What does this year hold for the urban innovation agenda in the UK? Like many others, I completely failed to predict the Brexit vote or the Trump Presidency. But I'm having another go at the crystal ball gazing this year because I still think it's useful to speculate about - and prepare for - the future. So, here are my five predictions for UK cities in 2017.
First, inequality will be a greater focus for cities. City administrations will be more focused on tackling inequality and the structural problems producing the 'JAMs' (the 'just about managing') and the left-behinds. We've already seen this theme emerging in the elections of Sadiq Khan in London and Marvin Reese in Bristol last year, both of whom made reducing inequality in their cities a key element of their campaigns, and it will be interesting to see if this is reflected in the upcoming Metro-Mayor campaigns. The post-Brexit fall out in the UK gives added urgency to addressing the structural problems of inequality, which play out particularly acutely in the urban contest. This will certainly colour the political agenda in 2017, however UK city leaders may be in danger of over-reaching, as they lack many of the powers needed to address the wider structural causes.
Second, cities will find new sources of funding. For local authorities, cuts in spending and tight financial constraints will bite hard in 2017 as they adjust to further tightening. In this context, how will cities pay to get stuff done? Pioneering cities are experimenting in how to decrease costs, earn money and attract investment. Wolverhampton has reduced its budget by £1.5m by launching the award-winning WV Active to run leisure services. Cheshire East Council have launched a clutch of revenue-generating arms-length companies - delivering services ranging from recruitment to bereavement. While Aberdeen are revitalising the idea of municipal bonds to fund a £1bn development programme. Expect much more of this municipal entrepreneurialism.
Third, 2017 might be the year of radical service transformation. Irreconcilable pressures on services have been growing for a number of years - especially in areas like housing and adult social care. The average house in London or Cambridge is now around 14 times the average wage in those cities. Meanwhile, there are plenty of signs that the ever-growing pressures of dealing with adult social care will erupt into the infamous 'graph of doom' scenario (not least the recent intervention by the Red Cross highlighting dire conditions in the health and social care system). Central government is giving Local Authorities permission to increase council tax to pay for adult social care, but this is unlikely to be enough. Might this be the year that salami-slicing in local funding runs out of sausage? There is a need for more fundamental reassessments but this is difficult to achieve when organisations are under the cosh and forced to lose so many people. Local authorities will need to double down on leveraging their place-making roles to affect how and what their partners (both public and commercial) deliver, make better use of digital technologies for smart outcomes, and seek to harness wider spending decisions to achieve support innovation.
Fourth, UK cities will become more international-facing. Through C40 in climate negotiations, and initiatives like the Global Parliament of Mayors, we have seen cities increasingly flexing their muscles in international politics; likewise cities are seen increasingly by their national governments as diplomatic assets to be brought in rather than kept out. This is not just about self-aggrandisement of city officials, but grasping real potential benefits from increased city-to-city links. Whether Manchester and Wuhan, Nottingham and Ningbo, or Bristol and Guangzhou, cities are chasing inward investment, international students, and building links for their businesses. This resurgence in city-to-city diplomacy reflects the wider spirit of decentralisation and metropolitan statesmanship. In short, cities trust other cities more than nations trust nations, and are better at making the most of the global connections personified by second generation immigrant populations. Expect this trend to increase in a post-Brexit world where the UK is looking for new markets and cities are looking to shape their own economic future.
My fifth, is a cluster of more 'out there' speculation: my flock of 'black swans' - of improbable but not impossible events. Will 2017 be the year when a major cyber-attack cripples the infrastructure and functioning of a leading UK city? When an autonomous vehicle kills a pedestrian but saves the life of its driver? When a populist far-right politician becomes mayor of a combined authority? When torrential rain causes billions of pounds of flood damage in the centre of a major city? Or when displaced workers take direct action against automation by destroying robots?
Whatever 2017 throws at us, I start the year with confidence that we, Future Cities Catapult, and the places and organisations we work with, have the resilience, the passion and the ingenuity to come through the year in good shape and to leave the world around us a better place.