ETHOS Issue 10, Oct 2011
For those of us living in the land-scarce, high-density city state of Singapore, where human capital is often lauded as the only resource, Edward Glaeser's latest book may be preaching to a most pious choir. The Harvard Professor of Economics paints a brightly positive picture of cities as a powerful driver of wealth and development: the book champions cities as the greatest human invention of all time, no less. In Glaeser's analysis, cities are incubators and transmitters of ideas; natural engines of growth that can generate happiness for a population — but only if they have applied the right formula for success.
Presenting itself as a guide to creating a successful city, the book recommends strategies for cities to stay relevant in the age of globalisation. Analysing the success and failure of cities throughout history, Glaeser advocates high-density urban centres that nurture creative and innovative people as the way forward for healthy and sustained growth. He argues that a city's success depends on its ability to innovate and reinvent itself to produce ideas and not things. At the very heart of cities are its people — it is through density and concentration of talent that cities are able to incubate innovation by connecting their inhabitants and serving as a gateway for ideas. Urban density confers the advantage of not just a large, accessible catchment of population, but also the connectivity which is conducive to the spread and propagation of ideas. The denser the city, the higher the productivity tends to be, which in turn supports higher wages. Glaeser offers examples of how cities can prevent decline and continuously rejuvenate its economy by creating a climate favourable to innovation through urban density, industrial diversity and education.
Not dissimilar to Richard Florida's idea of the Creative Class,1 Glaeser stresses the importance of small firms, skilled citizens and small-scale inter-connected creative communities. In support of this view, he attributes the decline of Detroit in the United States (US) to the loss of its creative class and small firms. The previously innovative city, he argues, had been replaced by a monoculture of ideas — a juggernaut company which drew fewer and fewer educated workers into massive factories that were disconnected from the city.
A city’s success depends on its
ability to innovate and reinvent
itself to produce ideas and
Of particular resonance is Glaeser's emphasis on the importance of helping poor people and not poor places. Rather than indulging in more infrastructure projects to boost the economy, the author suggests that it would be more effective instead to nurture a city's inhabitants and stoke its innovative and creative spirit. Investing in people, Glaeser argues, is more valuable than investing in real estate, because fundamentally "cities aren't buildings; cities are people".
Glaeser's book is aimed primarily at an American audience, often addressing the Detroit Mayor to suggest solutions for the "Rust Belt" cities in the US. He goes further to debunk what he regards as a misguided American "environmentalist" ideology that denounces high-density urban development as the epitome of vile living conditions. Being an environmentalist does not mean that one must live in nature — on the contrary, Glaeser seems to suggest that such ideas have ironically resulted in the encroachment of suburban developments into wilderness areas and the loss of natural habitats and agricultural land. Coupled with the American dream of home ownership with a quarter-acre home and garden for every family, the preference for a low-density lifestyle has led to urban sprawl across major metropolitan areas in the US. So an urban dweller who lives, say, in a Singapore high-rise apartment and commutes via public transport, may in fact be more "environmentally friendly" than a person who lives by the forest, away from the urban jungle, but has to drive everywhere.
Cities aren’t buildings; cities
SINGAPORE — POSTER CHILD FOR SUCCESS
Unsurprisingly, a few pages of his book are devoted to Singapore, which appears to be something of a poster child for Glaeser's formula for a successful city. While the author has taken pains to uncover the common urban properties conducive to the creation of human wealth and happiness, he also points out that every successful city "defines its own idiosyncratic space". In the case of Singapore, he (perhaps predictably) highlights the investment in education and cultivation of its human capital as one of the city state's key successful factors. Singapore's resource and land scarcity have served as the impetus for various policies, which in Glaeser's view have resulted in positive urban growth: the attraction of international capital, a broad and effective education system, and careful industrial planning. He argues that unlike Japan, where the government plays the role of venture capitalist in investing in its local companies, Singapore has supported the innovation and growth of firms largely through market mechanisms, supported by excellent infrastructure and the rule of law. Whereas Tokyo attracts the nation's talent through a concentration of political power and associated wealth, Singapore attracts global talent and capital through a high quality of life and strong urban governance.
Beyond immigration and
integration, the building
of communities will be
fundamental to Singapore's
Glaeser also offers insights into what not to do in the pursuit of urban growth. Detroit is held up as an example of over-reliance on large corporations at the expense of supportive conditions for individual innovators; overdependence on the private sector to drive development is also to be avoided. It begs the question of whether Singapore's population — which continues to grow largely through non-resident immigration, which in turn is partly cost-driven — risks inheriting a less-skilled migrant population (as Detroit eventually did) even as more highly-educated and mobile Singaporeans flow to other global cities. If this is the case, then signs such as the 2011–2012 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report,2 which cited an "inadequately educated workforce" as one of the top concerns for doing business in Singapore, may signal cause for concern. If small firms and creative individuals are at the heart of Glaeser's innovative city, it makes one wonder if our reliance on large multinational firms will, like Detroit's experience, eventually become detrimental to the health of our urban ecosystem and economy.
Glaeser emphasises that it is the continued investment in a population's capabilities that allows cities to be truly flexible and resilient in uncertain global economic conditions. Taken together, his investigations into the long-term health of urban centres suggest that Singapore should build on its success as an urban centre, taking advantage of its high density, by cultivating an environment where ideas can spread and thrive, developing networks of individual innovators and nurturing home-grown creative communities that can anchor and support vital talent. Beyond immigration and integration, the building of communities will be fundamental to Singapore's continued success.
Was Gandhi an Anti-Urbanist?
While cities look to be the dominant human landscape of the future, it is important not to be overly deterministic about the role of cities and urban development as engines of growth, at the expense of rural development. As the rural-urban divide starts to blur, it is important to bear in mind that cities depend very much on their hinterlands for sustenance and growth. Singapore is no exception, especially since we import up to 90% of our food consumption. Glaeser, as an economist, appears rather one-sided about the overriding merits of urban development. While cities are certainly powerful engines of growth, Glaeser seems to have overlooked certain basic developmental elements, such as food production. For instance, Glaeser unfairly pegs Gandhi as an anti-urbanist for his support of rural development in villages scattered across India. Could the solution to rural poverty and world hunger really be to move all the world's populations into cities? It might give city dwellers cause to consider where our future food supplies are going to come from if the entire world's population were to live in cities.
- Florida, Richard, The Rise of the Creative Class: and How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (USA: Basic Books, 2002)
- The same report ranked Singapore as the second most competitive economy in the world. See http://www.weforum.org/reports/global-competitiveness-report-2011-2012