Does a thriving tech sector really benefit a city – or does it just increase inequality?

500m around Silicon Roundabout. Is this as far as its benefits stretch? Image: Google Maps.

The tech sector has been making its presence felt in many larger cities for a number of years now, and in an uncertain era is proving to be one of the dynamos behind the “next economy”. That’s a good thing right? More jobs, more money, smarter cities?

Well, yes – but who exactly is it a good thing for?

Some of the cities that profess to be the smartest, most data driven, tech paradises – London and San Francisco come to mind – have both a flourishing tech sector and high levels of inequality. How smart are these cities, really, if they are teeming grounds of unfairness?

Research shows that, left to its own devices, the tech industry can be quiet self contained, producing an insular organism with few spillover benefits for the wider city. Positive externalities from tech clusters can be highly localised: spending by firms tends to occur in a particular zone, sometimes in a radius as small as 500m of their base. (This of course differs with location.)

Nevertheless there is a global trend of tech growth leading to one part of the city benefitting disproportionately, creating gentrified ghettoes and social tension of the sort witnessed in San Francisco. Tech growth in the Bay Area has driven property prices to levels far out of kilter with the average local salary, pricing out smaller firms, and costing the city infrastructure funding due to tax exemptions and privately run transport services.

This need not be the case. Tech is not an untameable force of nature. Its impact on a city and who gets to share in its potential benefits are grounded in the choices we make as a society. The question is, as as a tech industry grows, what are the best policy decisions to enhance opportunities on offer to the greatest number of people?

Experience shows that, if there is proactive leadership and public decision making about who should feel the benefits of tech growth, then it can be balanced across a city.

Take Chicago, where mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s office has formulated “The City Technology Plan”. It provides long-term strategies to use the burgeoning tech sector to enhance social as well as economic opportunity for Chicagoans. The main strategies include building a next generation digital infrastructure; fostering tech education through 2smart communities”; and providing for efficient and open government, and civic innovation.

The primary goal of the plan is to provide social and economic opportunities, with resident engagement, access, and skills – as well as job creation – among the top objectives.  Where there is effective leadership, city-level planning can be instrumental in ensuring that the spatial clustering characteristic of tech sector growth leads to positive spill over effects for the whole city.

But it won’t just happen organically; there needs to be planning and engagement if these mutual benefits are to be reaped. City and industry leaders alike need to collaborate and make decisions as to the level and type of interaction between tech growth and the wider city. As the Royal Town Planning Institute has argued, an important function of contemporary planning is recognising and understanding current economic factors and growth trends so that strategic decisions surrounding development add value to the local area. By understanding the needs of a community, planners can assist with achieving successful outcomes by working closely with the private sector, leaders and neighbouring authorities

In The Death and Life of American Cities Jane Jacobs promotes

the need of cities for a most intricate and code grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially... The science of city planning and the art of city design, in real life for real cities, must become the science and art of catalysing and nourishing these close-grained working relationships.

This may mean the creation of new roles at the city level: employing a tech lead in the mayor’s office as has been done in New York, Dublin, and London. However, if this is the route taken, the remit of the city tech lead needs to be wider than just inviting tech companies to locate in the city.

Ideally the tech lead would liaise with city planners who can articulate the issues being faced by the city – such as housing affordability, infrastructure pressures, and skills shortages. Dialogue with industry leaders about their plans may then reveal how the growth of tech could feed into a plan for addressing these issues.

Industry too should to take account of the affect it has on, and what it owes, the city in which it sets up. After all, it is often planned public investments in infrastructure that makes a city attractive to firms and their aspirational employees in the first place. And it’s this that continues to facilitate growth through the creation of what the Brookings Institute’s Bruce Katz has christened “Innovation Districts”:

…mash ups of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments – all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fuelled by caffeine.

Whether or not it is acknowledged to the extent it is in places like Chicago, many cities have a relationship with the tech sector. The more this relationship is formalised, the more likely it is that conscious decisions as to how each can mutually support the other’s goals will be made.

One of the RTPI’s current work streams focuses on the relationship between cities and the tech sector. The project will combine case studies and evidence drawn from interviews and round tables with industry leaders, members of the academic communities, and city planners. Taken together, these will articulate the role planning has to play in creating the kind of places that attract tech – and planning's role in ensuring that the economic growth that emanates from tech clusters benefits the wider metropolitan area.

The huge potential for mutual economic and social support that exists between a city and the tech sector should be nurtured into a collaborative relationship that has as its objectives the provision of public goods – as well as economic growth.

Joe Kilroy is a policy offer at the Royal Town Planning Institute. You can find him on Twiter here.

To find out more about the RTPI’s tech project click here.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.