Invisible Hand or Clenched Fist?

Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg is the Founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies and a three-term Mayor of New York City (2002-2013).

For the first time in human history, the majority of people in the developed world are being asked to make a living with their minds, rather than their muscles. Across a growing range of industries – including those long considered blue collar – workers must analyse, create, engineer, design, code, write, and understand complex systems, leaving in many cases the actual ‘doing’ of things to robots, computers or workers in developing countries. Today, a strong back will only carry a career so far.

It’s not just the way we work that is undergoing a historic transformation. So too is the way we live. The gradual urbanisation of society that began during the Industrial Revolution is now reaching a climax. Today, more than half the world’s population dwells in urban areas, compared to only 20 per cent a century ago. In the next few decades, nearly 70 per cent will. Cities have triumphed, and they will increasingly shape the future.

These two global trends – in where we live and how we work – are complementary: each reinforces and accelerates the other. Cities have always been where innovation in science, technology, art and commerce collide, and where people go to pursue their dreams. Today, people who make a living with their minds tend to be attracted to a diversity of cultures and cuisines, faiths and philosophies, arts and ideas – and to places where all of this can be found within easy reach by foot, bike, or mass transit. It is no coincidence that the revival of so many urban areas in the US over the past two decades has come as knowledge and computer literacy have grown more central to the economy.

Together, the changes in how we work and where we live have the potential to reshape the world in profoundly positive ways, by improving health, reducing poverty, increasing education levels, expanding job opportunities, and promoting tolerance. But those benefits are threatened by monumental challenges that urban societies and knowledge economies present, and that local and national leaders must confront.

Urban societies

Rapid urbanisation poses a difficult question for cities: how will they accommodate the masses of people who flock to them? Answering it involves planning for, and investing in, new infrastructure of every kind: housing, transportation, energy, water, sewers, schools, and parks – and finding ways to expand each area in ways that improve standards of living without fuelling climate change. No small task.

In 2006, we set out to tackle it in New York by creating a long-term plan for the city’s future, called PlaNYC. Projections showed that New York City would add one million more people by 2030, straining our already old infrastructure and – if nothing was done – greatly increasing air pollution, including carbon emissions. Population growth is good for cities; it’s a sign of health. But failing to plan for growth can leave cities overwhelmed by it.

Fortunately, as we learned in New York, preparing cities for growing populations – by extending mass transit, building housing near transit links, improving energy efficiency, and expanding parks – also helps cities fight climate change. In fact, the measures that are most effective at fighting climate change also offer the most effective ways to improve people’s health and quality of life. For cities, fighting climate change is less a burden than an opportunity. When I left office in 2013, we had reduced the city’s carbon footprint by 19 per cent, improved air quality to record levels, increased life expectancy by three years, and made New York a better and easier place to live and get around.

All cities face challenges from climate change – and like New York, most lie on coastal waterways, making them vulnerable to both rising sea levels and storms that are growing more intense, thanks partly to the warming oceans. As the world urbanises, it’s imperative that cities – which account for about 70 per cent of global greenhouse gases – lead the way in reducing emissions, while also adapting to climate change in order to protect their populations from more extreme weather. Failure to do so could have catastrophic consequences for urban populations and for the nations increasingly dependent upon them. Today, through my foundation and organisations like the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, we are working to help cities tackle climate change and build more sustainable futures.

Knowledge economies

Countries with education systems that emphasise science, technology, engineering and math, along with creative problem-solving and critical thinking, will be well-positioned to create and attract innovative companies and well-paid jobs. During my time as Mayor of New York, we launched an international competition that offered world-class universities free land and other incentives to build new campuses devoted to applied sciences. Today, Cornell Tech – a partnership between Cornell University in New York and The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology – is rising on Roosevelt Island, a stone’s throw from midtown Manhattan. We project it to create 8,000 permanent jobs and hundreds of new companies, but its greatest impact will be in helping to cement New York’s reputation in this new century as a global leader in technological innovation.

Attracting and incubating science and technology companies is critically important to cities’ futures, but not every student wants to become an engineer or astrophysicist – and some have little interest in college. When I was growing up, a high school diploma was enough to qualify for a factory job that came with a ticket into the middle class. Today, not only have manufacturing jobs shrunk, they require skills that many US high schools aren’t teaching.

The same is true for many other industries that traditionally haven’t required a college degree. Most vocational programs are based on an economic model that is decades out of date, and, making matters worse, the programs are often stigmatised and considered appropriate only for those who struggle academically.

Our failure to arm students with the skills they need to enter the middle class consigns too many of them to a lifetime of unemployment and low-wage jobs. That is a tragic waste of human talent that can have terrible consequences not only for the individual – including a greater risk of drug addiction and suicide – but also for their families. And it presents serious risks to a nation’s growth and stability.

When people feel powerless to take control of their future, the possibility of violence and revolution increases, as history has shown time and again.

The market’s invisible hand can appear to be a clenched fist to those without the skills and knowledge to earn a decent living and attain opportunities for advancement – unless elected officials and business leaders, working together, offer them a hand up. My foundation is part of that work, by helping to bring businesses and education leaders together to overhaul, modernise, and expand vocational training in places like New Orleans and Colorado – something we had focused on during my time in City Hall.

One of our approaches to re-thinking vocational education in New York has since been adopted as a national model: extending high school by two years and allowing students to earn a college associate’s degree. For instance, we created a six-year school in partnership with the City University of New York and IBM, which concentrates on computer science. IBM provides mentors and internships to students – and graduates are first in line for interviews at the company. We also created six-year schools focused on other growing industries, including clean energy and healthcare.

More non-traditional schools like these are necessary to give students opportunities to learn the skills they need to succeed in the workplace. Pairing high school students with apprenticeships in advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, information technology, graphic design, and other fields can help them acquire marketable skills and introduce them to industries that often lack qualified workers.

Shifts in how we work and where we live present difficult challenges that will require new thinking, new approaches, and new resources.

Adapting will not be easy, but cities have every incentive to lead the way – and those that do will reap great rewards. A future driven by cities and powered by knowledge holds unlimited potential for improving lives, but we must ensure that all people have opportunities to contribute their talents – and share in the benefits.