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Professor Pete Tyler

Pete is Professor of Urban and Regional Economy in the Department of Land Economy the University of Cambridge. You can listen to our conversation with Pete in Episode 2 of The DNA of Cities podcast. 

Photo credit: Ronni Kurtz via Unsplash.

Caitlin Morrissey

In your mind, do cities have a DNA, in what sense do cities have DNA, and is it literal or is it better understood as a metaphor?

Pete Tyler

Well, yes, I found it quite an interesting concept once I started to unpack it, as they say, because I guess as you probably already started to mention, it seemed to me that when you think about DNA, you were not only considering the various building blocks, but you also considering how they come together. And so it seemed to me that it was quite an interesting concept because it can combine those two things, what the building blocks were and how they came together.

And then the more I got thinking about it – and I say, I do tend to use the word a lot. But the more I started thinking about what it means, it seemed to me that it reflected on all the individual components that come together to energise and create the activity and creativity of a city. But it was very important also to think about how those elements joined up. And it did seem to me that probably if it was if it was to be truly reflective of how cities work, it needed to contain the physical and the economic and institutional and perhaps cultural and other things. And these concepts could – these issues could be quite difficult in many ways to conceptualise, but it probably should contain all those.

So funnily enough, you mentioned Mike [Batty]'s contribution. I did really feel that there was quite a strong physical-form built environment element to this, which, of course, gets you into all sorts of built-environment and architectural things. But I thought it was far more than just the economics in terms of the businesses, the firms, the people. But it was also, of course, the physical as well as the institutions. And I dare say other things I haven't thought of. So I think it's quite an exciting concept. I mean, as you reflect in your questions, I think, like lots of exciting concepts, of course, the question is, can they be used in a meaningful way to answer real-world questions or perhaps to advance knowledge? So perhaps we'll get on to that later.

But certainly, yes, I did feel that the more I thought about it, it seemed to me that cities have obviously different building blocks, but in general some of the same building blocks. But how they put them together was very important. And that perhaps does produce a sort of unique form, a unique genetic code, I suppose, for the city, because no city will do, at least in my experience, no city – and that's what our research tends to show over the years – no city performs exactly the same, and indeed no city would be expected to. But thinking about their uniqueness and that being reflected in a coding analogy, I think, is very useful.

Caitlin Morrissey

And I know when you spoke to Greg during the Connected Places Catapult podcast, you mentioned this idea about DNA in relation to innovation economies, and I'd love to pick you up on that and the types of traits or attributes that a city might leverage as it seeks to build its innovation economy.

Pete Tyler

Yeah. So, of course, I sit in a city which has really transformed in 70 years. And so most of what I look at when I'm looking at cities is to think, well, how have they responded and adapted to actual structural change and to economic change? And of course, economic change is all around us all the time in the sense that there's different impacts from globalisation, from the division of labour and transference of knowledge. And therefore, in that sense, when looking and thinking about my own city, which I think most people regard as a truly innovative city, it made me think about those building blocks, the institutions, the people here as they work in the places, the businesses, and really how they came together and evolved over the last 70 years to create what's called this innovative city as it now currently stands.

And it does seem to me that cities have all got institutions. They've all got certain sorts of businesses and labour forces. And within those building blocks, as we've called them, opportunity arises at different points in time to bring those things together and to create really true new, wonderful economic opportunity. And interestingly, I think if we think about Cambridge, of course, as you'll be well aware, the university has been here for 800 years and as a learning institution, as a learning city, it's been here for 800 years. And of course, therefore, it's, like most university cities with the dominance of universities in it, it's a knowledge-creating machine. But although its institutions, its colleges, its university was creating knowledge, what we see, of course, when we look at cities is at certain points in time, it becomes possible to exploit that knowledge. And so thus in the context of Cambridge that time really began to ramp up, I suppose, in the 1960s onwards, and to realise that, to translate that knowledge into commercial application and things that could help humankind, it required a whole range of things to come together.

So you can have the building blocks, it can be in your genetic code, but for it to, as it were, operationalise into economic success and other forms of success, it really does require things to come together in a particular way. And in that sense, that's why I think the concept is quite exciting, because you're keen to know when the particular attributes, the competencies that are within that DNA, if I can put it that way, when they can be literally light up in terms of translating into the things which humankind look for.

Caitlin Morrissey

What you just told me about made me think what forces are enabling cities to have certain different traits? What is creating this in Cambridge that's different to somewhere else like London? What do you see as being the reason behind why cities acquire or accumulate these building blocks, as you put it?

Pete Tyler

Well, of course, as we said earlier, cities are expressions of a particular geography of built form, and therefore their physical attributes are extraordinarily important. I mean, in Cambridge, of course, the bridge and other things was extraordinarily important. But I mean, when you're actually looking at the physical attributes of place, then they obviously do begin to influence the attraction of investment and people. And so it depends when a city begins in that sense, but ultimately you're seeing places attract investment and people. And through time that manifests itself in certain sorts of businesses and firms and activities, which then translate into two things. And I think what influences that translation is interesting. But at the end of the day, places are formed by investment that comes together in that place because that place has a meaning for that investment and the people crucially, of course, who come to that place.

So if you're looking at, say, the success of Cambridge, just using that again as an example, one has to remember that a very large factor in the Cambridge experience is that it's continuously importing more people because it's dominated really over its development in recent centuries, decades, by the movement of people into it. And as it's become more economically successful to develop and use the knowledge and the business expertise that's been developed, it's brought more and more people into it. So the place, the city, as with London, of course, which is this continuously pulling in talent, it's influenced by the flows of people and an investment.

And what makes for cities – and this I know I've talked with Greg before on this agenda – what makes for an attractive city in terms of being able to attract people and investment in all its various ways is a crucial element to success. But of course, over time, as it attracts more successful people and as it attracts and as it is able to develop its attributes, then that city finds that perhaps easier than when it's initially starting out, if I could put it that way.

Caitlin Morrissey

And now I'd like to ask you about cities through different development cycles, because, as you know, cities can be one thing at one time, like an industrial city, then a post-industrial city, now an innovation economy. There are many different journeys that cities go on in terms of different economic cycles. What attributes do you think cities seek to leverage at different stages in the journey?

Pete Tyler

This is a very interesting concept, and we, my colleagues and I, we do a lot of work looking at the concept of resilience and the adaptability of economic systems, and it's quite interesting to compare different cities and see how they vary in the ability to adapt to change in economic change. And so there's different cycles, as you say, in the process. And what makes what enables the city to be able to respond positively, if I can put it that way, at a particular point in time, is a very important question. And now some of it is to do with the ability of the city itself to transform itself from its previous, as it were, vintage or the things it's normally been doing.

So, I mean, if you look at what Krugman calls the ability to give cities second wind, as it were, move on from an industrial base to a post-industrial base, then you would be looking at a city like, for instance, Boston, and you'd be looking at cities like London and indeed, you know, you're looking at a smaller sense, at cities like Cambridge, which was, of course, a market town economy that moved to becoming a more knowledge-based development. So you'd be trying to understand what allowed them to be able to, as it were, change and transform.

Now, I think one of the things we've always felt is that the legacy of the past can be a very severe drag, if you want to put it that way, in terms of the infrastructure side of this. So, of course, cities need to be able to put in new infrastructure. They need to put in new, obviously, commercial industrial floorspace, but also housing and other things and so therefore, the ability of the system ultimately to respond to its creativity and its new ideas is partly influenced very much, I think, by its ability to adjust and enable those things to occur.

And so you'll know in the context of London, its economic renaissance in terms of its power in the service sector economy and particularly knowledge-intensive business services, it really began to power up in the 1980s and very much in the case of London before that, it was a city that was finding it quite difficult itself to adjust to the loss of its industry. I think I'm right in saying that London in the 1950s probably had the highest proportion of manufacturing activity than any of the British cities, actually. I think I'm right in that. And yet when you look at London now, it's obviously largely moved across to become a service economy and very powerful knowledge-intensive business services.

And in the 1980s, if you look at Docklands, for instance, then you can see how it used or was able to transform those landscapes to enable these new investments and this new expression of its form in these new industries. So to me, the ability of cities to be able to respond and literally pull in new investment platforms and attract, of course, people and retrain people if necessary, that's a very important part of the issue. And I think you see that in Boston as you see it in London and also in technology analogies as well. And this is a big issue. And we've done a project recently for the ESRC looking at British cities and the economic transformation of British cities. And we've observed that, in general, of course, those cities that have found it very difficult to shrug off the past as they've deindustrialized have been the older industrial cities in the north that have not been able to get the investments needed to make the transformation. And of course, the transformation itself brings about changes in the population skills and other things. So the whole thing becomes interactive. Lots to say, I mean, lots to say.

Caitlin Morrissey

Thank you. This is really fantastic. As you see it, can cities understand their DNA? Do they understand their DNA? And who needs to understand the city's DNA if they are to use it?

Pete Tyler

Well, I suppose in the managerial jargon these days, when people try and think about creating an economic strategy or industrial strategy, whatever it's called, then it's basic 101 managerial, isn't it, that you do your SWOT and you try to understand all of those key issues. And generally speaking, of course, that then hopefully guides your resource allocation and how you'll get funds and leave your funds and commit those, that helps you think about that. I think inevitably when you're looking at a city, you are looking at its DNA in a sense, you're looking at the composition of its industrial base, its workforce, its institutions. And as I've mentioned in the previous discussions, you are very much thinking about how you bring those things together in a way that enables effective outcomes economically, socially and environmentally as well. And when you're thinking about those things, you are really trying to understand the competencies of the businesses, the workforce.

Now, interestingly, again, when we look at our work for the Economic Social Research Council, what we've tended to find as well is that cities might have the same sector. So they might, for instance, have, I don't know, motor cars. But whatever they have, whatever sector I got that you're looking at, that sector in terms of the firms in it might vary quite a lot across cities as well. So we see that when you're looking at cities, it comes back to a word you mentioned earlier. In some ways they are all unique. You can have the same sectors. So they might all have the same certain sector. But even within that sector, we see big differences in the nature of the firms in the sector, which tells us that there's a lot of variation in terms of the way we think about some of the concepts, sectors in cities, but also, of course, the way in which behind the scenes they actually function and the things that make the success and all the things that need to be improved. And we think that's one of the reasons, by the way, why productivity varies so much across sectors is that there's big variation even within the same sector in terms of the ability of the companies within each of those sectors to be adopting best practice in terms of what might lead to increase their productivity.

Interestingly enough, as we are looking at the labour force, we've often tended to think about skills across cities. But cities have been differentiating themselves more about the way in which workforces are more differentiated in the tasks they do. And those are those tasks are coming together in the new division of labour. And so some of the old concepts that we may have thought about, particularly traditional ways of conceptualising sectors and occupations, they often hide within them many of the things that are important in thinking about how you can galvanise the economic activity of a city.

And if you're thinking within the coding, as you were using the analogy, and if you're thinking about how you would then think about how you could use the concepts, you need to understand more about what's in the code, you need to understand more than perhaps traditional analysis might have done. And that does set an agenda, I think, for researchers as well, because they – and researchers obviously like doing this – they need to think outside of that conventional box and find out what's really differentiating that city.

And certainly when I've been looking at cities that have been able to find new market opportunities and get new investment, it's because they've been able to – they've realised what they've got a history or tradition of doing as the world of work understands them out there, the business world, and they realise which sectors they should be playing to, and therefore they are successful in their approaches to attract that investment. And that's why this concept really does, I think, matter the more you – depending how you use it, why it matters.

You see this a lot in the financial business services as well, for instance, so you do see that certain cities are attracting certain sorts of certain parts of particular financial service sectors like insurance or whatever, precisely because their workforces are, as it were, have got the attributes and the skills to service that particular sector well. And businesses realise that often or are made aware of it. And that's why they invest in those cities with their operations.

Caitlin Morrissey

And so what doesn't the DNA of cities explain about the way cities evolve and how their economies evolve? What does it miss out? And what further questions does it raise for you?

Well, like I think we were suggesting at the beginning, you've got to be careful when you start to use these ways of thinking that they don't become all-embracing or too formulaic, if I can put it that way, or seen as a template or a way of necessary thinking. You've got to keep that flexibility in the application of the framework. So it does seem to me that, as I was emphasising, it depends how you think about the DNA. So it's quite important to have a broad way of thinking about it, including the physical environment of the city, I think, as we've been discussing. And crucially, its institutions, and understanding how the institutional development of the city and its governance, how that matters in playing out all of this, because I've become very much, like many over the years, it's obviously very clear that good governance, good bringing together also of the crucial stakeholders in the city, is very important for realising its assets and its ability and its attributes. So, as we've often said, you can have all the right assets, you can have the right attributes, but you won't necessarily be able to be doing what you want in your city unless you're able to recognize the difficulties of bringing together all those that need to come together for successful outcomes.

And, of course, just to say that I've been talking a lot today about thinking about the way cities, I suppose, think about maximising their economic growth. But increasingly, of course, we have to recognize we want cities that are environmentally aware, recognizing the environmental challenges of our age, which has been for too long ignored, and also inclusive cities. And so these concepts do need to be not just thought about in terms of in some sense maximising growth, they need to be thought about in that broader lens, through that broader lens of the well-being of the citizens, the people in cities and future generations, all of which are concepts I know are very key to your agenda.

Caitlin Morrissey

Thank you so much for this. And now a final question, which is –

Pete Tyler

It sounds like the exam is almost over!

Caitlin Morrissey

Yeah, you have five minutes left! 

And so if I had asked you the right question, would there have been anything else that you would want to say about the DNA of cities? Any other thoughts that you had?

Pete Tyler

One of the things that occurred to me, again, when I was thinking about it a bit more, is that it does enable you to think about some of the issues in economic geography, for instance, which probably need more discussion in terms of trying to operationalize the concept. So, for instance, we've mentioned businesses in cities and firms and the economic composition of cities, but there's a big debate in economic geography as, for instance, whether or not successful cities are those that become more specialised or more diversified or those cities that have related variety.

And so it did seem to me that the concept was quite interesting in playing through some of these discussions as well, because – mind you, not as though economic geographers need any excuse to play these discussions, because there's a huge literature on these things. But it's interesting if you're just looking at British cities, that our work recently has shown that they've tended to become a lot less specialised. So whereas I don't know, 200 years ago, cities would have been very much seen to be the city of a certain thing, like Sheffield steel-making, say, and so on, that they've become a lot less that way inclined if you're using those traditional sectoral labels. They've probably become more specialised in these functional task senses that I'm talking about. But again, that's an agenda to be researched.

But I do think it's quite interesting to understand and think a bit more about these concepts using the idea of the DNA. And therefore, that means you do have to stand back again and think about these questions of how you categorise the activities and how they have meaningfulness in this sense. So it is quite an interesting conceptual framework for thinking about some of the things that we're all exploring at the moment to try and understand what makes for successful adaptation of cities and change.

Caitlin Morrissey

So cities that were quite specialised before – do you think it's possible that they can successfully diversify if it's not something that they've been used to? Can cities take on a new path?

Pete Tyler

Yeah, that's a very interesting question and one which, of course, frequently occupies the policymaker mindset. We've seen that, of course, when it comes to thinking about the new technology age and whether or not, as cities have sought to, as it were embrace new life science technology or whatever, it's always seemed to be the case that everybody wants to be at the leading edge in terms of the most sexiest technologies. Everybody's got to be top in life science or good in that. I think the evidence suggests that you need to recognize the hill you need to climb. And therefore this again does suggest some promise in this concept, because obviously you need to recognize where your code's the strongest and how much effort is going to be required to actually make it stronger if you want to be present in that field.

So, I mean, I've been involved and I know Greg has over the years in sort of policy missions where cities are thinking about trying to attract new industries, new sectors, and if you put enough resources into it, you may eventually be able to get somewhere, of course, as inevitably might be the case. But obviously, it may also be the case that you'll find it quite difficult given the competition. So I'm not sure that – I think you do have to be very careful. But this is why this concept matters. As indeed people have said, it matters to think about cluster analysis and other things. That is, what is making for your success and where have you been strong in your DNA in the past, if I can put it that way?

And this comes back to the role of research and thinking about, well, how do the attributes in your businesses, in your workforce and the place itself and its institutions, what do they really play well to that would be good to be trying to attract or encourage or grow rather than trying to reach for the same sort of thing? And I know in previous years there's been discussions that sometimes various development agencies have all seemed to adopt the same idea that you work towards these sectors.

But I think in general, good practice suggests that you customise to where your strengths are. And within this concept, the way of thinking about this is that you should recognize that your strengths may well need careful research and won't be the same as other cities, particularly if you want your city to become a unique place, which, of course, differentiates you around the world. And that's important. So I do feel that it's important not to reach for the same stars, if I can put it that way. And it's very important to play to the strengths. And this sort of way of thinking about where you've got historically your great advantages does enable you to do that.

And so, of course, in London's case, for centuries it's had great strengths in financial business services. With the right sorts of investment and ultimately the right sorts of other changes, including institutional policy changes, it was able to realise that opportunity because it was latent within its skill base, if I can put it that way.

Caitlin Morrissey

And London's a great example of a city that's done it well, but are there cities that stand out in your mind – maybe you don't want to use a specific example, maybe you do – that haven't actually not played to their strengths? 

Pete Tyler

I think, to be honest, it's more the case that to transform cities and to realise the potential does require considerable resources. So again, in the research that we've been looking at for this research project we've looked at, I suppose it was 90-odd British cities. And we saw that if you characterised them in the last over the last 50 years in terms of economic growth, you saw that there were cities that have really been able to grow a lot more quickly or relatively more quickly than the national average. Then there's a swatch of cities that have grown about the national average. And then there's some, of course, that have done a lot worse than the national average. And in general, I mean, what's usually been the case when we've looked into those cities is that we've realised that the slower growing cities have been trying to, as we discussed earlier, trying to move into new economic spaces, but have been heavily constrained by their legacy of their past. So they've got the old infrastructure platforms and they have needed a huge amount of investment to begin to turn their economic structures around, which is now beginning to occur. But, of course, it's taken many years.

And I've often argued that if the UK, for instance, as an example, if it was to look back at the sheer scale of the deindustrialization and what it was going to require to think about change, it would have almost needed a martial plan, you know, thinking about the end of the Second World War type thing for Europe. You needed a martial plan level of resources, but indeed, British policy didn't do that. It led to a more slow drip feed of response and resource. So those slower-growing cities are finding it very difficult to transform, although they've all been doing it. And the fast-growing cities, interestingly, some of them, of course, are cities which have been born really in the post-war period from quite small bases. So they're the new towns. And the new towns are, generally speaking, a British success story, the post-war new towns, because they’ve been able to attract investment and develop on, usually, greenfield sites. So they've not been encumbered by the issues in the past.

Again, they've tended to establish their own sort of forms and in general have not tended to seek to apply a sort of formulaic approach. Certainly in many cases, they've adopted or developed around some of the attributes and skills of their location and other things. So you do need to look at different sorts of cities. But it's hard to suggest the cities that have failed as such, because I think it's more a function of the mountain or the hill they've had to climb.

We do see, of course – and this is why I'm always quite positive about this – we do see cities changing again and again. I mean, I think I mentioned earlier Boston, I think it's been through three major transformations, and British cities are doing the same. It just sometimes takes a long time, particularly if you’ve had a long history of industrialisation. And Britain's transformation has been pretty unique in that respect in terms of its scale. And we are seeing cities now that are beginning to make real pace, and British cities are beginning to, certainly the big cities, repopulate and drawing on their strengths, exert new sorts of sectors in development.

So it's probably a bit invidious to pick any particular city, the small groups of cities that have faced similar sorts of constraints to overcome the issues that they've inherited from previous industrial structures and previous eras of economic change. And so that's usually the nature of the problem. But we've also got examples of the fast-moving cities, I suppose, if you look at it like that, which are able to build on some of the issues I mentioned. Of course, you've also got constraints on city transformation like – so Cambridge, as we've discussed previously, is a city that's growing rapidly but also is very keen to maintain a sort of environmental quality of life alongside that, as well as an inclusivity agenda. 

So it's very important in looking at interpreting this concept not to get overly deterministic in what you're looking for in outcome terms, I think. I think that's important. Quality cities, as I'm sure you and Greg would agree, are not just excessively fast-growing cities, although obviously that's important.

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