Livability as a Competitive Advantage

Livability as a competitive advantage

By Roopen Roy May 26 2015

Tags: Op-ed

Some CEOs and policymakers argue forcefully that distance is of no relevance in today’s world because of internet and digitisation. According to this camp of thinkers, geography is history and the location of the knowledge-worker is irrelevant as long as they are connected and can collaborate.

Now, here’s a contrarian view. In the future, locations will be crucial. Global managers will choose where he/she will live. The cultural ambience, pluralism, governance, safety and the quality of life will impact the attractiveness of urban locations. In fact, going further, top global talent will be scarce in the days to come. The quality of life in a city will have an important bearing on whether or not it will be attractive to human talent. If you really believe that people, more than anything else, will make the critical difference, then cities will compete with each other in improving living conditions.

AT Kearney has published last week a report on Global Cities 2015 in which it has attempted to look at the future outlook of global cities. San Francisco tops the list. It is a magnet for talent from all across the globe because of its cultural diversity, pluralism, climate and, above all, its core strength in innovation.

Erik Peterson, AT Kearney partner and managing director of the company’s business policy council, states: “The structure of the Global Cities 2015 measures both the current performance and future potential of cities to attract and retain global capital, people, and ideas. As cities continue to expand their global influence, the Global Cities results inform the strategies of business leaders (placement of regional headquarters, research centers, and other operational hubs) and city governments (improvement plans and investment decisions).”

The report also discusses cities of the future in India. “Kolkata and Mumbai head up the list of fastest-growing cities in the GCI,” notes Johan Gott, AT Kearney consultant and co-author of the study, “Although these cities are currently in the lower half on the dimension of business activity, their rapid improvement in human capital will allow them to continue to improve their scores quickly and to reach business leaders in the future.”

Finding Kolkata in the list of future cities may draw a chuckle or two. But as an individual who was born in and grew up in the city — the invisible changes over the years are coalescing to its advantage. Perhaps for all the wrong reasons, manufacturing and smokestack industries have closed down or left Kolkata and its suburbs. Despite the best efforts by real estate “promoters,” it is still green. It has a river and the Bay of Bengal is not far away.

It has a waterfront, which can be developed thoughtfully. Like the Docklands in London that was transformed with the Canary Wharf development and extension of the underground Jubilee line. It was a bold and visionary move when everyone was huddling around the fashionable Strand then. The waterfront of Kolkata is a similar, albeit smaller, version of Docklands waiting to be transformed.

However, we should not blindly replicate the Canary Wharf, but develop it as a smart Harbour City. All our 100 smart cities to be developed at a cost of Rs 1 lakh crore will not be brand new ones. Some will be suburbs of old cities. Navi Mumbai, for instance, will be a smart new growth hub.

Last month, a delegation which I was part of, met the newly re-elected mayor of Hamburg, Olaf Scholz. Hamburg is getting ready to bid for the 2024 Olympics, and Scholz explained his vision of urban regeneration that is taking place in his city without sacrificing the history and antiquity of Hamburg’s culture and traditions. His team took us around a new smart development in a suburb of Hamburg called HafenCity (Harbour City) on the River Elbe.

What impressed us most was the long-term planning and thinking that has gone into this urban regeneration project. The old port warehouses of Hamburg are being replaced with offices, hotels, shops, commercial buildings and residential areas. It is one of the largest rebuilding projects in Europe in scope of landmass (approximately 22 km²). The entire regeneration will be complete in 2030. They are preparing in advance for the possible rise in the water level in River Elbe due to global warming. The core planning of HafenCity is around improving the quality of life of its inhabitants.

In the near future, air and water pollution, corruption, shortage of energy, poor law and order, broken governance, interference in the lifestyle and food preferences of people, majoritarianism and low level of tolerance of “others” will cause global talent to vote with their feet. Very soon, there will be a premium on the celebration of diversity, encouragement of new ideas and innovation, easier migration, transparency, ease of settling in, cultural ambience and quality of living. The day is not far away when cities will compete on livability. Cities will play their soft advantages to win.

(The writer is the Managing Director of Deloitte Consulting, India)