Español | English

Brian Roberts

Brian Roberts is an Emeritus Professor of urban management at the University of Canberra, Australia and an urban management specialist with the company Planning Education Consulting Services. He has worked as consultant for ADB AusAID, DFID, UNDP, UNCHS, and World Bank and several leading international consultant firms in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

This article is part of a series of interviews that were conducted during the Urban Sustainability Course organized by the Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative (ESCI), Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo and the City of Santander between July 28 and August 1, 2014. Learn more about the course here.

Watch the full interview here.

ESCI: In recent years we have seen a shift from nation states to cities in the development discussion. In your opinion, what is the role that cities have today—particularly emerging ones—in promoting countries’ progress and economic development?

There has been a significant shift from the nation-state, as the primary driver of economic activity, to cities. Much of this is due to the introduction of free trade agreements around the world, and that has forced many cities to a situation where they have to identify what makes them competitive. As the result of that, we have seen substantial investment, increasing specialization—which is the byproduct of globalization—and particularly offshoring of a lot of manufacturing from developed to developing economies.

So now we see a system of cities developing globally, in which there are key primary cities, which are mainly the megacities, but also there are other cities that play key roles such as Bangalore, which is a world leading city in ITC technology, but is also a secondary city within the context of India.

ESCI: What’s the relevance of emerging or secondary cities?

We need to think about secondary cities because our large cities are becoming super-cities. We have seen the first super-city in China, which is in the pole of a delta, and has about 48 million people. We are now starting to see the emergence of super-cities in India. And, indeed, we are likely to see this in the context of some Latin American cities, particularly the link between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

So, the effect is that these cities are sucking up all resources, and to the disadvantage of the development of the rest of the country. Unfortunately, both, national economic policy and national urban policy have been separated. And the net result of that is a failure to align physical and spatial planning policies of the countries with their economic policies, and the failure to understand that cities are linked. So we are actually constraining the flow of blood or circulation of resources, and as result we have great migration occurring to large cities.

As I explained in my presentation, we have a city like Santiago (Chile), which has less than 30% of the population (of the country), but generating 57% of the jobs. That simply means that other parts of the country are not developing, and hence you get quite substantial disparities between income, investment, productivity and qualities of life.

ESCI: What’s the main piece of advice that you would give to the mayor of an emerging city?

Identify what it is that you are good at. Identify what it is that’s constraining you for being better at it. Understanding the need to have combinations of good infrastructure, good knowledge, sets of skills. The ability to free up logistic systems so goods and services can be shifted quickly. That way, you can get access to knowledge and you can export whatever you are good at producing in terms of services and goods, whether it is tourism, agriculture products, education,  or aspects of culture.

To do this you need to start analyzing your city, your elements of competitiveness. And then, focus on those things where you can, using your available resources, or attracting investment from outside, you can build the capacity to become more competitive. There are many examples of small cities around the world that have done this very, very successfully. But it requires vision, leadership, good governance and effective use of resources.

Watch the full interview here.