Where’s the best place to live and work - city or countryside? It’s a question I’ve contemplated a lot in recent months because later this year I’ll be living in London once again, after spending the last decade of my life based in rural France.
The contrast between Europe’s largest city and the small village where my children have so far grown up couldn’t be more different. High speed Internet and easy access to a choice of airports serving low-cost carriers like Ryanair (Europe’s largest) have allowed me to operate from afar. But the increased opportunities and diversity of London have always been there and the pull is stronger than ever now that my kids are getting older.
So we’re just one extra family about to join the huge ‘global mega trend’ of rapid urbanisation – one of five such trends identified in research by consulting giant PWC. In case you haven’t seen them, the statistics around population shift are nothing short of staggering. We’ve already passed the point at which the majority of the world’s people live in cities. By 2050, the figure is expected to be seventy percent or more. According to the UN, this will happen fastest in Africa.
Inevitably there will be winners and losers. Cities compete with each other economically, at local, regional and increasingly international levels. As they grow in size, each city’s attractiveness – and each citizen’s quality of life – will depend more than ever on access to efficient infrastructure such as education, housing, transport, energy, water and healthcare. How those vital assets are planned, financed, built, integrated and managed during their lifecycles is a momentous challenge in its own right.
What’s all this got to do with public relations? Quite a lot, as it happens. Because this change in human behaviour is unprecedented and it demands a huge rethink about how we plan, manage and sustain urban populations. The amount of engagement and dialogue needed between those who run cities, the citizens who live in them and those who depend on them operating efficiently for their livelihoods are huge.
We’ll need to explain and advocate the need for change; to convince and convert those who are change-resistant or in denial. We’ll have to listen to objections and use all our skills as communicators to overcome barriers; to marshal the facts and win concessions for the wider good from all vested interests. Public relations professionals who understand and can facilitate this positively will be in great demand.
I’ve had some insight into this world through my work with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development since 2007. Most recently, I advised on communication for its Urban Infrastructure Initiative. This is a fascinating and pioneering programme which aims to showcase how public and private sectors can collaborate more effectively in building sustainable cities.
It’s fair to say that the project initially encountered some scepticism and misunderstanding. But once city leaders entered into dialogue with participating companies, introduced by a clearly neutral ‘bridging partner’, such feelings were quickly replaced by excitement and a desire to get involved. I’m certain that progress was assisted by the project’s promise of transparent governance.
Three years later, all participants (ten cities on six continents and 14 multinational companies) have been pleasantly surprised to find a positive spirit of genuine collaboration, professional development and mutuality of interest. Each city team received bespoke reports outlining how they can accelerate their progress towards building a sustainable, more resilient community. Some are already acting on those recommendations. Motivating the desired action is, of course, just as critical in such programmes as it is for any smaller scale and less ambitious public relations campaign.
If it hasn’t happened already, the chances are your organisation will be touched increasingly by the mass migration of people from countryside to city. The individuals and organisations who can position themselves well in this new urbanised world, or indeed at the centre of any of the other global mega trends, will have much to gain.