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Blog: Cities Beyond Boris – The New Urban World In Which We Live

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Blog: Cities Beyond Boris – The New Urban World In Which We Live

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We recently launched the University’s new Centre for Social Innovation and Global Public Service with a keynote lecture by Harvard’s Professor Jorrit De Jonge at Lambeth Palace, one of the iconic architectural features of London.

Next week, I will be in Karachi speaking at a conference and exploring city, university and social innovation debates and collaboration with local and national leaders of that great Pakistani country. Then, over the coming weeks, we will see the launch of the government’s new suite of integration policies. The proposals will be watched with interest.

Birmingham, for example, is Europe’s youngest, most diverse and most religious city. This is not a statement about ‘beliefs’ but a social reality through which decision makers have to view a whole raft of policy interventions and economic choices. There the Executive Mayor Andy Street has asked the eminent Sikh social innovator, Amrick Singh, and I to co- chair a major faith and integration summit and process that leads not to ‘more talk’ but concrete steps.

Confirmed at a meeting of the leaders of the combined West Midlands authority, at the end of November 400 West Midlands citizens will gather from every background to feed into new ideas to reduce homelessness, mitigate hate crime, build a more inclusive economy and unlock a fresh generation of younger leaders. The process won’t stop there because the aim is to concretise these efforts into four concrete work strands. Before all that Street he will launch a major public Diwali celebration this coming weekend.

In one sense this is familiar territory as in 2011, I directed the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson’s, ‘Inter-Faith Conference’. But while that event brought together several hundred community leaders and earned interest from the US State Department among many others, the Greater London Authority was at that time not as keen to see diversity as a source of wider community resilience as it and Birmingham are now.

For Boris Johnson it seemed he was talking to a constituency of voters who he would like to get to volunteer for the Olympics rather than a community of putative partners with agency when it came to the concrete policy problems with which London was grappling. Street and the best Mayors globally see their communities as pathways to the global economy, partners in attracting students to their city’s universities and allies in addressing pressing social needs; more than just voting fodder.

Chukka Umunna’s recent cross-party social mobility report noted how the new Mayors of the UK’s great cities could play a striking role in building aspiration. And Sunder Kutwala’s think tank British Future has even gone so far as to lay out a whole agenda for the difference that Mayors could make to building integration and cohesion in every region.

More hawksihly the Mayor of Nice has called for an international conference of Mayors to address the risks of ISIS in the aftermath of attacks on his home. There is lots to learn here globally of course because the Mayoral model of urban leadership is at least as widespread internationally as some of the more committee based approaches that have dominated English local governance until recent times.

Indeed the new urban age in which the majority of humanity now lives is redefining policy, politics and innovation across a swathe of fields and realms of civic endeavour. The work of pioneers in smart tech such as Bristol, Boston and Singapore is enabling better planning, more responsive entrepreneurship and city leaders more flexibly engaged with citizens. Japan and China’s strategic investment in city hubs for science innovation is unlocking even further their lead in the exponentially growing assistive technology market that will be a central feature of ageing societies.

A senior civil servant described to me the other day visiting labs where robots able to carry out many of the functions of care home staff were at an advanced stage of development. Meanwhile, traditional models of state led diplomacy are diluted as Atlanta competes with Amsterdam for aviation and manufacturing investment and Birmingham with the world in order to host the Commonwealth Games.

In turn, and especially in Africa, enduring urban bias uncovers fresh insights on the role of local ‘strong men’ in gate keeping public resources, in access to food and health security, and for political and ethnic stability. The fall of the ANC’s Mayor in Johannesburg presaged the subsequent revelations that even the respected firm Bell Pottinger had become complicit in voluminous failures in governance and ethics.

So as the University’s new Centre launches, as we learn lessons from Pakistan and beyond, and as government’s new integration policies go out the door, it will be important to watch how the cabinet wishes to balance between national initiative and uniformity, and local responsiveness and variety.

It will be critical to assess the extent to which the proposals are set in international context and draw on diverse evidence. In either case it would seem Mayors and Cities in England are already making a striking difference in this field and others and will have a vital role to play – just as they do in the diverse new politics of the new global stage.

Francis Davis is Professor of Social Justice and Innovation in the Management School at St Mary’s and Professor of Communities and Public Policy in the College of Arts and Law at the University of Birmingham. The St Mary’s Centre for Social Innovation and Global Public Service was launched on 4th October.

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