The last two years have been challenging ones for big cities. The COVID-19 pandemic hit cities hard, especially in its earliest stages. Then came the Black Lives Matter protests after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd in that city. And even today, the centers of many major cities are struggling as companies push back their plans to return employees to the office.
The timing, then, is right for the Global Centre for Urban Transformation, a group that will be based in Detroit and will focus on increasing public-private collaboration in cities across the globe. The goal is to harness both the power of public, government agencies and private businesses and enterprises to tackle some of the greatest challenges that cities face.
The World Economic Forum, an independent international organization based in Cologny, Geneva Canton, Switzerland, is teaming up with Detroit-based CRE firm Bedrock, to launch the Centre for Urban Transformation in October. The hope is that this centre will help mobilize the global business community to support governments in their efforts to bring new services and programs to cities.
Midwest Real Estate News recently spoke with Jeff Merritt, head of urban transformation with the World Economic Forum and a member of the Centre for Urban Transformation, about this new organization and the hope its members have for the future of cities across the globe.
Why did the World Economic Forum decide that Detroit was the best location for the Centre for Urban Transformation?
Jeff Merritt: As you know, Detroit has been through a lot. When we look at the challenges and opportunities that are facing cities today, Detroit provides a good example of how cities have to constantly adapt and reinvent themselves. Cities are grappling with systemic issues, climate change, equality and budget deficits. Cities are expected to do a lot more with less. And they are facing these massive global issues while a pandemic is going on.
Detroit has been through a lot. It’s weathered a lot of storms. It also has a strong community fabric. It has a history of innovation and entrepreneurship. When looking to build this global effort to advance public and private cooperation, it made a lot of sense to look at Detroit as a potential testbed and model for how cities can grow and evolve.
And why has the World Economic Forum partnered with Bedrock to form this center?
Merritt: Your partners matter. When you are launching a new initiative, it is important to have strong collaborators. This initiative was borne out of discussions I had with the team at Bedrock. The chief executive officer at Bedrock, Kofi Bonner, is someone who understands the challenges that cities face and the opportunities to bring new life to them. When Kofi and I were having early conversations, we found that we shared a vision for what cities needed to do to be more sustainable and inclusive. That helped provide the foundation and scope for this center.
This is a big question, but what are some of the bigger challenges that cities face today?
Merritt: At the core, the challenge that cities face is that they are expected to do a lot more, deliver more for their residents, with limited resources. The only way in which we are going to see continued improvements in the quality of life and the continued growth of economics that benefit everyone is through a stronger public-private collaboration. It can’t just be governments that work on these issues. It has to be the private sector, too, that is helping to shape the future of cities. And so, in many ways, we are trying to create a shift in mindsets in the way we plan for the future of cities. We want to put the government and the private sector together around the table to design this future.
What are the big areas of focus for the centre?
Merritt: We will bring more clarity when we launch the centre in October. But the three priority areas in my mind are economic development issues, urban design and city services.
What are the issues cities face when it comes to economic development?
Merritt: it’s very clear that as we begin to come out of this pandemic, that the world has changed. A lot of cities must rethink and reimagine their economic development strategies. For years, we’ve talked about technology changing the future of work. We really saw this during the last year-and-a-half. We now have a much stronger understanding of how you can do work irrespective of your location. The idea of working remotely means something real today. It was a bit more of an abstract concept just a year-and-a-half or two years ago. This can help level the playing field among a lot of cities. Traditionally the biggest cities, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, had an advantage in terms of economic opportunities and attracting companies. But when you think of a more decentralized workforce, cities like Detroit now have new opportunities.
At the same time, industries are changing dramatically today. Look at the auto industry. You can’t just flip a switch and move to electric autos and alternative energy. It’s a completely new ecosystem that you have to build. At the World Economic Forum, we have the world’s leading CEOS looking at how industries are transforming. We can connect the dots between the work that is happening at an industry level globally and local development strategies. A city like Detroit or Chicago can develop a strategy from insights and direct conversations with leading CEOs and companies. It’s not just about guessing what the future holds for these industries. The cities already know the plans that are being put in place by the leaders in these industries.
What are some of the urban design issues that cities face today?
Merritt: The issue that is front-and-center now is the COVID stimulus money that cities have received and how that will play into the infrastructure investments that cities need to make. In Detroit alone, out of that first wave of COVID money, more than $800 million came into Detroit. A lot of people think of that money as a straight benefit, but it is actually a burden on cities. If cities are in a rush to spend that money, they are more likely to spend on shovel-ready projects instead of shovel-worthy projects. We are providing support to cities to make sure they are making long-term strategic decisions with their infrastructure investments and urban planning. We are providing support as they develop their neighborhoods.
You also mentioned city services. How is providing services becoming a challenge for cities today?
Merritt: Just think of everything that cities have to take on today. Cities have to become more resilient. They have to take on climate change. They must develop net-zero carbon strategies. They are tasked with improving public safety and boosting their transportation offerings. Our goal is to look at new models that take some of that burden off the cities. The goal is to have public companies work with cities to help provide some of these services.
If a city has set a de-carbonization goal, what can the private sector take responsibility for and what can the public sector take responsibility for? In the past, it’s always been thought that anything the private sector can add was icing on the cake. That is the wrong approach. If it’s a goal for the city, the private sector in that city should take steps to help reach that goal.
Can you give me an example of how the private and public sectors can work together to solve a problem?
Merritt: There was something I worked on in New York City. We had more than 10,000 phone booths in the city. When I first moved to the city, those phone booths were vital. If you needed an apartment, you’d get a copy of the Village Voice and to go the pay phones to book appointments. They were something that was once a core part of the city. But phone booths became obsolete quickly. We had more than 10,000 just sitting there that had become an eyesore on city streets. What do we do with them?
Rather than just pull them out, can we replace them with something more beneficial to the city? Through a series of public challenges and RFPs, we ultimately recruited a group of companies to create new kiosks that provided gigabyte-speed Internet free across the city without costing the city a single penny. All the city had to do was give right-of-way access to private sector companies that then covered the investment and recouped their funds based on advertising at the kiosks. This idea created a much-needed city service while also providing revenue to the city. That is the type of creative problem-solving, involving both the public and private sectors, that we need more of.
There are several collaborations where the private sector might pitch in to handle public safety or sanitation issues in the area around where they have a large campus or operation, ways in which we can decrease the burden on government simply by taking advantage of the efficiencies some of these companies have. Say a university is investing in public safety on its campus. Can that university provide some security to the neighborhood surrounding the campus, too?
For a public-private partnership to work, the private sector companies must receive some sort of benefit, right?
Merritt: There must be a clear value to the businesses. Companies need to be making long-term investments in the cities where they are working and doing business. You as a business are a resident of the community like any homeowner. The business’ future is tied to the economic future of that city. It is tied to the qualify of life in that city. If you are going to employ workers in that city, you want those workers to have a vibrant city in which to live. There is a direct relationship between your business’ interests and having a vibrant, thriving community. It’s wrong of companies to think of this as charity. They ultimately benefit when the community benefits.
How has the pandemic exacerbated the issues that cities face?
Merritt: The pandemic acted like a pressure cooker. It exposed those long-running systemic issues that are always there and brought them front-and-center. We see that the communities most hit by the pandemic are low-income communities that have less access to quality healthcare, who don’t have the financial resources to recover when they are out of work. It exposed a need for us to make sure we are building more inclusive communities and strengthening the social safety net.