Cities as ideas; founding visions are vulnerable. The more their realisation depends on the will and power of a single leader (or a colonial power), the more likely they are to be subverted

Cities as ideas

When Peter the Great visited Amsterdam in 1697, he was dazzled. It was the richest city in the world, a maritime superpower and a global trade hub — confirmation of the West’s superiority in technology, education and the arts.

Amy Bernstein is the editor of Harvard Business Review.


When Peter the Great visited Amsterdam in 1697, he was dazzled. It was the richest city in the world, a maritime superpower and a global trade hub — confirmation of the West’s superiority in technology, education and the arts.

The contrast between the brilliance and worldliness of Amsterdam and the dreariness and xenophobia of his own capital, Moscow, was not to be borne. He wanted an Amsterdam of his own. So he built one.

As Daniel Brook describes in A History of Future Cities, St Petersburg was the czar’s bid to modernise (read: Westernise) his empire, and he supervised every detail of its construction. He brought in architects from Switzerland and Germany and engineers from England, Germany and Italy. He established the empire’s first secular, coeducational university and the world’s first public museum. He introduced his people to newspapers, salons and instrumental music concerts. In just a few years, St Petersburg grew into a model of European sophistication and a monument to its founder’s vision and audacity. Peter’s accomplishment, Brook argues persuasively, illustrates the notion that cities are “metaphors in steel and stone”. St Petersburg — along with Shanghai, Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and Dubai, the other three cities profiled in Brook’s engaging book — served as a gateway to the West. Through it, Peter imported non-native attitudes, approaches and behaviours in order to build the future.

But founding visions are vulnerable. The more their realisation depends on the will and power of a single leader (or a colonial power), the more likely they are to be subverted. And cities founded on ideas can suddenly, sometimes violently, come to represent entirely different ones. St Petersburg, Shanghai and Mumbai, for example, all turned against the West.DETROIT’S CAUTIONARY TALE

Cities may be metaphors, but those metaphors are highly mutable. That is because cities are living organisms that draw their shape and energy from the people who live and work in them. They defy top-down planning.

Just think about the many failed experiments in urban renewal that theorist Jane Jacobs disparaged because they tried to impose constructs on people who wanted no part of them. The success of cities cannot be programmed or assured. They can fall as fast as they rise.

Consider Detroit. Its story has been told countless times, most recently by Charlie LeDuff in Detroit: An American Autopsy and Mark Binelli in Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. It is difficult to remember, but the Motor City, too, was once the embodiment of an idea: The American Dream.

In 1920, it was the fourth-biggest city in the United States, and by the 1950s it was per capita the wealthiest. As LeDuff notes: “It’s the birthplace of mass production, the automobile, the cement road, the refrigerator, frozen peas, high-paid blue-collar jobs, home ownership and credit on a mass scale. America’s way of life was built here.”

Detroit was where people could get ahead if they worked hard. The city democratised capitalism.

But we all know what happened in Detroit, and therein lies the cautionary tale. The city is now in ruins, undermined in many ways by its own success. The high-paying jobs that drew thousands also enabled the workers to purchase cars and move out to the suburbs, which the white ones did in droves.

Business fled as well, in search of lower costs. The nasty spiral continues: The city that was once the symbol of 20th-century US industrial hegemony now leads the nation in unemployment, poverty, foreclosure, illiteracy, violent crime and a host of other dystopian indicators. “It was the vanguard of our way up,” LeDuff says, “just as it is the vanguard of our way down”.


Detroit need not be a metaphor for America’s decline, however. The city’s disintegration was no more inevitable than the weak, often corrupt leadership that failed to prevent it.

Binelli, for one, sees reason for hope. “Post-industrial Detroit could be an unintentional experiment in stateless living, allowing for the devolution of power to the grassroots,” he writes. Sure, that explains the rise of gangs and vigilantism, but it also paves the way for increasing numbers of homesteading artists, entrepreneurs and even urban farmers who are bringing vitality back.

Binelli is not alone in his optimism. A growing cadre of experts think that 21st-century cities will experience positive change.

In her forthcoming The End of the Suburbs, Leigh Gallagher, an editor at Fortune magazine, argues that demographic trends, such as the decline of the nuclear family, are contributing to an urban renaissance, while urban scholar Alan Ehrenhalt’s 2012 book, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, traces the revitalisation of specific city centres (Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Atlanta and Houston) where the affluent are moving in and the poor and newcomers are settling on the outskirts.

We have seen this pattern before. Ehrenhalt writes: “Chicago is gradually coming to resemble a traditional European city — Vienna or Paris in the 19th century, or, for that matter, Paris today.”

Cities are, as the architect Rem Koolhaas has said of Dubai, “the ultimate tabula rasa on which new identities can be inscribed”. That suggests that they have the capacity to reinvent themselves — just as St Petersburg, Shanghai and Mumbai have.

But it is not czars or colonial overlords or other single leaders who get to decide what any city will symbolise from one decade (or century) to the next. It is the people who still flock to them in search of one thing: The opportunity to create their own individual and collective futures.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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