When policymakers start talking of cities' competitiveness, be sceptical. If they discuss a city's competitors, be wary. These are warnings of shaky thinking ahead. And this is not just about semantics.
The language used to analyse cities' economies matters - poor communication means low quality analysis and ineffective, perhaps even counterproductive policies.
Cities do not compete. Urban economies are fundamentally interdependent. If one city grows, people in other cities nearby generally become better off. Some investment moves, responding to cities' assets. But the idea that cities are competing for a fixed pot of capital that could locate anywhere is a long way from reality.
Despite this, 'competitiveness' is now a commonplace term in urban policy circles. It is rarely questioned, partly because it is an easy way to talk about complex, difficult realities. The misuse of the word is a handy prop for policymakers, commentators and the business community.
This has a detrimental impact on urban policy. The competitiveness rhetoric leads policymakers to consider economic interaction with other cities as a threat, when it should be seen as an opportunity. And it results in an undue level of attention being given to policies designed to attract investment, employment
and skilled labour from elsewhere, when more attention should be focused on nurturing investment, employment growth and skill development locally. This will also attract firms that do have location decisions to make.
If we want better cities, we need to learn how to talk about them. Cities perform. But they do not compete.
Centre for Cities has re-launched as an independent think tank. You can visit them online at http://www.centreforcities.org.
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