The world’s cities are economic powerhouses for countries and regions across the globe. Today, half the world’s population lives in cities. By 2050 that figure will be two-thirds. Already, cities generate around 80% of global GDP and are of major strategic importance. Some of the world’s mega cities have a population larger than that of small countries, while world cities are connecting with each other alongside or even independent of national level engagement.
Successful cities are powered by innovation and creativity. In our digitally connected world where technology drives huge global change, the success of cities is sustained by their ability to attract increasing flows of fresh knowledge and extraordinary talent. Universities require ever greater numbers of innovators, researchers, inventors and educators to build their intellectual capital and cities in turn need to provide attractive environments in which such global talent pools can live, work and flourish.
Today, universities and colleges are an important component of the innovation eco-systems of cities. They educate students to be culturally and globally aware; and, working with local governments and businesses, they serve as urban anchors supporting wider economic activity in the locality. But, as global connectors, they also have potential to become global ‘multipliers’, connecting cities, businesses and communities across the world. As such they are pivotal to the success of cities. The breadth and strength of their collective international connections and networks are unparalleled and these can be harnessed to support city regional economies. Over decades (and, for some, over centuries) they have built deep research collaborations and networks which cross national borders and political alliances. They have been the primary instrument in developing diverse and highly skilled talent and in facilitating its flow across the world; and they maintain global networks of influential alumni.
Connecting and learning from each other, cities offer huge potential to tackle the grand global challenges, as well as to connect and build a global civic society. But cities also generate extremes of wealth and poverty; there are winners and losers. While the winners are highly connected, increasingly prosperous and have unimaginable opportunities, there are also those who feel dangerously disconnected and for whom cities are very visible and proximate sites of growing inequality.
As global connectors, what role do universities and colleges play here? For centuries they have enabled individuals to grow and succeed; they have also contributed to building and sustaining civic engagement and civil society across the world. Can their international connections and experience bring a balance between winners and losers? Can they engage and connect not only with businesses, government but also diverse citizens from across society and different parts of the world? The prize would be huge – not only in terms of innovation (from triple to quadruple helix) but also in terms of impact. Are we witnessing the emergence of a highly connected borderless ‘Civitas’ capable of helping young people analyse, process and make sense of increasing complexity, and, ultimately, playing their role in creating sustainable, balanced and prosperous societies?