments giving medium-term returns.

There’s been some recent work on the role universities can play in retaining skilled graduates, and to help areas retain the skills and knowledge that are needed locally. About 18 months ago the City Growth Commission looked at the role of universities in ‘metro areas’. One recommendation proposed ‘golden handcuffs’ to retain graduates through monetary or other incentives. Another – and I think more promising – recommendation was to establish a graduate clearing scheme to funnel good-but-unsuccessful job applications to large graduate recruiters towards small enterprises. And last month, the Government Office for Science looked at graduate mobility, drawing on five case studies of excellent work by universities fostering entrepreneurship, matching supply and demand, working with SMEs, and using data to improve retention.

Ultimately, efforts to improve retention or to attract skilled people from elsewhere will fail if the place itself isn’t an attractive destination to live and work. Universities clearly play a role here too. Work by KPMG describes ‘Magnet Cities’ that attract the young wealth creators of tomorrow, and in turn create an air of energy and excitement about a place. Several of the examples highlight the role of universities. The Government Office for Science report above talks about the importance of ‘place attractiveness’. A recent book, ‘The Smartest Places on Earth’, argues that depleted industrial centres in the US and Europe are reinventing themselves, with the help of universities, as innovation centres that can solve the problems of the future.

Migration is, of course, highly complex, with large cities also suffering from talent deficits in particular areas, masked by overall trends in movement. In London, creative experts are leaving for more affordable cities. Some commentators encourage the term ‘brain circulation’ to reflect this. Perhaps, above all else, mobility should be prioritised – it shouldn’t matter whether a graduate remains in his or her town after graduating, but rather that the town attracts those people with the skills needed for its development, regardless of where they are from.

Anchor tenants

It may not always be enough to be within a particular city. Sometimes it matters exactly where you are

When the Grand Central shopping centre in Birmingham opened alongside a redeveloped New Street Station in September 2015, a fair amount of the fanfare was directed towards John Lewis, the ‘anchor tenant’ in the development. The Birmingham Mail described 2015 as the year that changed Birmingham forever and highlighted the arrival of the store. And John Lewis themselves were quick to capitalise on the attention focused on the city’s regeneration, commissioning ‘the largest panoramic photograph ever taken of the city’s changing skyline’ (it’s worth a look).

Anchor tenants are highly prized in retail – they bring prestige and draw in crowds, who often spend money in other shops and restaurants in the area. They encourage other shops and businesses to move in to the area. They invest heavily, are large employers and are there for the long-term. In return they may pay lower rent than surrounding shops.

There are strong parallels between anchor tenants in retail and the role of universities as anchor institutions in cities. Here, I pick out a few examples of universities who closely resemble ‘anchor tenants’ – investing heavily in the area and becoming a core part of the identity of the city, and in turn shape its character. They are all significant economic actors, employing large numbers of people and tying their future to that of the area and the people that will visit, study and live in it. There are two key themes: the long-term nature of the anchor role, and the immediate co-location with either government, the public sector, or significant transport and infrastructure hubs.

1. Dublin, Ireland

Dublin

Trinity College Dublin (red) sits next to the Irish Houses of Parliament (blue). On the other side of the campus sit the National Library and the National Gallery. For a member of parliament to speak to an academic, or a student to sit in on a debate, they simply need to cross College Green.

2. Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki

The main university building (red) sits to one side of Senate Square. Opposite is the Prime Minister’s Office (blue), and overlooking the square and visible from sea is Helsinki Cathedral (yellow). The university departments and facilities are scattered in an arc behind the square, but this is the symbolic heart of the city.

3. Accra, Ghana

Accra

Although the University of Ghana has its main campus at Legon, 12km north of the city centre, it also has a smaller campus in the city centre (red), near to several government ministries (blue), the African Development Bank, the National Theatre and the International Conference Centre (yellow).

4. Birmingham, England

Birmingham

You don’t need to be built as part of the original city centre development to be an anchor tenant. We return to Birmingham, but this time to a different station – Curzon Street. Birmingham City University (BCU) is investing heavily in Birmingham’s Eastside (red), near the proposed site of the High Speed 2 railway terminal (blue). BCU is anticipating the future, and actively shaping it – in this case by helping establish a college for rail engineering.

There are thousands more examples throughout the world, including universities who are anchor institutions in smaller towns and cities. Some have been deliberately placed by city planners hundreds of years ago next to government buildings. Others are pre-empting new hearts of cities. Some have a central presence that links to external sites (we can also see this with university satellite campuses in London, for example). Whether the buildings themselves are new or old, the planning is long term.

My initial impression is that ‘micro-location’ counts. That is, it may not always be enough to be within a particular city. Sometimes it matters exactly where you are – if you are across the road from parliament, you are likely to be consulted ahead of institutions further out. And if you take the initiative and build in an area of potential strategic importance, and invest heavily, and have room for expansion, business and industry will co-locate with you.