How to get under the skin of a 24 hour city

6 min readJun 20, 2020

I was on the London Leadership Programme, a programme set up by London Councils to learn and apply leadership skills together to tackle difficult problems facing Londoners. Our induction session set the scene as we overlooked the capital from City Hall. And who better than @barryquirk presenting. He’d grown up in the neighbourhood and had witnessed the transformation of London over his time as Chief Executive of Lewisham and now of Kensington & Chelsea, in the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster.

I often take for granted living and working in the capital. It’s a city that’s not just the capital of the UK, but can often feel like the capital of the world. It attracts so many people from across the planet to come and study, work or play. Some people even think it might as well be a different country. It’s porous to different ways of thinking and doing, while having a strong identity of openness, creativity and solidarity.

How does the lifestyle of living or working in London influence how we think and how we behave? Are we passive rats running the rat race or are we constantly shaping and re-shaping it?

The flipside of that porosity means that it hasn’t been able to fight against forces driving inequality. People in luxury penthouse flats with infinity pools live side by side with people sleeping rough on the streets. Many people find themselves being drawn into the opportunities of the capital while not being able to afford the right to stay there. As the 20–39 year old age group dominates, increasingly people delaying making the decisions that traditionally mean “settling down” — be it having children or buying a house.

What are the implications of a travel to work market that’s making London stretch out into the Home Counties and even beyond?

Should we factor in the needs that commuter towns have in hosting the workers that make our boroughs work and prosper? Or do we create more ways that people can live and work together on healthy streets rather than commute in?

What about the implications of people not feeling able to put down roots? Do Londoners inevitably become Citizens of Anywhere and therefore Citizens of Nowhere or can they navigate the multiple identities each of us possess? How can we create bonds between people that enable them to build solidarity with each other, even if they have only recently arrived in our boroughs and don’t know how long they will stay?

What does this mean for leadership in London? Nowhere is power more concentrated not just within traditional places of power like Westminster of Whitehall, but also the City for financial services and Silicon Roundabout for tech. What’s unique about London is the opportunity to develop new forms of leadership which can cross over sectors and can bypass traditional sources of power.

What’s your time horizon?

In local public services, our horizon is often very short, because the people we deal with have needs that are very urgent, from someone being evicted from their home, to a child fleeing abuse to an old person being discharged from hospital.

On the other hand, sometimes our horizon is too long when we develop plans over four years that are based on assumptions on a particular moment in time when the world is constantly changing around us. When we’ll need to be self-sufficient by 2020, adapt to the uncertain implications of Brexit of 2019 and watch out that our reserves don’t run by…

But we rarely take stock to reflect on longer time horizons, both behind and in front of us, when we know that over the last 30 years we’ve only experienced one wave of innovation…digital, and over the next 30 are likely to experience three.

Barry Quirk looked back at the trends that most influenced how councils organised themselves in the past twenty years — delivering value for money, focusing on targets and driving competition. Best Value, Comprehensive Performance Assessments and Private Finance Initiatives are all examples of new public management.

What does that mean with the increasing loss of trust by people in hierarchical institutions be they private or public? With the constantly changing environment that makes targets out of date as soon as you set them? When councils should focus less on providing services and more on shaping the places they serve?

What does value mean when it comes to ensuring that people can live in safe & decent housing and that the Grenfell Tower disaster never happens again? As Quirk himself highlights, should public servants be at best “highly functioning socio paths”?

Perhaps instead of developing targets, we need principles & ethics that create the space for public services working with communities to agree what will guide them in making decisions, like the Bologna’s Regulation for the Care & Regeneration of Urban Commons @labgov, @lambethcouncil Cooperative Council Behaviours or Redbridge’s The Manual?

Perhaps instead of stimulating competition, we need to stimulate social investment into our local areas that everyone can share in and collaboration that mobilises people to work together to pool their resources & assets, like @HDTHeadingley Investment Fund, @stockportcouncil Community Investment Fund or @londonfunder Place-based Giving

Perhaps instead of technocratic ways to measure best value, we need to create better ways to empathise with those who live and work in the places we serve to understand what value they can create together, like Lambeth’s U Lab, Helsiniki’s Participation Game or Barking & Dagenham’s Everyone Everyday @everyone_org.

Indeed, Quirk argues leadership needs to combine the intellectual energy of setting direction and building capability with building momentum & confidence and fostering the heart.

He concludes with a challenge for us all:

What are you about?

What values do you try and live by?

What do you stand for?

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Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese