Articles | Pioneering the Revised World City: London’s Next Cycle

Pioneering the Revised World City: London’s Next Cycle

Pioneering the Revised World City: London’s Next Cycle

By Prof. Greg Clark CBE, Senior Advisor, NLA


2022 was not just the beginning of a ‘post-pandemic phase’ in the way that cities work. It is rather the start of a whole new cycle of global urban development and reinvented cities. In this cycle, which comes as we enter the 5th decade of a special century in which the world’s urban population is tripling in number and doubling in percentage, we will adapt to both pandemic accelerated behaviour changes and their market consequences, and also to a much wider set of drivers connected to urgent decarbonisation, revised globalisation, reversing entrenched disparities and inequalities, and leveraging accelerated digitisation. 

The prolonged lockdowns and accelerated digitisation of the past 2 years begged the question; what is the physical city now for? Do cities indeed have any residual value?  

This is much more than a ‘reset’, as it is sometimes described. It is more like a redefinition of what cities are, and it requires proactive leadership and initiative to shape and manage it. This new cycle could last for 20, 30, or 40 years. At its heart is the quest to foster a new ‘social contract’ for a post-20th century economy and its cities. If it works, our cities will emerge stronger from the pandemic, not weaker. 

The new ‘social contract’ is about a fresh settlement on the role of cities and how they should work. The pandemic revealed massive inequalities in our cities. The climate emergency, coupled with troubled capitalism and a revised version of globalisation require us to reassess the magnetic pull, and refine the underlying deal, at the heart of our preference for clustering people, systems, assets and activities together in the dense places we call cities. 


London’s last two cycles, from c 1990 to 2010, and from 2010 to 2020, have been largely successful, if success is measured by population growth, job creation, visitor appeal, and innovation leadership. 

But the last cycle also revealed the manifest difficulty that all successful big cities have in combining population growth and increased prosperity with sustainability, affordability, decarbonisation, and reduced inequality. 

The cities that have managed to combine population/job growth with better outcomes on the social/environmental measures are few and far between, but most of them are smaller rich cities who had some ‘spare capacity’ at the start. These cities have an existing high quality of life/higher income, investment capacity, have learned how to host innovation economies, and have an ability to sequence growth in their ‘carrying capacity’ via the shaping of a medium density, high amenity, well serviced and connected, and increasingly polycentric, city (Singapore, Munich, Boston, Vienna, Melbourne, Stockholm, Toronto, for example). 


It must show how the transition to the redefined global city, with the new and accelerated drivers, can be achieved in ways that combine and unite new sources of jobs and prosperity, and population growth, with progressive measures that yield real outcomes on social and environmental priorities. 

This is not just difficult, it is also essential. It requires a new and additional set of tools, approaches, platforms, and systems that better link and incentivise the right mix of outcomes. At the level of urban and metropolitan governance, this toolbox just does not yet really exist in the UK. 

London’s inter-dependence with its regional neighbours and its ever-deepening economic links with the rest of the UK, increased by the recent uptick in hybrid working, learning, and consumption, make old administrative and political geographies even less helpful than before. 

For example, job growth in London might now be coupled with population growth in Nottingham or Cardiff as people chose to live further away, facilitated by hybrid working and less regular commuting. The borderless city is becoming a reality. London now plays a key role in driving change in many places well beyond the M25. Counter-intuitively, the growth in hybrid working may simply enable more jobs to be based in London, because some London workers will be able to live further away, thus increasing London’s effective housing market. There’s nothing new in this, but it is now an option for many more people.


One advantage London brings to this post-pandemic quest is that it has an unerring appetite and zeal for reinvention. In the past two cycles, London has been a source of innovations from which other cities have learned. From cultural strategies to integrated transport authorities, to long-term planning, to district developments, infrastructure financing, congestion and emission charging, creative enterprise zones, innovation districts, cycle superhighways, ‘super sewers’ and much more, London has led the way in how larger cities have tried to tackle 21st-century urban challenges. 

Much of the leadership has been shared.  Mayors of London worked with Local Boroughs, and with Institutions, Businesses, and Investors to combine efforts in newly negotiated models to make things happen. The fact that London has done this in a context where there it has comparatively low levels of self-government and self-financing, just makes these innovations more impressive, and more applicable to much of the world (where there are similarly low levels of self-government and self-finance). London’s secret weapon has been that it is a ‘negotiated city’ rather than a ’constituted city’. 


So, this new cycle is both a clear challenge for London, and a major opportunity. The reversal of the previously positive sentiment towards the ‘global city’ model of ‘concentrated prosperity/shared tax revenues’ has revised the national context, making it essential that London becomes more self-reliant, and adaptable to a new politics. Embracing the opportunity of the new cycle requires a different kind of determination from the last 2 cycles where London’s success was largely seen as a national, as well as regional, project. Perhaps this cycle will require greater endeavour because the national policy context may not be so conducive. 


From roughly 1991 to 2010 the UK Government and the leaders of London worked to an implicitly agreed formula. London was encouraged to grow and succeed fuelled by its specialisation in the globalisation of finance, services, media, creative industries, information, and education. This was supported by international and domestic migration, and aided by EU membership. London’s growth in these ‘high productivity’ sectors raised UK exports, generated high tax revenues, and attracted international investment into the UK on a large scale. London’s net tax contribution to the UK Exchequer varied between £5 and £20bn per year for much of this period and the implicit deal was that London’s growth both financed public services and infrastructures elsewhere in the UK, and London acted as a gateway (and ‘attack brand’) for talent, tourists, and investor flows into the UK as a whole. 


But this deal had at least four embedded problems in it. First, it relied upon the growth of a somewhat narrow range of industries in which London had an initial competitive advantage, but it did not anticipate either shocks like the GFC, or the growth of multiple centres of competition worldwide. 

Second, this deal entrenched the dependency of other UK cities and regions upon London which came to be widely resented, especially when London’s magnetic pull appeared to be undermining economic development efforts in other parts of the UK by ‘sucking in’ regional talent drawn to London’s labour market. 

Third, this deal did not equip London with the tools needed to address the unintended consequences of rapid growth, coupled with open exposure to globalisation, with effects such as overheating and financialisation of the housing market, hyper-competition for entry-level jobs that saw poor Londoners trapped in a race to the bottom for insecure and casualised work, and increasingly worsening air quality. 

Forth, this deal did not equip London with the financial system needed for long-term investment but rather focussed on bidding to secure UK Government co-sponsorship of a series of one-off projects (eg South Bank Regeneration, Market, Station and Stadium redevelopment, Millennium Celebrations and Facilities, 2012 Olympics, Elizabeth Line, HS1 & HS2) rather than devolving to London to means to self-finance its own infrastructure in future.   

The end of this old deal is lamented by many, but a different and better deal is sorely needed.


This revised world city will build value through technology, creativity, innovation and human experience. It trades in knowledge, know how, networks, and unique combinations. It is the hub of circuits of trade in ideas, designs, prototypes, ventures, and applications.  

The revised world city will focuson the activities that are globalising now and provide a platform to shape them. This means that green finance, life sciences & bio-tech, AI & IoT, materials and earth sciences, and digital content, are increasingly to the fore. 

The new world city economy will be driven by 4 emerging forms of value creation: the innovation economy, the experience economy, the circular economy, and the sharing economy. Each of these plays to new forms of global exchange and new enterprise models, and requires an urban landscape that is agile, flexible, and resilient.   


The revised world city must build a different social contract to the model that went before.  In the last cycle the contract was about how the world city would serve the nation with jobs, tax revenues, connections and investment. In this new cycle the world city must build a new social contract that addresses planetary and social justice, and be more attentive to its relationships and exchanges. 

This new social contract creates a fresh license to operate for business and investors. It is intolerant of high carbon living, and much more focussed on access to clean air, healthy lifestyles, and affordable housing. It envisions a city that works for all of its citizens, not simply the high skilled or highly paid. 

This new world city also takes more responsibility for its relationship with other regions and towns outside its own borders, creating good neighbour policies and programmes, and collaboration for mutual advantage across a nation.


As we embark of the 5th decade of our urban century new tools have arrived. The tool-box of city management, public governance, and progressive policy is now joined by three new resources in the quest for good urbanisation. 

The first is a new suite of exponential and enabling technologies that drive new urban sectors, enhance city systems, and make city management a common task between business, government, and citizens. The second is private finance which has woken up to scale of the urban opportunity and the existential imperative to make cities work. The third is the new art and science of place-leadership, that integrates otherwise separated and fragmented inputs into ‘virtual governance’ premised on the imperatives of place rather than sectors or institutions. Place leadership builds new forms of social capital, belonging, and identity through deep participation. 

Taken together these three new tools can augment our urban leadership, and drive truly connected places that increase both the investment rate and the level of trust in our cities.       

London can be this new city of opportunity. It is pioneering a new kind of world city. The pandemic has accelerated developments that were already nascent in London. 

  • London was already tackling the climate emergency and embracing digitisation. It was already a multi-centred city with distributed sectors and a mosaic of communities. 
  • London’s interdependence with UK cities where it shares a talent pool, value chain relationships, and aligned sector strengths was already being complemented by London’s special relationship with the cities and towns of the Greater South East, with whom it shares a single labour market, housing market, infrastructure platform and logistics system. 
  • As London embraces new policies on energy choices and mobility modes, air quality and public health, employment and skills, so a new wave of business investment is already being triggered in netzero places, enterprise models, and the new urban resilience.

These pre-existing features are part of London’s new opportunity in 2022. As this new cycle evolves London will face competition from many more cities, but few of them with London’s combined advantages. The new cycle of world city growth may see up to 100 cities recognised as being leaders in hosting the newly globalising sectors. Most of these cities will want to learn from London and collaborate to mutual advantage. 

The prize for the UK is great. Not only can London help to lead the post pandemic recovery, but it can do so in ways which advantage other UK cities, and position the UK as a leader once again. To seize the opportunity, London can build the revised world city agenda, just as it did in the 1980s when this new century of the city began.  As the 5th decade  of the century of the city unfolds, its time to focus on the opportunity for leadership that London has, and the roles the world expects it to play.

Read the full article on the NLA website here.

Pioneering the Revised World City: London’s Next Cycle