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Competitive cities create jobs and drive growth

The rise of cities can play a key part in creating jobs for the millions of young people who enter the work force every year. Nowhere is this more relevant than in East Asia, where cities have grown faster than anywhere else in the world. Between 2000 and 2010, nearly 200 million people moved to East Asia's urban centres. This includes eight "megacities" with populations over 10 million, and 123 large cities with one million to 10 million people.

And with only 36 per cent of its total population living in urban areas, East Asia will likely witness many more decades of rapid urban growth. This is simultaneously a great opportunity and challenge. Very few countries have reached income levels of US$10,000 (S$13,848) per capita before reaching about 60 per cent urbanisation. If managed well, urbanisation can boost economic growth, help eliminate extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity.

This will, however, need proactive policies to provide land, housing and services for the new urban residents, urban planning that matches physical expansion with access to jobs, affordable housing and shopping, high-quality public transportation, and health and education services to ensure equal opportunity for disadvantaged communities.

In East Asia, Singapore stands as a good example of sustainable urban planning and urbanisation-driven growth, where infrastructure investments were transformed into productive assets for economic expansion and increased prosperity in the city-state, enabling gross domestic product (GDP) growth to average 7.7 per cent in the last 50 years.

Indeed, East Asian economic growth is built by cities, centred on the emergence of dominant economic regions, and built on agglomeration economies like the Mekong Delta and the Greater Bangkok Metropolitan Area. The Pearl River Delta in China is an economic powerhouse and the world's largest urban area in both size and population, with more inhabitants than countries such as Argentina, Australia or Canada. These mega regions are the aggregation of many local economic development stories, such as the hard disk drive industry in northern Malaysia and the clustering of the animation industry around Shanghai and Wuxi.

When our teams conducted research to quantify this phenomenon - the findings of which are in a new World Bank report entitled Competitive Cities For Jobs And Growth: What, Who, And How - they found that globally, 72 per cent of cities grow their GDP faster than their national economies.


Padi farmers in the southern Mekong delta province of Hau Giang. Vietnam's Mekong delta is the country's largest rice producer. East Asian economic growth is built by cities, centred on the emergence of dominant economic regions, and built on agglomeration economies like the Mekong Delta. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The report indicates that cities offer a promising route to alleviating some of the world's vexing problems: poverty and unemployment. But the pathway to growth is not automatic. While many cities offer higher incomes and productivity, many others are poles for poverty, inequality, inefficiency, congestion and frustration.

How can more cities in Asia do better at generating jobs? How can more cities host dynamic and fast-growing industries?

Our research on 750 cities worldwide found several illuminating patterns.

First, job creation and economic growth are more likely to come from some industries than others - namely those that are tradable. "Tradable" means goods and services that are geographically mobile and, thus, subject to regional and international trade. We found that industries like light manufacturing, food processing or tourism tend to drive growth in incomes more than non-tradable goods and services like restaurants or household services.

Second, the right combination of policies and investments can set the stage for thriving industries. In the world's most competitive cities, governments provide a conducive regulatory environment and provide targeted support to particular industries. Effective policy often involves making bets to find winning industries, but also providing a good foundation of a business environment and basic infrastructure for all firms.

Third, mayors and city leaders - and governments more broadly - cannot do it alone. Only close partnership with private sector firms and industries will generate more jobs.

Globally, approximately 75 per cent of jobs come from the private sector. It is then no surprise that effective public policies and investments should be coordinated with the private stakeholders in economic development whom they are designed to assist. While it has become common for governments to claim most policies stem from "consultation" with firms and households, the world's most competitive cities go several steps beyond and exhibit a true coalition between governments and firms. In order to avoid the risk of policy distortions and capture by special interests, governments must also bring a solid fact base of data to their partnerships in order to ensure they are still getting a good deal for their constituents.

Fourth, we noted that a key difference between competitive cities and "the rest" was not the existence of a city development strategy on paper, but effective implementation of strategic actions. Competitive cities align their budgets to finance priority initiatives, rather than letting last year's spending dictate this year's budget allocations. Competitive cities proactively solve problems during implementation. Competitive cities mobilise sufficient staff capacity and attention to improve the quality of public initiatives.

Indeed, competitive cities make for more competitive nations. City leaders can be in the driving seat to attain the twin, often elusive, goals of job creation and shared prosperity.


  • Anabel Gonzalez is Senior Director for the Trade & Competitiveness Global Practice and Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez is Senior Director for the Social, Urban, Rural & Resilience Global Practice, World Bank.

  • The World Bank, the Global Environment Facility and their partners are organisers of this week's Singapore Urban Week events.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2016, with the headline 'Competitive cities create jobs and drive growth'. Print Edition | Subscribe