US lessons for UK metro mayors: the hard impact of soft power

Louisville mayor Greg Fischer, one of this column's authors, speaks at a memorial following the death of native son Muhammad Ali last year. Image: Getty.

In May, Britain will hold elections for metro mayors in six metropolitan areas as part of a broader push toward devolution. Most focus has been on the formal powers the nation is devolving to this new position.

That is appropriate: the power of US mayors owes much to the fact that city governments have the ability to raise taxes and other local revenue and to set their own budgets. They also have the responsibility to appoint the heads of multiple influential agencies and authorities and the freedom to innovate locally while reaping the benefits of smart governance.

Yet, as a current US mayor and an advisor to mayors across the United States, we both know that the impact of the office is greater than merely managing and guiding the administrative functions of local government. Unlike a nation-state, cities are not governments. Cities are co-governed by networks of public, private, and civic institutions and leaders. The under-appreciated power of mayors is the ability to convene these leadership networks and to design, finance, and deliver collective responses to difficult challenges.

Louisville, Kentucky, provides a case in point. The 27th largest city in the United States, with a population of more than 750,000, mayor Fischer’s city resembles many of the areas holding elections in Britain, incorporating urban, suburban, and rural areas under one unified government as a product of a city-county merger in 2003.

Like city-regions across the United Kingdom and the United States, Louisville has struggled to achieve inclusive economic growth — to build an economy that works for all citizens. But the city has made great strides, thanks not to any formal legislation, but by leveraging the power of the mayor’s office to convene stakeholders and set an agenda for inclusive growth.

Louisville has committed to preparing young adults for a rapidly changing economy through lifelong learning. In 2014, the City of Louisville launched Cradle to Career, an integrated effort between disparate organisations focused on kindergarten readiness, elementary and secondary education, college completion, and workforce-oriented skills training.

It is obvious to any parent that these issues are inextricably linked; a smart intervention in a child’s early years pays off for decades. But, unfortunately, it’s just as obvious in cities around the country that the leaders of these programs have too few incentives to work together.


While the mayor’s office does not directly control any of these systems, it does offer the perspective and the constituency to consider the life trajectory of a child as a whole rather than as a series of disconnected, compartmentalised approaches. Impacts to date include material gains in kindergarten readiness, college degree attainment, and median wage compared to the national norm.

An inclusive economy requires both skilled workers and quality jobs that pay well. That’s why in Louisville, we worked with business leaders, the state government, and a traditional rival in the nearby city of Lexington to create the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement (“BEAM”). The ambitious goal: bolster the region’s prowess in advanced manufacturing, exports, and foreign direct investment, building on the distinctive competitive assets and advantages of this broader region.

Through targeted company outreach programs, small export grants, and a region-wide export strategy, BEAM’s five-year goal of increasing export successes for small businesses by 50 percent was reached in only three years. 

The success of the Cradle to Career and BEAM initiatives require leadership traits that are qualitatively different from the more conventional ones used to run a hierarchical government. Soft power requires the ability to convene, cajole, and even shame private, civic, university and community leaders to come together and collaborate to compete and solve problems. This is community organising at the highest level, and it requires system-wide insights unique to mayors to lead disparate actors towards common visions, tangible actions, and sustained commitment.

In the aftermath of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, US and UK cities face a democratic deficit — a loss of trust in institutions and lack of clarity about the future. The elections of metro mayors and other devolution efforts offer the potential to restore confidence in government and repair the frayed civic fabric of our societies.

Many of the challenges of the 21st century will not be solved in far-off bureaucracies of national governments; rather they will be tackled on the ground via cross-sector solutions.  Mayors can and should lead this, and as voters across Britain head to the polls this May, they should vote for those who will.

Greg Fischer is the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky.  Bruce Katz is the Centennial Scholar at the Brookings Institution. The two participated in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Summit on Inclusive Growth on 23 January 2017 in London. 

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Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.