The Problem of Assessment: Part II

Stephen Macekura and Josh Yates

In our last post, we highlighted some of the recent historical changes surrounding assessments. How do all these measurements help us understand what it means to thrive in today’s cities?

Assessing Cities: Current Trends and Standard Approaches

To begin to answer that question, we must first examine the evolution of city assessments. Until very recently, efforts at city and community-level assessment lagged behind the attention paid to country-level assessments. Today, however, many experts, reformers, and city leaders are measuring the health of their cities and tracking efforts to improve the conditions of urban dwellers. These efforts underway in cities mirror those occurring within the surging world of social progress indicators more generally.

As with national polities, the most prominent urban metrics remain the usual economic suspects—e.g., indicators measuring output, income level, employment rates, tax burden, and overall economic competitiveness. In the past few years, economists and other experts have also created more sophisticated instruments—e.g., the Global Economic Power Index, the Global City Competitiveness Index, the Global Cities Index, the Global Financial Centers Index, and the Global City GDP 2025 index—to assess the economic vitality of cities.

The underlying concern of these new instruments, however, goes beyond simple economic health. They also carry with them a sense of social urgency. In an age of economic globalization, technological disruption, and high demographic mobility, city leaders and their attendant experts operate in a context of tremendous anxiety. They often feel as though they must adapt and compete in what appears as a starkly Darwinian struggle to attract (and keep) talent, industry, and revenue, lest they suffer the consequences of relative impoverishment. Not surprisingly, the largest and most prominent of the world’s cities have become obsessed with competition, challenging one another over their relative “globality” in a form of what Harvey Molotch calls “zero-sum urbanism

Amid this considerable anxiety over the future of urban life, reformers now speak of the need for “smart cities” to improve urban life. “Smart city” evangelists argue that urban performance depends not only upon a city’s endowment of hard infrastructure, its “physical capital” stock of buildings, roads, ports, factories, and the like, but also upon the availability and synergy between cutting-edge information technology and a highly educated and innovative class of residents who know how to use that technology to maximum effect.

With the increased desire for building “smarter” cities, we find a growing group of single-issue, domain-specific concerns and related indicators. Encapsulated in concepts such as the “creative class” or grouped under the heading of popular terms like “resilient” or “eco” cities, many urban experts yearn for metrics that encompass many different facets of social life. So alongside the dominant preoccupation with economic innovation and competitiveness, we see measurements that attempt to capture everything from access to essential social goods, such as transportation and affordable housing by the poorest and most disadvantaged residents, to the existence of environmentally friendly technologies, such as “smart buildings” and “smart grids.”

Beneath the optimistic rhetoric of “smart” cities, though, lurks a highly technocratic, managerial style of leadership. Smart cities seem to require a vanguard of technological experts that promise revolutionary change and ever-greater betterment through scientific knowledge, “big data” analysis, and digital technology. Concepts such as “planning,” “coordination,” and “efficiency” get treated as supreme values in service of top-down ordering. These approaches fit in a longer history of synoptic economic development strategies that leave little room to allow local citizens to express what they envision for their cities. Furthermore, such strategies tend to give priority to economic growth above all other considerations, and they often focus on sectors of local economies that prize technological and economic innovation. It is no surprise that major corporations from IBM to Bechtel to Sharp have all enthusiastically embraced and offered substantial financial support to “smart city” approaches.

In recent years, alongside the “smart” moniker, reformers now also advocate for urban “livability.” “Livability” attracts significant interest because it seems to offer a holistic, full-spectrum alternative to the more standard economic measures without resorting to the language of environmentalism—i.e., “green” or “sustainable” communities—or the tech-driven hyperbole surrounding “smart” cities. Supporters of the “livability” concept point to a diverse assortment of issues including affordability, “walkability,” good shopping, attractive cityscapes, public safety, little or no congestion or pollution, easy access to the outdoors and other recreation, good schools, responsive municipal and emergency services, and the like. Livability offers the promise of spreading a more holistic conception of urban life. But it also risks requiring a long, laundry list of single-issue indicators that do not offer a clear sense of which indicators deserve priority or how each indicator relates to or interacts with any other in the real world.

Do We Really Need Another Index?

With all of this innovation in social accounting, do we really need yet another “index” at the city level?

We argue yes. Most of the standard social accounting metrics contain serious deficiencies. Some have been widely acknowledged, as we saw in the brief recounting of the evolution of social progress indicators; others, however, have received far less recognition and merit greater reflection.

For one, a great deal of the energy and investment in the realm of city-based accounting tends to be single-issue and domain-specific. Public officials, experts, and reformers alike understandably focus attention on the issues that matter most to them, whether it is reforming schools, combating high rates of childhood diabetes, or creating affordable housing. While certainly not closed to situating such issue-specific concerns within broader social contexts and interrelationships in theory, the logic of expert, policy, and activist specialization often precludes systematic contextualization in practice. Moreover, context-specific approaches that take stock of complex historical development are often more expensive and difficult to implement than the alluring single-issue, silver bullet approaches. All of these understandable practical challenges point to the same end; legibility of specific issues and problems often trumps complete understanding.

Second, while apparently few people are willing to defend exclusively economic metrics as proxies for overall health, such statistics remain predominant in planning, policy, and mainstream discourse. Social welfare and progress assessments still overwhelmingly focus on economic growth and prosperity in the popular imagination, and leaders and laypeople alike still speak mainly in an economic vocabulary when discussing what it means to thrive. As a result, interest in alternative measures all too commonly remains of secondary importance, at least when it is not inverted altogether (as, for instance, when economists begin to champion “Gross Domestic Happiness,” as a new method for promoting economic growth). “It’s the economy, stupid,” persists as the wisdom of the day. Some even argue that the auditing being done under sustainability’s triple-bottom line approach and the status-competitive rankings of “livability” lists ultimately serve the economic bottom-line.

Third, efforts to develop non-reductive, non-economic measures, while increasingly prolific, tend to be ad hoc and arbitrary. There is often little coherence between the indicators selected. To be sure, part of this is a consequence of attempts to contain many otherwise disparate concerns in a single index, hence the recent popularity of indicator “dashboards.” Some of the items being measured are simply incommensurable and cannot be aggregated without doing harm to one or both. Yet presenting them as a dashboard doesn’t help us see the connections and interactions between them.

A fourth issue is that even with non-economic indicators, a technocratic bias remains that presents a number of difficulties that tend to get overlooked. For instance, quantitative measures still dominate in assessments of urban life. Very understandable reasons exist for this bias, of course, including the fact that policymakers need readily accessible comparative data to make informed decisions. The preoccupation with quantitative measures, however, typically leads to the fallacy of “knowing through numbers.” The reliance upon available, mostly quantitative data gives explanatory priority to what is generally quite general, abstract information based on aggregates, which often obscure local realities. For example, keying off of national averages rather than local distributions can mask inequalities of various kinds or mistake the relationship of things that are generally poorly correlated with one another. And this is to say nothing of the ways this tendency obscures their own built-in normative assumptions. The overall result is that many of these measures, while quite useful in specified and delimited ways, remain quite superficial and unreliable as indicators of the overall health and well-being of actual people and places. This fact adds urgency to management expert Peter Drucker’s old adage, “What gets measured, gets managed.” To which we might add, what doesn’t get measured too often gets ignored.

Finally, the deficiencies found in the standard approaches often reinforce the obsession with performance and status competition among cities. In the words of one group of researchers interested in promoting sustainability: “Reporting on sustainability indices and livability metrics can potentially enhance the reflexivity of the urban planning process, but there is a galloping tendency to treat the issue of how to improve one’s ‘city ranking’ on a hierarchical table as more important than the sustainability issues themselves.” According to these same researchers, moreover, “The presentation and uses of such lists and rankings often do more to emphasize the inequalities between cities than they do to serve as tools for local communities.” The power of vested interests, the short-sightedness of narrow-gauged expertise, and the illusion of knowledge and wisdom that comes with statistical data all contribute to these shortcomings.

And yet there is a deeper and more abiding problem that we need to address. Underlying each of these all too common defects is a fundamental, and therefore fateful, misunderstanding of the very nature of cities and thus of what it takes to measure their health and well-being. That misunderstanding will be addressed in the next post.