Today, a handful of urban centres are pulling away from their rivals – creating more innovation, more growth and more jobs. Those changes have deep implications; understanding them and what they mean for local communities takes joined-up thinking.

13 minute read

Every era has dreamers setting out their utopias. For Sidewalk Labs, the Alphabet subsidiary tasked with bringing smart city technologies to Quayside Toronto, that involves redeveloping the dockland area “from the internet up”.1 Its vision includes creating an innovation hub where residents move between energy efficient buildings in self-driving cars and old-school bicycles. Streets without curbs and heated pavements are designed to make life more comfortable for pedestrians; meanwhile, deep underground, a network of tunnels is planned for robots to service the buildings, silently removing waste.

One of the mistakes that previous cities have made is the idea that you can plan something from the top

The project has generated a disproportionate amount of attention – positive and negative. Planners have broadly welcomed the suggestion to use engineered wood buildings and let the space evolve flexibly, as advocated by the legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs. "One of the mistakes that previous cities have made is the idea that you can plan something from the top” says Dan Doctoroff, former mayor of New York and Sidewalk Labs’ CEO. “That is not how cities work – they evolve organically.”

But some of the interesting ideas – like the ability to change land-use to introduce rush-hour cycle lanes or pop-up shops – sit alongside others that have unsettled Toronto’s residents. They have expressed fears of a corporate land-grab, as Sidewalk Labs intends to harvest residents’ digital data from multiple sites.2

Figure 1: Sidewalk Labs: maximising underground space for low-impact waste and services 

Sidewalk Labs: maximising underground space for low-impact waste and services
Source: Sidewalk Labs 2019

Bricks-and-mortar: Mirroring socioeconomic change

Quayside demonstrates how the factors shaping the built environment can change. In the nineteenth century, the steam engine and the railway left a distinctive stamp on the landscape; before the internal combustion engine and electricity fundamentally altered the logistics of transport and production. The Industrial Revolution changed how cities worked and how they looked.

The Industrial Revolution changed how cities worked and how they looked

Now the environment is morphing again, with the fallout from the arrival of the microprocessor and the internet. As a marketplace, library and computing platform, these technologies have enormous power to disrupt communications, distribution and logistics.

"There has never been a commercial technology like this in the history of the world,” said Robert Hormats, deputy chairman of Goldman Sachs back in 1999.3 Data centres the size of multiple football pitches, randomly stowed warehouses for 24-hour deliveries and the hollowing out of the local high street. They became part of the new reality.

The next wave of change might be around a response to climate emergency. Regenerative communities, where the outputs of one system deliver the inputs of another, could be a way forward: densely packed green buildings powered by renewable energy, food produced using aquaponics, by cultivating plants in water, perhaps underground, and extensive use of ‘waste-to-resource’ systems.4

New transport technologies will fundamentally change how we relate to each other, across space, across territory, across the City

Further out, there is potential disruption from new transport technologies, such as the drone. “They will fundamentally change how we relate to each other, across space, across territory, across the City,” says architect and think-tank founder Liam Young.5 He believes flexible transport infrastructure will reshape urban skylines, allowing access at multiple levels in a building, many floors above the street. Front of mind for the award-winning designer Norman Foster is how to service those drones. His prototype droneport – a simple arched structure made of compressed earth blocks – could be a foretaste of what is to come.6

Understanding real-world dynamics

So why does this matter? Understanding the dynamics of societies is particularly important for those selecting real-world assets, because their physical properties have worth that, if not properly managed, could easily erode.

It means asking what will fuel tomorrow’s world, what kind of buildings will populate it and what trade-offs will be made in the process, as well as assessing how desirable these assets will be in the long term. The best of them can be stores of value that are largely immune to the vagaries of the financial cycle.

“After the 2008 global financial crisis, buildings in the centres of global cities increasingly functioned as proxy currencies, providing security in uncertain conditions,” Richard Williams, a professor at the University of Edinburgh and expert in visual culture, points out.

Understanding the environment means looking behind the façade to the forces driving infrastructure

Beyond crises, understanding the environment means looking behind the façade to the forces driving infrastructure, the skeleton of the built environment, and the buildings that make up the upper skin. Sensitivity to value destruction in carbon-heavy assets, how the tenant mix might change the nature of a building or how to harvest premia from green buildings – these are the subtleties that need to be understood.

While the built environment inevitably ages and deteriorates, there is enormous potential to re-invigorate too. Wealth is created and destroyed as spaces evolve, but people drive the dynamism. – This means it is not always easy to anticipate what happens next.

The death of distance?

One example of this is how economists misjudged what digital communications might mean around the millennium. At this point, e-communication was becoming increasingly important. As the cost of transmitting data began to fall, books like The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution Is Changing Our Lives7 began contemplating the future.

Twenty years ago people talked about the death of distance. It didn’t happen. In fact, the opposite has happened.

“If you go back twenty years, people talked about the death of distance a lot, due to innovations like the fax machine and email,” says Chris Urwin, Aviva Investors’ director of real assets research.  “Supposedly people could work anywhere, so people talked about the death of distance or the death of geography. It didn’t happen. In fact, the opposite has happened.”

Instead, close connections are increasingly important, with people clustering around key hubs. “We live in an age where it is effortless to telecommute across the planet, where we can all dial-in from whatever sylvan spot appeals to our biophilia – the innate tendency we have to connect to nature – and forgo all the conveniences that come with city life,” says professor and urban economist Ed Glaeser from Harvard University. “But in so many ways and in so many places, we still choose to be around other people. We still chose cities.

“There is a reason for this. New technologies and globalisation are not enemies of the city. They are its friends. New technologies have increased the returns to being smart, and we are fundamentally a social species that gets smart by being around other smart people,” he adds.

Increasingly, agglomerations of highly skilled people have become critical to an area’s prospects. Put it another way: talent, clusters and scale drive success. Cities with clusters of excellence attract human talent, which in turn leads to them to grow.

The balance has shifted towards services rather than manufacturing in developed economies and face-to-face human contact has become more critical

There are many processes at work here. First, as the world has become more complex and the balance has shifted towards services rather than manufacturing in developed economies, face-to-face human contact has become more critical. Significantly, interaction between knowledge workers can spur the development of new ideas. A recent working paper titled The Geography of Unconventional Innovation, by economists Enrico Berkes of Northwestern University and Ruben Gaetani of the University of Toronto, suggests innovation is not limited to densely populated areas, but they are more likely to produce unconventional combinations of knowledge.8 This is hugely relevant: the unconventional can differentiate.

Scale is advantageous from a labour market perspective

Second, scale is advantageous from a labour-market perspective. Larger centres are more likely to host the universities, research facilities and other educational institutions needed to develop a highly skilled workforce and keep them actively employed.

“Large labour markets improve the quality of matches between workers with rare skills and the firms that need them, and cut the cost of economic disruptions,” according to a recent review in the Economist. Why? Someone who has just lost their job is more likely to find a new position in a place with thousands of potential employers than one with a handful.9   

Technology has enhanced the wage premium for the highly skilled

Third, technology has enhanced the wage premium for the highly skilled. The pay of those at the top of the wage scale in knowledge businesses tends to be significantly higher than others. This is because digital technology can amplify – successful applications created by the few can potentially reach the many. The outcome is quite distinctive: small but growing numbers of the highly paid, and a larger number on low pay or minimum wage, for those servicing people in high-skill enclaves.10 These trends are spilling into real estate markets on the ground; values in sought after areas rising faster than average, locking out those on lower wages.        

The result: “winner-takes-most” urbanism.11 A landscape where talent is clustered in densely networked superstar cities that generate a disproportionate amount of econonmic growth.12 In these cities, the urban form reveals demand for space – more skyscrapers, more intensity. Below them, regional superstars also carry disproportionate weight, and the health of surrounding communities depends on how well they can leverage that success.

Some European cities have world-renowned clusters in the digital and biotech sector

In Europe, for example, Stockholm, Berlin, Amsterdam and Copenhagen have become cities with world-renowned clusters in the digital and biotech sector. Berlin is said to launch one start-up every twenty minutes.13 Munich, Frankfurt and Dublin also compete globally, with vibrant clusters in financial, automotive, engineering, ICT and creative industries. In a crowded field, cities are striving to become talent hubs, competing aggressively for corporate headquarters and the like with tax breaks and incentives. But some less successful locations have capital drifting away; with high streets in decline and life being squeezed out of the urban core.

“We are seeing polarisation in economic outcomes between the larger cities and the rest,” says Urwin. “This makes it essential for investors to have exposure to the right places. Being in larger cities with the best talent and cluster credentials is important. Smaller cities, meanwhile, need to adapt to that economic and geographic reality and tap into the ecosystem of larger cities, so connectivity is essential.”

Creating value in an intellectual property hub

The power of established intellectual property hubs is illustrated neatly by Cambridge in the UK, home to one of the leading universities in the world. Since the university was founded in 1209, it has grown to attract 25,000 students, and city has swollen too. It now houses a cluster of over 4,700 knowledge-intensive firms in tech, biotech and the life sciences, including nine valued at more than a billion dollars.14 Together they make up Europe’s largest technology cluster.

Cambridge is an innovation hub: it registers 341 patents per 100,000 residents – more than the UK’s next four cities combined

Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google and AstraZeneca are among those attracted to Silicon Fen, and the city continues to evolve with a new enterprise zone on its periphery. By any measure, Cambridge is an innovation hub: it registers 341 patents per 100,000 residents – more than the UK’s next four cities combined.15

‘Does this area have a sense of place?’ is an important question for those making long-term investments, according to Urwin. “Making a location a ‘somewhere’ rather than an ‘anywhere’ is difficult – you certainly can’t flick a switch to make that happen,” he says. Cambridge is a ‘somewhere’, with its ‘cityness’16 based around a long-established intellectual tradition.

For long-term investors, the question is how that can be harnessed for durable cash flows. There is strong demand for office and laboratory space but tight constraints on development, as no less than 17 conservation areas exist.17 Recent efforts to step up the intensity of land-use near the railway station with new housing (including lower-cost homes), shops, luxury offices and leisure facilities have been met with strong interest. The plan is to maximise every inch of space and work hard to deliver a high-quality experience for tenants, with ultra-fast connectivity, gyms, concierge services, baristas and bicycle storage on tap.

“As more jobs become automated, real estate investment decisions will be increasingly driven by the sustainability of cities' labour markets. Cambridge’s knowledge intensive industries and supply-constrained development mean there is more scope for durable rental growth than many other centres outside London,” says Aviva Investors’ senior research analyst Jonathan Bayfield.

“Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.” Jane Jacobs

Cities have a lifecycle; they can fade and be re-invigorated. In urban design, the question is how those process can be directed to create quality environments that enhance the lives of those who live and work there.

Manchester is a case in point. Once an archetypal city of the Industrial Revolution and a UK textile powerhouse, it produced and exported goods all over the world. Both the railway and canal played a part in making it an important international commercial centre. But the city’s industrial heritage was checked by globalisation, as labour costs made the city’s outputs increasingly uncompetitive. By the 1970s and 80s, a hive of mills, factories and commercial buildings had fallen into disrepair, although the city’s cultural life was very much alive.  

Manchester is reinventing itself. It is hoped the “triple helix” - university, industry, government - will deliver the elusive mix that generates long-term growth

Today, Manchester is in the process of reinventing itself. It is hoped the “triple helix” - university, industry, government18 - will deliver the elusive mix that generates long-term growth. So far, the evidence is encouraging. Manchester has invested heavily in its public spaces and its cultural life has exploded. It has become the fastest growing city in the UK, adding more than 19,000 residents aged between 16 and 21 from 2009 to 2017.

A key factor in Manchester’s appeal lies in its educational profile. Just one of its four universities – the University of Manchester – has an annual turnover of more than £1 billion.19 Together, higher educational facilities pull in talent, and the city has strong record of holding onto its qualified leavers.

“Student retention is among the best in the UK”, according to Giles York, director of Aviva Investors’ core regional office team. “More than half of the students from Manchester’s universities stay on after they graduate. Lots of graduates from Manchester who study elsewhere chose to return as well.”

This has caused the population in central Manchester to increase dramatically (although it is still lower than in parts of its history, when residents lived cheek by jowl). Among the ranks of researchers and other professionals are UGGs – urban grannies and grandads – who have chosen to live out their retirement close to amenities.   

Keeping the spirit of the community alive

There is complexity in revitalisation, however. With no little irony given the importance of graduates to Manchester’s revival, university newspaper The Mancunion asked in 2018 “Is gentrification ripping the soul out of the former Cottonopolis?”20 Manchester’s character, woven from warehouses and mills and laced with iconic buildings, is part of what makes it special. Could large-scale development destroy it, as wealthy professionals change the chaotic and vibrant mix?    

We have a New Urban Crisis, which is in many ways a crisis of success

That fundamental tension is explored by professor Richard Florida from the University of Toronto in his book The New Urban Crisis. In a recent policy discussion with Glaeser, he summed it up like this: “On the one side, the clustering of urban activity drives innovation, drives economic growth, and is the main source of productivity. But on the other side, it also creates the divides in our society. The old urban crisis was one of decline—the middle class was moving out, poverty had moved in, crime, the urban core was falling apart. That old urban crisis is still with us in some places. But now we have a New Urban Crisis, which is in many ways a crisis of success.”21

High demand for space in small parts of cities is pushing out the lower paid to disadvantaged spots or poorly-connected suburbs. This is a life of low or uncertain wages and long commutes. What does this do to city-centre communities, if only the advantaged can be there?

“We are often asked ‘What’s wrong with gentrification?’” says Aviva Investors’ ESG analyst Stanley Kwong. “Gentrification brings lots of positives – investment, jobs and so on – but it can also change people’s lives in negative ways, affecting their cultural identity, sense of community and how they live. We need to be aware of these factors, as the pressures sometimes reveal themselves unexpectedly, and that can undermine a development’s purpose. We need to break away from these displacement cycles and focus on real long-term positive impact.”  

Concentrating on inclusive prosperity

Florida believes one answer is to target “inclusive prosperity”; stepping up investment in infrastructure, seeking to deliver more high intensity, low-cost housing close to city centres and ensuring any jobs created deliver a fair wage. His response is part of a larger wave of analysis on the disenchantment that has been generated in recent decades as ‘haves’ have visibly flourished, while many others have not.

Professor Thomas Picketty from the Paris School of Economics points to the way in which assets tend to appreciate faster than the economic growth rate, which he distilled into the equation r > g.22 His analysis of how wealth tends to accumulate into the hands of asset holders sparked intense debates on inequality.23

Society suffers when any of the pillars weakens or strengthens overly relative to others

Analysis by professor Raghuram Rajan, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, draws a slightly different conclusion. “Capitalism has stopped working” in some locations, he believes, due to disequilibria between the pillars of market, state, and community that underpin society.24 Neglecting community has meant cohorts of people neither identify with those around them or feel supported. This leaves them feeling locked out of the positive changes underway in other parts of society, fuelling extremism and a backlash against liberal democracy and globalisation.

“Society suffers when any of the pillars weakens or strengthens overly relative to others,” wrote Rajan in his recent book, The Third Pillar. “Too much market and society becomes inequitable; too much community and society becomes static, and too much state and society becomes authoritarian. A balance is essential!”25

The mix of factors fuelling today’s debates is unique, but unease about gentrification and hyper-gentrification (state-supported gentrification) is not new. Think of the changes instigated by Napoléon III and Georges-Eugène Haussmann in Paris in the 1850s. Clearing densely-packed neighbourhoods for wide boulevards, parks and squares created the centre of the city as it now is. Where many saw beauty, outspoken critic Jules Ferry could only regret what had been lost.26

Can investment deliver inclusive prosperity?

So what might ‘inclusive prosperity’ mean for investors? Growing assets and generating income is a core priority but contributing to a thriving society is fundamental too.

Investing in transport and social infrastructure can be a win-win

In infrastructure, economists working on ‘value’ have concentrated on aggregates like the infrastructure multiplier. These attempt to show how much growth might flow from each dollar invested in essential services. For example, a study of more than forty countries at different stages of development by Ethan Ilzetzki, Enrique Mendoza and Carlos Végh estimated the long-run infrastructure multiplier at 1.5 for developed countries , or 1.6 for developing countries.27 (Each dollar invested would be expected to generate – on average – one dollar and fifty cents, although the precise ‘bang for buck’ would depend on local factors.) These studies suggest investing in transport and social infrastructure can be a win-win, particularly where outcomes are widely shared.

When it comes to assessing returns from individual assets, however, the issues are tricky. There is currently no consensus on how to calculate social value, although progress is being made, as Figure 2 shows. It involves trying to capture the value generated but not fully reflected in market prices, using quantitative and qualitative measures.

Figure 2: Calculating social return on capital: Seeking consensus28

Calculating social return on capital: Seeking consensus

“The social value of a building is particularly hard to measure,” says Laurence Monnier, head of quantitative research, real assets at Aviva Investors. “One of the best ways to do it is in the creation of jobs and the regeneration impact. These are features we are paying increasing attention to. Prior to now, the industry has tended to focus on the environmental aspects of a building – building efficiency, energy efficiency, water consumption, supplier management and so on – these are much easier to get a handle on.”

But even metrics like ‘jobs created’ can be quite coarse, so a commitment to ‘inclusive prosperity’ needs a highly detailed view. The Enterprise City development in Manchester on the site of the former Granada Television studios is a prime example. The project aims to re-model several 1960s office buildings into a hub promoting start-ups and smaller companies, drawing on Manchester’s creative history. Office space, a bonded warehouse, space for film and TV production, a cinema, gym, events space and hotel rooms will all be included.

Assessing the investment case in the round might include public engagement and checking whether the development will bring benefits for Mancunians as they meet and engage, as well as creatives and exporters. Then, from the management perspective, there might be checks on prospective tenants to ensure they are reputable, committed to fair employment practices and paying a living wage.

The hubs where communities meet, work, create and relax will be fundamental to their lives

Channelling capital has real world impacts. Despite the hurdles to measurement, assessing those effects is likely to become even more critical in future for those investing in real assets. What is clear is that as some spaces become largely devoid of people (data centres, automated ports and warehouses and so on), the hubs where communities meet, work, create and relax will be fundamental to their lives. Ensuring people’s needs are being met is an essential part of the process. To paraphrase Jane Jacobs, success is likely to mean concentrating efforts on lively, diverse, outward-looking clusters, which have the vitality to address problems outside themselves.


  1. 'Reimagining cities from the internet up', Side Walk Labs, 2019
  2. Laura Bliss, ‘Critics Vow to Block Sidewalk Labs' Controversial Smart City in Toronto’, CityLab, 25 February 2019
  3. Francis Cairncross, ‘The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution Is Changing Our Lives - Distance Isn't What It Used To Be’, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, 14 May 2001
  4. ‘Can agriculture make cities self-sufficient?’, The Guardian, 9 February 2019
  5. Sebastian Jordahn, 'The future of drones and our cities', De Zeen. 11 June 2019
  6. Jessica Mairs, 'Norman Foster reveals vaulted Droneport prototype at Venice Architecture Biennale', De Zeen, 27 May 2016
  7. Francis Cairncross, 'The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution Is Changing Our Lives', Harvard Business School Press, 2001
  8. Enrico Berkes and Ruben Gaetani, 'The Geography of Unconventional Innovation', Rotman School of Management Working Paper No. 3423143, 19 July 2019
  9. 'Superstar cities have a big advantage in attracting high-paying jobs', The Economist, 15 November 2018
  10. Raghuram Rajan, 'The Third Pillar. Are Communities being left behind?', The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2019
  11. Richard Florida, 'Two Takes on the Fate of Future Cities', Coty Lab, 21 April 2017
  12. James Manyika, Sree Ramaswamy, Jacques Bughin, Jonathan Woetzel, Michael Birshan, and Zubin Nagpal, 'Superstars: The dynamics of firms, sectors, and cities leading the global economy', McKinsey & Company, Discussion Paper, October 2018
  13. Bojana Trajkovska, 'Berlin’s start-up ecosystem at a glance', EU-Startups, 11 December 2018
  14. Cambridge Strategies
  15. 'Opinion: What makes the Cambridge cluster special?' University of Cambridge, 13 November 2017
  16. Saskia Sassen, 'The City: today’s frontier zone', Globus et Locus, 2014
  17. 'Conservation areas', Cambridge City Council
  18. Henry Etzkowitz and Loet Leydesdorff, 'The Triple Helix -- University-Industry-Government Relations: A Laboratory for Knowledge Based Economic Development', EASST Review, Vol. 14, No. 1. 1995
  19. 'University of Manchester', Russell Group
  20. 'Manchester’s housing crisis: Is gentrification ripping the soul out of the former Cottonopolis?', The Mancunion, 6 November 2018
  21. Richard Florida, 'Two Takes on the Fate of Future Cities', Coty Lab, 21 April 2017
  22. Where ‘r’ is the rate of return on capital and ‘g’ is the rate of economic growth
  23. Thomas Picketty, 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century', Harvard University Press, 2014
  24. Raghuram Rajan, 'The Third Pillar. Are Communities being left behind?', The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2019
  25. Raghuram Rajan, 'The Third Pillar. Are Communities being left behind?', The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2019
  26. Jules Ferry, 'Les comptes fantastiques d'Haussmann', 1868
  27. 'Multiplier maths', The Economist, 2 August 2013
  28. 'SROI Value Map', Social Value UK

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