GaWC Research Bulletin 37

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This Research Bulletin has been published in Soundings, 17, (2001), 167-171.

Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


The Politics of Flow: On Birmingham, Globalization and Competitiveness

P.J. Hubbard*


Commenting on Birmingham's boosterist strategies [Soundings 13], Henry and Passmore note the social divisiveness of much contemporary urban policy. Though innovative, their alternative - encouraging multicultural 'global' investment - fails to fully acknowledge the realities of city politics in a global 'space of flows'; this article argues that a radical urban politics requires a conceptualisation of the city that moves beyond 'local' and 'global' to consider the politics of flow.


The continuing furore over the cultural disaster that is the Millennium Dome has arguably distracted from a series of similarly speculative ventures the length and breadth of the UK which, in their own ways, were supposed to symbolise urban renaissance. From Stoke-on-Trent's 'Ceramica' to Salford's Lowry Centre, 'local' culture has been packaged and marketed in a number of obvious ways to highlight indigenous heritage and tradition. Elsewhere, attempts to inculcate local pride have taken less predictable forms, such as in Leicester, where a National Space Science Centre is being developed to put this East Midlands city on the map (despite an apparent lack of space research in the city). Irrespective of their content, however, each of these spectacles has a similar entrepreneurial intent: to promote the host city as a truly international city. In this sense, these millennial projects take their place within a bewildering suite of advertising slogans, brochures, mega-events, festivals and cultural events that collectively serve to emphasise a city's international status. Massive investment in 'flagship' projects is often the catalyst to such aggressive marketing as it symbolises the intent of the city to create a space for international investment. Conversely, to lack such 'symbolic infrastructure' is tantamount to admitting that a city is not part of the global economy, invisible both to global capital and the 'movers and shakers' who are responsible for its deployment.

In recent years, the conscious manipulation and promotion of city imagery via place marketing has been subject to critical examination from academics who point out the ways in which city identities are sanitised, commodified and distorted in accordance with the perceived demands of the global marketplace. At the same time, they have highlighted the difficulty of distinguishing between those urban policies designed to create 'real' economic infrastructure and those designed to spin new 'myths' of the city. Here, the cultural economy is seen to intertwine with the political economy as the images of the city incorporated in the promotional brochures, adverts, guidebooks and videos come to define the essence of the city as much as the city itself. Nonetheless, the large-scale physical redevelopment of the city itself has taken centre stage in this process of enhancing the city's image. In their desire to stress their internationality, no aspiring World City has been seen as complete without its requisite signature-architect designed spaces and scenographic enclaves. This has been particularly evident in the construction of those projects which have aimed to emulate the perceived success of the rejuvenation of Baltimore's inner harbour in the 1960s. Heavily promoted as part of the boosterist politics pursued in Baltimore, these designer spaces became enshrined as a readily-identifiable symbol of the 'renaissance' city. Similarly, the names of these monumental spaces quickly become associated with the cities in which they are located: Bilbao's Guggenheim, Barcelona's Olympic Marina, Vancouver's Pacific Place, Atlanta's Peachtree Center, Sydney's Darling Harbour and so on.

Nowhere, however, is this global ambition more forcibly marked out than in Birmingham, where politicians have struggled for nearly two decades to erase the idea that the city is a depressed (and depressing) manufacturing centre. As Henry and Passmore described in Soundings1, this attempt to reverse images of parochialism, militancy and poverty has involved a staggering series of policies carried out in the name of urban regeneration, centring on an attempt to create an elite global enclave within Birmingham city centre around the International Convention Centre and Symphony Hall developments. When coupled with the development of new leisure centres, the sponsorship of public art, the organisation of new sporting spectacles and cultural festivals (including the painfully-tagged 'Millennibrum'), the scale of this ambition is obvious. Here, the policy focus has been unashamedly on the city's external image, the desire being to stimulate the local economy through policies that are global rather than local in orientation. In short, Birmingham has sought to represent itself as a city geared to the needs of the global economy - a post-industrial metropolis with serious claims to World City status.

Given the perception that we live in a highly competitive world where investment capital is footloose and fancy free, it is perhaps unsurprising that cultivation of an international image was seen by Birmingham's politicians and policy-makers as a pre-requisite for attracting inward investment. Since 1984, the city's economic development strategy has been underpinned by this ethos, with a variety of policies having been adopted to emphasise the city's claim to be a liveable place to work and play. Key here was the development of the International Convention Centre, designed as a focus for international business tourism; when opened in 1991, the headline of the boosterist Birmingham Evening Mail screamed 'Welcome to the World!' The subsequent development of Brindley Place (a major leisure development on the old canal basin) and a Sea Life Centre further contributed to the transformation of Birmingham's parochial image into that of a bolder, brasher and more confident international city. Successes like the hosting of the 1998 G7 conference at the ICC lent further weight to the city's boasts, with the marketing slogan belying a new-found swagger ('The Big Heart of England' became 'Europe's Meeting Place'). In short, Birmingham was becoming the kind of city that international firms think about when they are making their investment decisions.

Through the adoption of entrepreneurial and internationally-oriented policies, Birmingham has undoubtedly made great strides in terms of placing the city in the international shop window. As Henry and Passmore note, Birmingham is now undeniably on the world map, both symbolically and economically visible. But to herald Birmingham's policies as successful is premature. After all, there remains an important difference between being a city that is networked into international flows of capital and a being a city that is able to articulate these global flows. In this sense, Birmingham cannot yet claim to be a genuine World City - the type of urban centre deemed responsible for co-ordinating globalization by acting as a strategic hub in the global space economy and 'lubricating' the hypermobility of people, goods, capital and information. In that sense, it offers only marginal evidence for being a World City, being tapped into few meaningful global flows.

So even if Birmingham is becoming more international in its outlook, its claim to be a World city rings hollow. Here it is perhaps useful to consider the work of those commentators who have sought to offer a definition of a World City. Commonly, such definitions have defined these as the control, command and management centres that orchestrate trans-national movements and flows. While this indicates a multi-faceted economic, social and political role, it has been stressed (in the work of Saskia Sassen and Manuel Castells, for example) that a World City's most important role is to act as a major site for the accumulation and concentration of international financial investment. Hence, while much research has focused on the strategic importance of World Cities as housing institutions, companies and people at the cutting edge of global manufacturing, distribution, design, tourism, sports and entertainment, it has been commonly noted that World Cities are characterised by a major concentration of advanced producer services. This notion of World Cities suggests that it is the rapid growth, specialisation and agglomeration of producer service firms and the organisation of the financial industry itself that has been responsible for the formation of a World City network. Collectively then, it is the 'seamless' network of World Cities that is primarily responsible for shaping the intensity, direction and velocity of financial flows across the world.

Following this definition of World Cities, it is the locational preferences of producer service firms in accountancy, advertising and banking that are most crucial in determining urban prosperity. In effect, these firms seek to establish a presence in those cities they view as strategically important in the global economy, to the extent the presence of the most important global firms has been used as an effective surrogate measure of 'world cityness'2. Such studies demonstrate is that there is established World City hierarchy with London, New York and Tokyo at its apex and cities like Los Angeles, Singapore, Frankfurt and Hong Kong playing a secondary role further down. Some way behind, cities like Birmingham show only few signs of World City formation. There are few corporate offices in Birmingham, and none of the biggest banks, law firms or global advertising agencies have a presence there. It is still largely ignored by international investors but for a few examples of marginal investment by global accountancies. In this sense, Birmingham cannot yet claim to be a genuine World City - the type of urban centre deemed responsible for co-ordinating globalisation by acting as a strategic hub in the global space economy and 'lubricating' the hypermobility of people, goods, capital and information.

Yet the failure of Birmingham to have become a world city responsible for shaping the intensity, direction and velocity of financial flows across the world does not mean that the network of World Cities is static. To the contrary, Tokyo is recognised as having become much more important in recent years, while other cities have rapidly diminished in importance (Turin, Lille and Glasgow being cited as classic examples of cities suffering global dis-investment). Most policy-makers in British cities are acutely aware of their changing position relative to other cities - as well as the potential for their position to be undermined (or enhanced) by external investment decisions. As such, the globalization of economic activity, the increased geographical hyper-mobility of investment and the rising influence of trans-national corporations have combined to instill an edgy insecurity at all levels of the urban hierarchy. In effect, competition between places to attract inward investment of any type has become sharper as community after community falls over itself to offer more and more inducements for 'capital to come to town'. It is therefore not surprising that Birmingham City Council imagines that it has to promote the city's claims over rivals by being more aggressive, more competitive, more outward-oriented. As I argue below, the neo-classical argument that economic success derives from competitive advantage is one that therefore needs to be dispelled if a more radical urban politics is to develop.


In their damning critique of Birmingham's entrepreneurial developments, Henry and Passmore make much of the failure of symbolic sites like the ICC to reach out to local people economically or culturally. This critique is also expressed in David Harvey's discussion of entrepreneurial governance where he talks of the 'zero-sum' game resulting from the impulses of place differentiation (via promotion of local character) versus the standardisation implicit in the notion of international development.3 It is the fear of being wiped off the global economic map, Harvey argues, that triggers the urge to develop Prestige Projects, with each city feeling obliged to create a succession of projects just to 'keep up'. In his opinion, the serialisation of international flagship developments bequeaths no particular competitive advantage to any city, merely fuelling speculative development which is of little import in terms of assuaging economic problems Moreover, despite the harnessing of private finance and the involvement of stakeholders from the business sector, the financial implications of Prestige Projects for local authorities are often severe. Indeed, other reviews of Birmingham's policies has picked up on the way that money was diverted from (already shrinking) education and housing budgets to pay for the construction of the ICC.4 Rather than benefiting the most deprived areas and populations of the city, it has arguably added to local problems.

Henry and Passmore consequently add to the voices of those who critique Prestige Projects on the basis of their inability to stimulate inclusive growth. These symbolic sites are seen as divisive, representing an enclave of international financial interest in the heart of a multicultural (and struggling) city. The tension between local and global is thus highlighted, with Birmingham's attempt to reach out to the global seen to reject the local. Disputing the logic of such projects, Henry and Passmore argue for globalization from below, developing ideas about the 'diasporic circuitry' that lies untapped in the local economy. Through inclusive developments like a World Centre for Cultural Hybridity, they argue that the divisiveness of urban economic policy could be dispelled for good, linking local and global in innovative ways. Here they contend that building up a multicultural sense of place is crucial to Birmingham's economic prosperity; it is the globalization rooted in place that they argue needs to be fostered. The implication of this is that different forms of capital - not just that associated with Western banks, accountancies and law firms - need to be attracted to make Birmingham a successful city.

While not disputing this timely and trenchant critique of entrepreneurial development, in this context one might just pause to take issue with their focus on place. Throughout, they argue that Birmingham needs to draw on resources which are rooted in local place. Here, they seemingly distinguish between capital which is regarded as 'global' and 'footloose' and people, who are 'rooted' and 'local'. Of course, the reality is somewhat different, and capital can be as recalcitrant as labour is mobile (in Birmingham as elsewhere). In fact, this is acknowledged when the 'multicultural' origins of Birmingham's citizenry is acclaimed. Nonetheless, what Henry and Passmore do is to perpetuate the idea that urban success in a global economy depends on a place/city using its local resources to tap into global flows. The fact these may be flows of Asian or African investment is incidental - the implication is still that places/cities can only be competitive if they tap into global investment. Here they contend that building up a multicultural sense of place is crucial to Birmingham's economic prosperity; it is the globalization rooted in place that they argue needs to be fostered.

Essentially, what such arguments do is to reify a place-based view of the world where cities need to compete with one another to tap into global flows. If we reject this, we might begin to imagine a more radical urban politics. Indeed, if we replace such a place based perspective with an argument that recognises the existence of a global 'space of flows'5, we get a very different political agenda. Specifically, if we abandon the idea that cities are fixed places, with tightly-circumscribed administrative boundaries, and redefine them as spaces of flow, the notion of city competition changes. Here, the urban economy is no longer about its locally embedded resources, but about the flows it manipulates and attends to - flows of money, ideas, knowledge and people. To talk of these flows benefiting one locality to the detriment of all others is clearly non-sensical; for Birmingham to become plugged into the global space of flows it needs to establish connections and manipulate flows. The success of such strategies cannot be measured by studying how many 'global' firms (of whatever hue) invest in Birmingham, but by the volume of flows between Birmingham and other cities. Instead of competition, there is only collaboration: the flow becomes all.

If we accept this argument, economically and socially sustainable development can be seen to be about creating and maintaining these flows. From a place-based perspective, the way to do this might be to develop a World Centre for Cultural Hybridity in Birmingham (alongside the International Convention Centre) so that multinational capital comes to town. This would still be an inherently risky and speculative business, given it is a lure designed to trap global investors that might not benefit anybody. On the contrary, a space of flows perspective emphasises the importance of connectivity. More radical policy therefore, would be to establish a series of Birmingham Centres for Cultural Hybridity in Mumbai, Islamabad, Chicago, Beijing and so on. This would immediately involve movements of capital, investment, people and commodities, creating new global flows. What this underlines is that the bottom line with any prestige development is not how it connects with the 'local' economy but how it enhances global connectivity and collaboration.

On the surface, what is proposed here seems to fly in the face of (capitalist) reason; encouraging city governors to pour money into developments that are not even sited in their locale. But, to make this suggestion is to offer a wider critique of an urban politics obsessed with how the city is performing against its competitors (after all, this merely fuels the uneven development at the heart of capitalism that devalues one place in favour of another). Certainly, if city governors begin seeing other cities as potential collaborators rather than competitors, then the possibility of a more radical form of urban politics will emerge. The political agenda will become thus very different; instead of seeing their job as attracting 'global' capital to benefit a 'local' population, urban policy-makers would be responsible for managing flows and connections in collaboration with other city governors. Like the flows that make up the global economy, urban politics too would become truly transnational.


In commenting on Henry and Passmore's paper, this article has not sought to undermine their basic assertion - that entrepreneurial development and urban policy is often divisive and undemocratic. Birmingham's experience - as well as that of many other cities - shows that clearly. But there is a sense in which their arguments do not go nearly far enough. To simply suggest that urban policy-makers should make their cities more competitive by tapping into unexplored flows of capital matched to the needs of 'local' people is a somewhat reactionary argument. Fundamentally, this continues to perpetuate the distinction of local and global (even if the globalness of the local is acknowledged). A more radical urban politics, it is suggested, is a truly global politics, one which focuses upon flows rather than places. This does not mean that cities can be ignored, as the flows still have origins and destinations, but it does emphasise the importance of viewing cities as trans-national. In the global society, it is a politics of flow rather than a politics of place that therefore offers better opportunities to develop democratic citizenship.6 In an era when the nation-state is less and less able to challenge the autonomy of trans-national corporations, intercity urban politics might offer a way of creating more inclusive, sustainable and egalitarian flows. At the same time, the spectre of the 'zero-sum' game that haunts entrepreneurial urban politics would be exorcised.

Rejecting a place-based politics will not be easy; the rhetoric of boosterism and urban competition is widespread and difficult to challenge. It will certainly be difficult to convince city governors that 'displacing' inputs and investing outside their administrative boundaries makes any sense. Equally, it may be difficult for academics to resist evaluating urban policies in terms of local impacts and indigenous growth that policy-makers claim will result from entrepreneurial policy. Yet to continue to do so is to badly miss the point of the 'think global, act local' argument, which begs a global evaluation of policy as much as a local one. To re-imagine urban politics as a politics of flows thus offers an alternative way of thinking: urban politics as collaborative and constructive rather than competitive and destructive. Seen in this way, perhaps new opportunities for democratic intervention will become possible.



* Department of Geography, Loughborough University, E-mail:

1.Henry, N. and Passmore, A. (2000) 'Rethinking global city centres: the example of Birmingham' Soundings 13, 60-66.

2. For examples of such rankings, see Short, J. and Kim, Y. (1999) Globalization and the City London, Prentice Hall; Godfrey, B. and Zhou, Y. (1999) 'Ranking cities: multinational corporations and the global urban hierarchy' Urban Geography 20, 28-281; Beaverstock, J., Smith, R., Taylor P.J., Walker, D.R.F, Lorimer, H. (2000) 'Globalization and world cities: some measurement methodologies' Applied Geography 20, 43-63.

3. See Hubbard, P. (1996) 'Urban design and city regeneration: social representations of entrepreneurial landscapes' Urban Studies 33, 1441-1461; Loftman, P. and Nevin, B. (1998) 'Pro-growth Local Economic Development strategies: civic promotion and local needs in the .Second city, 1981-1996' in Hall, T. and Hubbard, P. (eds) The Entrepreneurial City Chichester, John Wiley.

4. Harvey, D. (1989) The Condition of Post-modernity Oxford, Blackwells.

5. This term is derived from Castells, M. (1996) The rise of the network society Oxford, Blackwells.

6. A related argument is made by Taylor, P. (2000) 'World cities and territorial states under conditions of contemporary globalization' Political Geography 19, 5-32.


Edited and posted on the web on 30th January 2001

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in Soundings, 17, (2001), 167-171