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local development

Cities’ Elusive Quest for a Post-Industrial Future

Stefano Negri's picture

What do rusting industrial cities have in common with outmoded BlackBerries? In this era of constant technological progress, talent mobility and global competition, it's striking how many similarities can be drawn between cities and companies, and the need for both to continuously adjust their industrial strategies to avoid oblivion or bankruptcy.

Cities can lose their vigor and vitality just as surely as a once-hot product can lose its cutting-edge cool. RIM, the maker of the the once-ubiquitous BackBerry,
has been leapfrogged by companies with more nimble technologies; Kodak, once synonymous with photography, went bankrupt when it failed to make the transition
from film to digital. The roll call of withering cities – once proud, yet now reduced to rusting remnants – shows how cities, like companies, can lose their historic raison d’etre if they fail to hone their competitive edge.

Heavy industries like steelmaking and automobile assembly once powered some of the world’s mightiest economic urban areas: Traditional manufacturing industries shaped their identity, giving their citizens income and pride. But globalization, competition, shifting trade patterns and changing consumer trends are continuously reshaping the competitive landscape, with dramatic impact on cities and people. Over the past century, industrialized regions like the Ruhr Valley of Germany, the Midlands of Great Britain and the north of France – along with the older shipbuilding cities around the Baltic and North Seas, and the mono-industrial cities of the former Soviet Union – have struggled to make the transition to different industries or toward a post-industrial identity. Their elusive quest for a post-industrial future has had a dramatic impact on their citizens.

The same issue has become daunting in recent decades for aging manufacturing regions in the United States, which have suffered the prolonged erosion of their industrial-era vibrancy. That kind of wrenching change is bound to soon confront other cities in the developing world, as they struggle to adapt their urban cores, civic infrastructure and industrial strategies to an era that puts a higher premium on nimble cognitive skills and advanced technologies than on bricks-and-mortar factories, blast furnaces and big-muscle brawn.

For fast-growing cities in the global South, many of which are urgently seeking solutions amid their sudden urban growth, there could be many lessons in the experience of older cities in the developed world in making such a transition.

A series of recent conferences among urban policymakers and practitioners – backed by a wide range of rigorous academic research and practical client-focused experience in building competitiveness – provide insights that city leaders and the World Bank Group’s practitioners can leverage as they craft programs for transformative urban strategies. 

Seoul Goes Local in Development

Sujoyini Mandal's picture

A recent EASIN Urban, Transport and DRM Community of Practice (CoP) meeting I attended in Seoul, South Korea was an eye opener in terms of the rapid urban development of the city of Seoul.  Considered an East Asian tiger, manufacturing and an export-led economy have made Seoul a global city with neon skylines and the new focus of Asia’s technology boom. A presentation by Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG), the agency responsible for the city’s urban planning, describes the city as a ‘strategic space for people to reside in since ancient times’. Nevertheless, the city and its urban identity have gone through various transformations – through the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) to restoration after the Korean war (1950-53) to industrialization (1960s-1970s) to development and globalization. In SMG’s words, Seoul is witnessing the ‘environmental and historical awakening as a world city’. Evidence of this was seen in sites I visited to the restored Cheonggyecheon stream and a former landfill converted to Haneul Park.

Small Is Beautiful in Job Creation

Otaviano Canuto's picture

Investing more on roads, bridges and schools is an essential part of President Obama's American Jobs Act. If this is important in the current U.S. context, the role of both infrastructure and education in job creation is even more fundamental in developing countries, where there's much more to be done than in the U.S.