I’d like to begin this month’s column by asking a question. How could it be that cities with broadly comparable attributes enjoy varying levels of success on the global stage?
Take two cities with apparently similar fundamentals: population size, geographic advantages and disadvantages, business climate and overarching national contexts. What could cause such seemingly evenly matched cities to enjoy varying fortunes in the global race for talent and investment? What are the hidden factors behind the hard facts that could explain the disparity?
It could be explained by the manner in which cities present themselves to the world. Some are simply better known and more celebrated than others. These cities – think London, Paris, New York – have successfully carved out a place for themselves in the popular imagination. They have, in effect, written their own legend. Of course, the legend is not based solely in fiction: these cities have been observed to be good at certain things, consistently over time. But often they have also invested in their reputation to the degree that, when they do tell their story, it is doubly believable. Any inspiring embellishments about what they are and what they offer are taken in good faith; they have earned the benefit of the doubt.
Another explanation might be that certain cities have been better able to harness a spirit of invention than others. By design or happenstance local people and businesses have done things differently, been successful, and achieved competitive advantages as a result. As inventive people tend to seek environments conducive to creativity, such cities’ track records of success often ensure that their success can perpetuate. We might look to Barcelona in the 1990’s for an example of how this virtuous circle can work. There, urban regeneration schemes linked to the 1992 Olympics used individual neighbourhoods, in all their quirky uniqueness, to narrate the city’s story. This emphasis on giving grassroots culture a voice set the place apart; to this day, it remains a premier destination for inspired young artists and designers. We witness a similar phenomenon today in Copenhagen. The Danish capital, having committed to becoming the world’s first carbon neutral metropolis, has become a magnet for the brightest minds in the field of sustainability.