The Soul of the City

Strindberg“Oh! The practise of the time is to tear down houses! But to rebuild? That is frightening! We are tearing down to get air and light; Is not that enough?“
August Strindberg – The Esplanade System poem, 1883

We have written last week about London’s first place at the Wealth Report as a place of excellence for the Worlds Super Rich to be. The Wealth Report is one of a new phenomena of rankings, and there are a lot of others like the Mercer Quality of Living, Brookings Global Metro Monitor, KPMG´s Competitive Alternatives, IESE´s Cities of Motion Index and PWC´s Cities of Opportunity (PWC), to mention a few.

Basically all these quality of life rankings reflects the particular interests, for whom this measurements will be beneficial for big corporations, entrepreneurs, investors, decision makers and policy makers within their frames of references, as the city of Barcelona exemplifies with the advertisement below, from Monocle in March 2015. To read the text you can download the advertisement here.


Hundreds of different rankings are published and updated every year. They continuously assess and measure places, regions and countries using hundreds of parameters and indicators, from quality of living to gender empowerment, to identify the winners in specific categories and establish the standards of excellence. Rankings are widely used by government bodies, corporations and organisations to track performance, trends and opportunities for further analysis and strategic moves.

But what really stands behind the logic and choice of measurement parameters reflects the particular interests of the “customers”, for whom the ranking results will be beneficial. For example, if the ranking is issued keeping in mind the attraction of new businesses, then it will measure "how innovative the place is", what are the benefits for opening new businesses, quality of infrastructure required for these specific new comers, talent attraction factors etc.

But what can be beneficial for one group of "customers” may not be necessarily important for another group.

What is attractive for investors might not be attractive to the tourists or residents and vice versa. What is attractive for policy makers or the big corporations might not be attractive for public. This is a challenge in place branding, how the place communicates its offerings to its preferred target markets.


There is an international ISO 37120:2014 management standard, which defines methodology and indicators for measuring the city services performance in terms of quality of life. In fact as it is created for policy makers, it reflects the city makers understanding of the city excellence standards.

Thus these rankings do not give the objective picture and do not show the "nature" and uniqueness of the city. The results are data-decision based and do not take into account human perceptions and emotions. Even for the advanced in Big Data analytics skills, it’s not easy to numerically describe the intangible factors which make a city attractive, and a real value, brand equity of a place is lost behind the numbers.

clip_image004When one speaks about the recent fashionable concept of “smart city”, we imagine sort of a robot city dense with computerised sensors and remote controlled functions, techno-utopia, and kingdom of “internet of things”. No surprise, taking into account that the global market for smart city functionality, which is now estimated at 1,7 trillion USD, an urban database remains monetized by private companies.

Talking about sustainability, convenience, efficiency and optimization, the city managers (for whom the Smart City ratings are created) forget about the main purpose of the city – to be a place where people live with their choices, preferences and demands highly driven by emotional factors, which is hardly measurable by numbers.

How one can measure “cultural availability”, or express historical heritage and infrastructure as a percentage? Otherwise what is the distinguishing factor between the cities, which have the similar set of attributes: affordable housing, good education, low crime rates, green spaces and connectivity.

_ny_omslag_hela_MB.inddIt is a source of never ending challenges for the place managers and a question of a big complexity to make a city smart in true meaning of this word.

Like in a business company management is a key factor to achieve positive development, as it in the city context involves tangible factors, which are easy to measure and express in numbers, and intangible factors, which are developed and measured with unique tools. The mix of tangible and intangible assets helps to build the attractiveness of a place. We published a book on the subject in 2011.

None of the surprise that the world metropolises such as London, New York and Barcelona remain the places of the true “smart city creativity” and are hugely attractive to all sorts of city target customers: visitors, residents and investors. Many people believe London is the smartest city of them all and not only because of its primary positions in various respectable ratings. These positions are the consequence but not a cause of London’s glorious reputation.

clip_image006Boris Johnson, arguably the most controversial and the most famous mayor in the world, stands behind London’s ambitions for future growth.

It is estimated that until 2021 London’s population will grow roughly by a million of new inhabitants, which is the fastest rate of acceleration ever. “We are going to hit nine million before New York, and approach ten million by 2030”, says Johnson. With these demographic projections, we will have at least another 641,000 jobs, another 800,000 homes, and more than 600,000 extra passengers will need to travel by public transport at peak times by 2031.

There will be the challenge of dealing with increasing waste and meeting extra pressure on healthcare and energy supplies. Additionally London remains a formidable generator of new enterprise, jobs and inward investments and the main concern of the authorities is how to make the capital work even better not only as a service provider for business infrastructure but how to be a better city for all Londoners, and how to be responsive to all their needs.

Since its formation in March 2013 the Smart London Board advised by the Greater London Authority follows its vision for a smarter London and a tangible path to integrate opportunities from new digital technologies into the fabric of London.

And the concept of a smarter London is simple and puts people in the centre of its focus. A smarter London must be “a place in which people want to live, work and play”. And Big Data based intelligent technologies will be employed to serve as an instrument to achieve London’s sustainable prosperity for all its human stakeholders. Isn’t it really Smart?

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