What Karachi needs is a game changer

Karachi’s skilled populace can produce an exciting mix of entrepreneurs that can provide the bedrock of a vibrant city

As cities in the first world experiment with new horizons for growth and are, in some cases, driving the entire nation with them, Karachi also needs a ‘game-changer initiative’ that puts the interests of the city above all others.

Metropolitan revolution

In documenting the expanding growth of cities in the US in the book ‘The Metropolitan Revolution’, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley state that the metropolitan revolution was ignited by a spark that came as a consequence to the recent financial crisis and the great recession that shocked the Americans. Thus, emerged a new growth model and economic vision that stressed on providing cities with a much-enhanced ability to experiment and expand the horizons of their growth.

The book documents that the US had portrayed a neatly hierarchal structure - the federal government and the states on top, the cities and metropolitan areas at the bottom. The feds and the states were the adults in the system, setting directions while the cities and metropolitan areas were the children, waiting for their allowance. The book said that cities and metropolitan areas are now becoming leaders in the nation. They are experimenting, taking risks, making hard choices, and asking forgiveness, not permission.

The Big Apple

A fascinating experiment of this metropolitan revolution has taken place in New York City. The collapse of the Lehman Brothers in 2009 and the ensuing financial crisis made the decision makers in New York City - a city highly dependent on the financial sector - realise their vulnerability. An urgent need was felt to diversify the city’s economic profile.

The focal point for the rethink and visioning process became the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), a non-profit corporation that works closely with the city government to catalyse economic growth. NYCEDC realised that promoting innovation and entrepreneurship would be critical to reinventing the city’s larger economic base. They then commenced a process they called ‘a game-changer initiative’.

As the ‘The Metropolitan Revolution’ documents, ‘the NYCEDC started brainstorming among themselves and then spent months reaching out to 325 chief executive officers of companies of all sizes, more than 25 community groups, and more than a dozen deans and presidents of New York universities’.  They were asked to suggest how New York City could best retain and attract the talented people who can make it thrive? What key aspects of the city’s physical infrastructure were holding back growth? How can the city employ the existing community resources to create jobs for New Yorkers?

The NYCEDC was, thus, able to generate more than 100 ideas about how to reorient and move the city’s economy forward. Consensus focused on some key cornerstones of a new strategy - innovation in science and technology, exports, and sustainability and new energy. The NYCEDC concluded that the game changer they were looking for would be a new science and engineering graduate campus.

This led to the formation of a school, Cornell NYC Tech, which focuses on applied sciences and, according to the NYCEDC, it is already paying off by attracting talented individuals and companies moving into the city, and the number of construction jobs being created. By leveraging $130 million in public dollars, about $2 billion in private investment have been attracted and it is anticipated that 20 years from now, just because of setting up this university, there will be literally tens of thousands of jobs created.

Game-changer initiative

Given the success of NYC’s game-changer initiative, what would work for Karachi? To start off, the city government needs to be empowered within a new governance framework. Key political stakeholders have to reach a consensus to put the interests of the city above all personal and political interests. There is no reason why our academic institutions cannot become repositories of research, facilitating viable development and producing our future city managers.

Karachi’s highly skilled populace can produce an exciting mix of entrepreneurs that can provide the bedrock of an economically revitalised and vibrant Karachi. But who would reach out to the key city stakeholders to identify what is holding us back and what would be the ‘game changer initiative’ that can reverse the flagging fortunes of a city that is crying for sustainable urban reforms. Karachi offers all potentials to achieve successfully such an objective.

The writer is an urban planner and runs a non-profit organisation based in Karachi city focusing on urban sustainability issues. He can be reached at fanwar@sustainableinitiatives.org.pk 

Published in The Express Tribune, July 28th, 2014.