CONTRIBUTION: London needs a paradigm shift

Wayne_Gretzky_Net_WorthIs London the type of city that can lead on innovation? At first blush the answer is no but maybe it is time for a paradigm shift.

As a rule, London is a conservative city which prefers to follow the pack rather than lead the charge – at least, that is what seems to be the prevailing cultural view. Strategically, there is good reason to favour this approach since it fully vets ideas and observes outcomes in other municipalities before committing London to a decision. Doing so keeps risks minimal but arguably forgoes advantages that early adopters of innovations benefit from.

The tradeoff between risk and reward is a careful balance in London where failure curries strong criticism and sometimes painful punishment by voters. I will not identify specific examples but those familiar with city politics in London will think of some. Despite the heavy costs of failure, it is worth questioning whether this conservative approach continues to serve the long-term interests of the city?

The world is increasingly competitive and ever more global with cities aggressively contending with each other to attract social and economic capital by providing the right mix of incentives. The recent power play by Thames Centre on industrial land is a recent local example of one municipality seeking to exploit or create an advantage at the expense of another, although the larger concern is with cities leveraging rail, internet technology, and specialized banking and management hubs, to provide goods, people, information, and services to markets more quickly and at a cheaper price. These cities not only have the advantage in attracting social and economic capital but they are also better positioned to retain it in the long run. So long as London prefers a conservative strategy the city forgoes these opportunities.

To compete effectively in the 21st Century economy, London may consider adopting a Wayne Gretzky model of city innovation. When Gretzky was asked what set him apart from other players, he said that it was because he anticipated and went to where the puck would be, rather than where it was. Instead of asking what other cities are doing and then mirroring those strategies perhaps it is time to ask what will demanded from cities in the future and then employ strategies now to serve that end.

Many cities in China appear to understand the Wayne Gretzky model and are leveraging it. As it stands, their infrastructure is better than ours and if you think that London will continue to hold an advantage in terms of education and specialized skills, the exponential growth in the number of graduates in China should give us reason to pause. Not only will they produce cheaper widgets but they can increasingly provide the brain power as well.

Maybe it is time for London to go on a power play of its own, but this means making a paradigm shift that runs contrary to the prevailing conservative belief that London is better off as a follower than a leader on innovation.

Jake Skinner
Jake Skinner
Jake Skinner is a Contributor to the London Institute. He is a PhD Candidate in Local Government at Western University and a Thames Valley School Board Trustee in Wards 7,8,9,10,13. He holds a master's degree in American Studies and a bachelor's degree in Political Science.
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