Cities are huge ecosystems of interdependent relationships, between city authorities, businesses and residents. None of them can exist without the others. The quality of these relationships has a direct impact on that city’s approach to sustainability and prosperity.
These relationships need to be nurtured to ensure effective collaboration between the different parts of the city. If you divorce someone’s head from their heart, they cannot function effectively – the same goes for a city. Each group has an important role to play in city life, and initiatives and developments will only come to fruition when all these groups work together to provide comprehensive solutions.
Effective relationships are based on parity of power. Each group should recognize the importance of the others, and treat them as partners. A mayor is elected by the people, supported by businesses and in turn supports the third sector. To function, each of these relationships are dependent on effective communication and mutual respect.
At its core, collaboration is a human activity. People will only pool knowledge or share solutions with each other if they have an effective relationship. It doesn’t matter if city government correctly recognizes a business’s role in its social care provision, if the people in their respective teams don’t get on, then no amount of money will solve any outstanding issues.
This is a critical risk to the sustainability of any city. The most common underlying cause of dysfunction in these relationships is that they are incredibly transactional in nature.
All too often, we view relationships between stakeholder groups in terms of what we can get out of them in the immediate future, rather than building long-term partnerships. Hierarchies within city authorities, and between authorities, businesses and residents, reinforce this transactional model.
Take a city that wants to ensure it is getting the right level of waste recycling from residents. They demand the residents meet certain conditions or suffer certain consequences. On the other side of the relationship, the resident has no alternative provider of waste collection, so they have no choice but to comply.
Thus, the relationship takes on a master-servant dynamic. A more effective relationship is one based on a parity of power; one in which both residents and city authorities embrace an issue as partners. Working effectively together to address the issue, through education and collaboration will lead to a more sustainable outcome than the imposition of strictures from above.
To foster true collaboration, direction needs to come from city leaders to challenge entrenched thinking and set the right tone. It needs to consider whether city authorities collectively demonstrate the importance of relationships in the way that they operate. The Mayor cannot hope to build an effective infrastructure plan by instructing the planning department to take care of matters and then walking away.
A first practical step for an organization to improve its relationships is for it to objectively measure the quality of those relationships. The key here is to identify the closeness of the two parties – their Relational Proximity - that can be quantified around facets of the relationship like power, their common history or the way they communicate.
The next step is for city leaders to take steps to improve their relationships with different stakeholders. Even small changes can have very powerful results. Direct, clear communication with residents or business underlines a city’s commitment to involving them in initiatives.
Aiming to strengthen the relationships between all the groups in the city, recognizing and valuing the contribution of each will lead to greater mutual respect and understanding. It is not rocket science, but replicating this model with businesses and with residents will lead to greater success in building a sustainable future for the city.