Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s vital for great cities


Urban strategist Charles Landry has developed research and creative initiatives for some of the world’s greatest cities including Chicago, Sydney, Seattle, Vancouver and Glasgow. In early March, he spent a week's residency in Palmerston North, indexing it against other cities of its size. See creativecityindex.org.

How did you get on this track?

For me a key [moment] came when a theatre in a small British city was going bankrupt. The question was, “Are the cultural people incompetent, or is the city so badly designed and laid out that [the theatre] will never succeed?” That was a breakthrough – it was in the early 80s and we suddenly realised how cities perhaps fit together, and how the environment and the milieu of a city determines its success or failure, its level of energy, how motivated people are and so on.

Over the years I became more and more interested in cities – how they work, what the assets are. Again I noticed that those people who are creative tended to be more successful.

You have said: “Only if you’re curious can you be imaginative; and out of being imaginative you might be creative.” Are most people curious?

No. I did some work in a really deprived place in the UK and they were talking having start-ups and entrepreneurial things with all these young folks who were unemployed. And I thought, ‘how are they going to suddenly start a business when they’re unemployed and they’ve been unemployed and their parents have been unemployed unless you first can generate some curiosity in them?’ Then I realised curiosity comes before. I tried to work back from creativity and I think for me that is an increasingly significant thing. Some of your leaders are not curious. If they were curious, then ultimately, they might get the energy to be brave or confident.

How do we inspire people to be curious?

In a funny way, the curious thing is the easiest. You’re not saying, ‘hey look at this creative idea that could be frightening, it’s more like you’re saying ‘have a go’.  You can engender curiosity by starting where people are – and winding them out.

How did the creativity index come about?

Two years ago, Bilbao Spain asked: we know we’re an innovative city, we know we do things well, we’re very professional, but we’re not sure we’re creative. They understood the difference between innovation being the result of a process versus creativity being the precondition for you to actually harness knowledge, imagination, all of that to have some ideas on the table from which innovation might emerge.

There are a lot of rankings of cities. How does the Creative City Index differ?

I kept looking at all these rankings of cities and thinking “I can’t feel the city”. We look at the 10 indicators and ask things like what is distinctive about a place?

Every place is different. Palmerston North has 85,000 people; it can’t be compared 1:1 with Auckland. The key is: given the resources a place has, can it punch above its weight? The main thing, if it’s punching above its weight, it’s being creative because it’s doing more than you would expect.

You’ve just spent a week in Palmerston North. How does it compare?

Palmerston North comes in at eighth out of 17 cities, behind Gijón and before Aviles. Overall, I’m leaving Palmerston North with a positive impression. We had a very good participation rate in developing the index, which suggests to me that there is a groundswell that will support efforts to improve creativity and thereby liveability in Palmerston North. I’m also heartened that the issues highlighted can be overcome by action. There’s a strong core of people doing a lot of things in Palmerston North, however if they’re to bring more people along for the journey then they need to loosen their personal networks and include and encourage others.

Cities are in competition with each other – for talent, for businesses – what effects does this have?

One has to be incredibly alert to what is going on around them. Every city is at a crossroads. It needs to think about where it is, what its position is, what its role is, now and in the future.

The key word for me is strategic agility, which is this sense of knowing where you are going but being flexible in how to get there.  It’s an ‘I am telling a story about where I’m going and I’m inspiring people’ form of leadership so that others aren’t constantly talking about car parks and so that car parking doesn’t become the substitute for vision.

There are new sorts of jobs and these new jobs make cities work. Connectors, brokers ... Hierarchies can’t cope, which is why hierarchies are suffering and they will not be able to deal with the changes ahead. Connectors on the other hand go up, down, sideways – they achieve a lot.

Charles Landry’s 10 indicators of a creative place

  • political & public framework
  • distinctiveness, diversity, vitality and expression
  • openness, trust, tolerance & accessibility
  • entrepreneurship, exploration & innovation
  • strategic leadership, agility & vision
  • talent & the learning landscape
  • communication, connectivity & networking
  • the place & place-making
  • liveability & well-being
  • professionalism & effectiveness