By Richard Ball
As we progress towards a knowledge-based economy, strategies for economic development must increasingly take into account the importance of place. Here, Richard Ball highlights the importance of diversity and culture in allowing smaller and medium-sized cities to attract and retain the talent and investment in business necessary to compete with larger urban centres.
For those involved at a strategic level in economic development, placemaking as a tool is not new but, as we advance ever closer towards a knowledge-based economy, its time is certainly now. The most important component of this transformation is a much greater reliance on intellectual capital and its application, based on significant advances in communication and other technologies and the management of data. The importance of placemaking is that it plays a much more significant role in current decisions affecting economic development than ever before. As investment and people are now more mobile than ever before, considering the quality of a place becomes ever more important.
Quality places retain and attract skilled and talented people. Talented people like places with natural, community, social, leisure, creative and cultural activities for themselves and their families and, therefore, combining this with effective professional networks and access to resources and opportunities is even more attractive to the entrepreneur looking to exploit intellectual capital. Investment decisions are made by people in terms of their time, talent or money, based upon an assessment of the anticipated benefit or return. Institutions and businesses also make investment decisions according to their own interests and balance sheet objectives, but even these interests are increasingly being directly influenced by place.
Determining what a place-based strategy should focus on starts with identifying what the location provides in terms of key assets, services and growth opportunities that shape day-to-day-life and economic opportunities. There is a series of challenging questions to be answered – are the basic and hopefully higher level elements of living, working and developing the community firmly established? Are the various forms of infrastructure adequate to support a competitive commercial environment? Is there evidence of an enviable comparable quality of life to recognised successful locations? If not, then why would someone consider investing their time, knowledge, expertise or money (including persuading others) in your location given the associated risks connected with each of its shortcomings? Why would anyone wish to invest in a place that cannot demonstrate a will to invest in itself?
Charles Landry emphasises the importance of place to the economy: places need to be “distinctive”, have a recognisable “variety” of people, business, culture, buildings and “flow”, and allow people to choose their own pace and path. The physical and cultural characteristics of a place are most clearly linked to its attraction of talent, business and investment.
The principles and benefits are not complicated but the execution of an effective place-based approach has inherent challenges in view of the complexity necessary. In terms of the knowledge economy, are smaller and medium-sized cities better placed to rise to these challenges? There are key characteristics which are similar to the “Ideopolis” concept promulgated over the last decade, in that an economically successful city-based economy ideally comprises of the following aspects:
• High levels of economic success and knowledge based activity
• A diverse industry base including distinctive specialist niches
• One or more high level research and education institutions that have a mutually beneficial relationship with businesses
• Strong communications infrastructure
• A variety of good transport links with and to other cities, with multi-modal options
• Public and private sector institutions working together
• Strategies to ensure that all communities benefit from the economic success
To illustrate this discussion, the wider Exeter economy has much of this approach established. Its economic performance pre-, during and post-recession are of a place-making approach with credible examples of success. Some aspects are in need of further investment and its most recently approved economic development strategy certainly embraces this approach as fundamental to making the transition to a knowledge economy. Following this approach has resulted in independent studies identifying Exeter as out-performing larger cities within the UK and confirms its beneficial regional economic impact. The creation of high value employment opportunities, attracting and retaining highly skilled workers and graduates, and capitalising on existing strengths and assets are especially important as the city continues to strengthen its economy. Encouragingly, Exeter is outperforming the South West and England in terms of the percentage increase in qualifications amongst workers in the area in the last 10 years.
There are key drivers to establishing a successful knowledge-based economy inextricably linked to placemaking, which the new economic development strategy for Exeter is based upon:
• Creating the physical requirements – having the architecture and accommodation that businesses and workers require
• Building on what’s there – recognising the city’s existing strengths and weaknesses and playing to these
• ‘Smart specialisation’ – focussing on the range of economic specialisms for which there are credible opportunities, particularly in sectors related to big data, climate change mitigation, health, water science and agri-tech
• Attracting and retaining high skill organisations – organisations that rely on productivity through high quality jobs and highly skilled people
• An acclaimed education sector – linked closely with the city and businesses
• A distinctive ‘knowledge city’ offer – for businesses and people who are considering investing, working and living in the city, supported by a diverse cultural offer
• Maintaining and improving strong connectivity within and outside the city economic area with major economic hubs
• Strong leadership – around an economic vision supported by proactive networks and partnerships
• A business-friendly and pro-growth local administration
It is crucial that support is provided to create the right environment to attract and retain talent, to foster entrepreneurship and to enable technology transfer to those smaller and medium-sized places that can offer an equally complete, if not more affordable, package to secure growth in investment and employment away from massive metropolitan areas. It’s not about spreading the jam thinly but focussing on the value for money return such locations really do offer.
For a flavour of how Exeter is pursuing this agenda, please go to this link www.exeter.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=13847
About the Author
Richard Ball is Assistant Director of Economy at Exeter City Council.