Big decisions

Written by Elena Collins on 20 March 2013

World Cities Network chief executive Brian Kilkelly on why fast and effective decision-making will help cities adapt to a changing world.

“Cities have to deal with the impact of population growth, climate change, urbanisation, economic stress, changes in lifestyle and resource depletion,” says Kilkelly. “To address these, they need to rise to the challenge of creating effective decision-making processes, whilst being realistic about what they can achieve.”

Businesses are already feeling the impact, Kilkelly points out. They are at risk from severe events; damage to the US East Coast from storm Sandy is estimated at as much as $50bn, for example; and on a day-to-day level many are seeing costs for resources such as energy rise dramatically

“Vibrant, high quality places help businesses attract the top talent they need.”

Yet business can boom in cities that create the right environment. “Vibrant, high quality places help businesses attract the top talent they need,” says Kilkelly. “For example, I’m hearing that in the US, firms are choosing to move away from Silicon Valley into the heart of San Francisco because they want to be in a more vibrant, community setting. They want more flexible, adaptable office space, with high environmental standards.”

He argues that, if businesses and cities are to flourish together, resilience is vital. “Resilience affects whether cities can recover quickly from acute stresses such as storms or a sudden shift in the economy,” he says. “It’s also about whether cities can deal with chronic stresses – like dealing with pressure for housing by adapting and increasing the current housing supply.”

For Kilkelly, delivering resilient cities is as much about the decision-making process as it is technical innovation. “There are great technological and design solutions out there for many of the challenges cities face. But I’d argue that we know what we need to do and we know we can do it – technically speaking. The real challenge is making the tough decisions to invest and make things happen. This takes leadership.” 

“Mayors and city leaders are in the best position to take the lead.”

“Just look at how long Crossrail has taken to come about in London,” he continues. “We’ve known it was needed for some time but it’s taken decades. Cities simply can’t afford to wait decades before putting solutions in place. They must speed up the decision-making process – because the longer they leave it, the more it will cost and the harder it will be to deliver.”

Kilkelly is adamant that city authorities must lead the way. “Mayors and city leaders are in the best position to take the lead,” he says. “They need to work closely with the private sector – as the best ones already do. And they need states and governments to cede them enough power to effect change.”

“Of course, you need strong leaders who can win the trust of businesses and the local community,” he points out. “In the recent UK elections only one mayor was elected from a potential ten – Bristol elected a mayor but other cities chose not to have one. Does this point to a lack of confidence that we’ve got the right sort of people to lead our cities?”

Any lack of leadership could be problematic – because Kilkelly believes cities simply have no choice but to get on with addressing their challenges. “Things are moving so quickly that cities simply have to take decisions,” he says. “Investors are looking for engagement and proactivity from the city leadership. So there’s little option but to be out at the front. The leadership style needed today is collaborative, it builds trusted relationships that can deliver through times of great change.”

Some cities, Kilkelly points out, are already demonstrating fast and effective decision-making. “When New York’s Department of Design and Construction wanted to bring all its police academy facilities under one roof it was projected to take six years,” he explains. “They halved this timescale by using building information management (BIM) to enable all contractors and suppliers to work together.”

“Another example is Helsinki. The city recently revised its building regulations to permit wood-structured buildings over two storeys high. This reflects advances in materials and enables more sustainable choices in construction. It’s an example of how good decisions, even on small issues, can help create change and it shows the benefits of aiming for realistic, achievable actions.”

“Creating resilient cities is in the interests of the business community.”

So cities need to take swift decisions about the solutions they need, but in our age of austerity, who will fund them? “I think there are opportunities for public-private collaboration,” says Kilkelly. “Creating resilient cities is in the interest of the business community so we need to find ways to build trust between the sectors and to widen our pool of partners.  There is an interesting role for large infrastructure providers at the urban level.” 

“There are also opportunities for reducing risk,” he continues. “The insurance industry picks up the tab for damage caused by natural disasters. Loses continue to rise year on year globally. Could some of these losses be mitigated if the insurance industry were to work with cities? I think there’s an interesting conversation to be had about this.”

“There’s also a lot of talk about pension funds. They want investments that will give them secure long-term returns and many of the infrastructure projects that cities need to put in place fit this profile. Traditionally, pension funds have been involved in large infrastructure projects like bridges and roads. So I think it will be interesting to see whether they can also become involved in city-level infrastructure.”

For Kilkelly, it comes back again to decision-making. “There are many options for making cities more resilient and for funding these investments,” he says. “But the burning question is whether we have the processes and decision-making structures to choose the right ones quickly enough.”

Categories: Governance, Technology