“Cities are laboratories for change”

17 March 2021

Martin Sandbu is the Economics Leader Writer for the Financial Times. Before joining the FT, he worked in academia and policy consulting. He has taught and carried out research at Harvard, Columbia and the Wharton School, and has advised governments and NGOs on natural resources and economic development. His latest book is ‘The Economics of Belonging’ and he is the keynote speaker at the Eurocities Economic development forum, hosted by Oulu, on 17 March. Ahead of the event, we took a moment to find out his thoughts on the future for cities.

Your book, Economics of belonging, is strongly focused on the financial crisis. What do you think will be the biggest impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy?

The clearest impact is that it intensifies harmful developments already underway for decades: an increased economic polarisation between those working in well-paid knowledge jobs and those precariously employed in manual services. But I hope another impact will be a greater political determination to finally act to reverse this polarisation in the years and decades ahead.

What do you think is the future for cities? What should be the role of cities in the recovery?

Cities are on the winning side of economic history: the sectors that now lead economic activity thrive in cities, and big cities in particular. But cities face several challenges. The transition to a greener digital economy will take place in cities first and foremost, so it’s up to cities to show it can be done in a way that benefits everyone. And cities cannot ignore the resentment and economic plight of more remote ‘left-behind’ areas outside them – which makes it all the more important that they lead the coming transitions in an inclusive way.

What is the most important thing cities should do to respond to the changes in the economy due to Covid-19? How does this fit into the European context?

Whether they want to or not, cities will be laboratories for change – so they may as well embrace the challenge. As they make policies for green and digital transitions, it would be enormously beneficial if they think not just locally, but how what they do – if successful – can be learned from, adopted, and scaled across other cities, and avoid that any costs of the transitions are pushed less successful cities and the non-urban peripheries. At the national and EU level, authorities should encourage the same – namely that cities work on the best transition strategies in ways that can be reproduced elsewhere. Networks like Eurocities can be harnessed precisely to keep these broader dimensions in mind.

And finally, what’s your favourite city and why?

It’s hardly original, but I am always energised by New York City – when I lived there it felt like coming home, and visiting since has always been like an injection of life. I hope the trauma of the pandemic will be followed by better days.