Universities learning from Cities – Systems Thinking

In a recent blog “Universities learning from cities” Dr Paul Greatrix acknowledges the article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education on what cities can teach Higher Education. The article itself makes comparisons between universities and cities in terms of their activities and the type of things you might expect to see in both, for example, sport clubs and ‘A clear focus on the essentials of civic life—safety, security, cleanliness, sanitation—made our cities strong and, where that has worked, allowed urban dwellers to flourish in the ways we associate with successful cities. 

As cities have developed around natural resources such as minerals, water, ports, fish stocks, fossil fuels, they have developed and grown their intellectual capacity so that new outputs and and outcomes are achieved within cities. By developing increasingly stronger intellectual capacity, resources and finance (of which universities are a part) the ‘product’ from cities now go way beyond their original purpose. Those northern textile towns of the north of England have grown into larger cities and metropolitan areas and have achieved a scale and economic diversity unimaginable 200 years ago. The pattern has repeated itself globally so that cities are now defined not only by their ability to exploit raw materials but by their ability to harness the intellectual capacity of their citizens.

It is, therefore, impossible to imagine a successful city without a thriving, competitive, intellectual hub at its heart that creates and adds value, new markets, and is part of any city’s DNA. 

As the article in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests, universities, like cities, can and should take a longer term view and plan not just in the typical 5 year cycle, but in decades (at least). Afterall, to look back and boast of the longevity of a university but to only look forward 5, 10 or perhaps 20 years seems almost folly.

Local authorities, often a proxy for ‘the city’, are afforded that longer term view at least at a strategic level because they have to deal with long term infrastructure needs that transcend political timeframes. Whilst they are continually hung up on balancing this years budget and coming up with a plan for next years (with cuts often driving the agenda), they can take a longer view still.

Universities can draw upon that approach. Take The University of Nottingham, where I am employed, as an example. Its origins can be traced back to 1881 when Nottingham’s first civic college was opened thanks for a donation from an anonymous benefactor who had offered £10,000 for a college on condition that a suitable building be erected by the Council and that the college should be provided with £4,000 a year. In 1928 The University moved to the estate offered by Jesse Boot and ‘University Park’ has developed ever since in to a high tech, award winning campus. 

Did those pioneers in 1881 imagine that the University of Nottingham would now have 44,000 students across not only 4 campuses in the UK, plus a medical school and associated medical teaching and research bases, as well as campuses in China and Malaysia? Probably not. 

As the cities in which these civic universities have formed, developed and matured, have grown they have become central to the success of their host cities. They are inherently part of their city’s culture, success and opportunity. They continue to demand of their city in terms of resources but also contribute so much at both the local, regional, national and international scale. My blog in April 2014 referenced the response from the HEFCE that “present[ed] new analysis of the return on the public investment in knowledge exchange through Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF). For every £1 of HEFCE knowledge exchange funding over the period from 2003 to 2012, £6.30 has been earned in gross additional income, and the report acknowledges that the total benefits to the economy and society are likely to be greater.”

In short, universities are net contributors to the economy of their cities and, therefore, vital to their city’s success. Increasingly, cities are backing the growth of their native universities as engines of the economy – not as intellectual powerhouses, but as consumers of goods, services and a creator of jobs and ancillary service sector needs: bars, restaurants, galleries, theatre, cinema, transport, food, retail. 

This is where further lessons from cities can be drawn. Universities are, indeed, a microcosm of a city. They are both complex, organic, systems that have evolved in response to external factors and internal drivers to make them what they are today. Understanding that system better is central to success and to be successful both need good governance and often value democratic and consensual decision making to enable that system to continue to evolve. In cities the governance is clear and elected decision makers and representatives are their to run the city. Comparisons may be drawn with those governing structures of universities.

Like their host towns and cities, university systems need inputs to enable them to provide the basic needs of their community – shelter from the weather (residential and academic accommodation), heat, light, power, food. To do that they require a whole range of inputs: gas, electricity, water, food in the same way cities need those inputs. Successful cities identify how they can meet the needs of their populations from within their own carrying capacity. Increasingly western cities rely on global supply chains and just-in-time deliveries to achieve this, leaving them vulnerable to failures in those chains. Universities are no less vulnerable.

As universities grow their demand for those input resources has steadily risen. The UK university estates turnover was £27 billion and, in comparison to FTSE listed companies, the University sector would follow Tesco (£63bn*), Vodafone (£38.3bn), SSE (£30.6bn) into fourth spot with Sainsbury’s just behind with a turnover of £23.9bn. In terms of capital expenditure on University estates, excluding residential, the spend was £2bn between 2012-2013. As a proxy measure for the efficiency of the sector, despite growth and throughput of ‘product’ energy and emissions continue to rise with no absolute reduction with efforts to minimise the sector’s impact effectively keeping it capped with its own carbon reduction strategies. 

The ability to achieve success at both the university and the city scale is dependent on both working in partnership. There is a clear, symbiotic, relationship where both can significantly contribute to the success of the other. Universities should be brave in taking a longer-term view of their future and plan accordingly. Cities should recognise this and work with their universities to understand where the opportunities for maximising output and minimising inputs through efficiency can be achieved.





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