Report 2016

Enabling sustainable city competitiveness: the role of distributed leadership

Leadership lies at the heart of enabling and delivering sustainable urban competitiveness. It is also critical to place-based strategy development and implementation.

But while we often recognise good urban leadership when we see it, what is actually involved? How do good urban leaders act? And how are different types of leaders impacting on the future of cities?

These issues are explored in a new report produced by the European Institute for Comparative Urban Research (Euricur) and PwC entitled ‘Enabling sustainable city competitiveness through distributed urban leadership.’

Cities do not have CEOs in the same way that companies do. The urban context is often much more complex. It depends on intertwined relationships among a myriad of stakeholders who co-construct urban development but often lack clear mandates to do so.

Indeed, as the challenges facing cities in the 21st century magnify, new types of urban leaders are needed who feel comfortable connecting to other stakeholders. For example, in order to deal with new urban agendas such as digitalisation, climate change, migrations, social inclusion and economic renewal, there is a need for a more inclusive approach to those who can help make change happen – such as the private sector, universities and civic movements.

But distributed leadership doesn’t mean individual urban leaders have become less powerful or important. On the contrary, the range of stakeholders co-creating and leading urban development actually requires more skills from urban leaders, with social skills of equal importance alongside technical knowledge and organisational position.

The distribution of urban leadership also needs to be done in the context of the city’s DNA – what works in Amsterdam or London may not be as successful in Dubai or Singapore. This means urban leaders also need to be situationally aware and able to adapt to different cultures and changing circumstances.

In many places around the world, responsibilities for public services and economic development are being devolved from the national to the regional and local levels. This is adding to the pressure to achieve results, negotiate public-private sector deals, and find new ways of solving problems locally.

To rise to the challenge urban leaders need to clearly define a sustainable competitiveness framework in the context of their city’s DNA which inspires stakeholders and connects different organisational visions and cultures. This starts by seeing the bigger picture beyond the boundaries of the local public administration, and by ensuring that the vision for a place is owned by all stakeholders – politicians, officials, businesses and residents.

City leaders therefore should act as institutional entrepreneurs who empower different types of leaders within and outside the local public administration, valuing their different roles and abilities to exert collective urban leadership. This in turn will provide confidence to investors that the emerging challenges in a place are understood and will be managed.

In a globally connected marketplace, where cities compete with each other for scarce investment funds, successful urban leadership will ultimately be reflected in the ability to attract internationally mobile capital – as well as talent. And cities which embrace a more distributed leadership approach are most likely to be the ones to succeed in future.

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Enabling sustainable city competitiveness through distributed urban leadership

Leadership lies at the heart of enabling and delivering sustainable urban competitiveness. It is also critical to place-based strategy development and implementation. As the challenges facing cities in the 21st century magnify, the role and importance of urban leaders can hardly be underestimated nor can the need for a more inclusive approach to those who can help make change happen in a place – lead firms, knowledge institutes and engaged citizens.