How cities are leading the way to solving problems | Q&A

For four decades now cities in the United States have been inventing new institutions and collaborations to get things done, reacting to a sense of crisis and the inadequacy of existing capacities. Philadelphia’s Center City District is a great example.

Jeremy Nowak, a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation, and Bruce Katz, the Centennial Scholar at the Brookings Institution, have coauthored a new book, “The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism,” published by Brookings Institution Press. We talked to the authors to hear what they have to say, and how Philadelphia fits into the picture.

The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism by Jeremy Nowak, Bruce Katz

Your new book is called “The New Localism,” which argues that there’s a big power shift going on, from the nation-state to cities and metro communities, and from government to networks of public, private, and citizens working together to make change.   What’s the backstory of the book?  When did this idea begin to gel?

The dramatic shift in the economy over the past forty years has distributed benefits unevenly, widening income gaps, changes in demography, and the digitalization of services and production. Populism is an expression of political grievances. New Localism is the 21st century means of solving those very problems as local metropolitan leaders – civic, private, and public – begin to reclaim the future by addressing these issues in pragmatic ways.

The election of Trump motivated us to write this book now. The chaos of the Trump presidency and the dramatic levels of partisanship in Congress and many state houses contrast with much of what we observe “on the ground”: pragmatic collaboration to solve problems. We began writing in January 2017 and finished the first draft six months later. We think it is a literal act of optimism.

You provide a fascinating historical context in your discussion of the forces that lead to populist movements like the one we’re currently in.  It’s a good reminder that such movements are, in fact, cyclical.

Populism is a revolt against elites: political and economic. The best-known populist movements emerge during shifts in the economy that upend the way we make a living: transitions from agriculture to urbanization, the emergence of industrial cities, and new forms of globalization. Populism often mixes nostalgia for the past and a new future. It can also appeal to national, ethnic, regional, or class solidarities.  In the best of situations, populist demands result in legislation or institutions that widen the sphere of fairness and participation. But there is often also the potential for populism to morph into an authoritarian and chauvinistic regime that uses an idealized version of the past as a way to establish legitimacy.

You talk about vanguard cities where localism is strong, and include Philadelphia, using the Center City District as one example.  Tell us more about how that relates to your premise.

For four decades now cities in the United States have been inventing new institutions and collaborations to get things done, reacting to a sense of crisis and the inadequacy of existing capacities. Philadelphia’s Center City District is a great example. It emerged when the real estate market downtown was in steep decline and today few people can imagine the resurgence of the downtown without it. It is a civic institution, funded by businesses and residents, and allowed to carry out certain functions and levy fees by the public sector. Private capital, public legitimacy, and civic enterprise combine to create something new.

What are some of the characteristics that are shared by cities who are becoming stronger problem-solvers in this new age?

There are three very important characteristics. First, local leaders must understand the importance of exercising horizontal leadership; being able to use soft power to convene, collaborate, and act. Secondly, communities have to understand their assets and how those assets can be leveraged in the context of the global economy.  Finally, communities have to identify tangible opportunities to connect growth and equity; bridging the gap between people and places that are marginal to growth and the strongest hubs of opportunity.

You also mention Pittsburgh.  What happened there?

Pittsburgh is the best example of moving from an old industry shock (the loss of steel) to a new economy based on robotics and other new technologies. It was not an overnight success but reflects forty years of investing in centers of excellence in its universities, community colleges, and infrastructure. In the 1960s nobody predicted the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s and 1980s. And in the 1980s nobody could imagine that Pittsburgh would become a preferred destination for the R&D of companies that had not yet been invented, from Uber to Google.  Pittsburgh is still a maker city: It just makes different stuff.

Cities are complex systems.  Are there other complex systems that we might see start to mirror “the new localism. ”   I’m thinking of education, and higher education, and maybe even media.

Yes, absolutely. One of the most important ideas of the book is that the devolution of power and the rapid changes in economic relationships, technology, and demography are forcing most of our institutions to change. Your business – newspapers – is a prime example and it is causing everyone in your world to search for new business models. In addition, there is no possibility that the future landscape of higher education will resemble anything like what we have today in a few decades. There will be mergers, closings for many four-year schools, an increasing trend toward distance learning in combination with campus meet-ups, and a proliferation of new models of education that reduce the debt burden that American students are carrying today. As with cities, the inability to adapt and act is the difference between success and failure.

Can we think about New Localism as a way to reexamine our approach to large complex problems like poverty, or criminal justice, or general economic inequality?

That is a great question. We try to speak to the issue of economic inclusion in the book and in fact use some Philadelphia examples. One of the remarkable things about the new technologies is that many of the jobs they create are not just for the most elite science and engineering backgrounds but require technicians that can be trained through community colleges. The Wistar Institute in Philadelphia (in collaboration with Philadelphia Community College) does that very thing.

Who should read this book?  And what do you hope happens as a result?

The genius in America has always been its problem-solving ability. We generally avoid ideological answers and movements and prefer a solutions orientation. We want problem-solvers from every political persuasion to read the book and to engage us in conversation. (Reach Nowak at

Sandra Shea is the managing editor for Opinion for Philadelphia Media Network.