The Business of Cities: The Growth of Tradable Urban Services and Solutions

Emily MoirAuthors: Greg Clark and Emily Moir

In the last blog of this series, we explored the first trend identified in the Business of Cities essay – cities as emerging markets for business. In this blog, we consider the growth of tradable urban services and solutions.

I’m about to embark on an imaginary round-the-world trip, which has just one strict rule. I can go to any city I like but it must be home to an iconic building, designed by an architect based in my own city of London. I’ll be going further than you might think.

First on my itinerary is Paris, where I stop off at Richard Rogers’ avant-garde Pompidou Centre, before popping across to Berlin to visit the Reichstag, with its famous Foster and Partners dome offering a view right into the heart of German government. But why stop in Europe?  I’ll follow in the footsteps of many long-haul travellers and have a lay-over in Dubai, where I might treat myself to a night at the seven star Burj Al Arab, designed by Londoner Tom Wright of the engineering firm Atkins. Once I’m over the jet lag, I think I’ll carry on to Hong Kong, where I’ll stick to the tourist trail and head up to the Peak Tower, the leisure and shopping complex near the summit of Victoria Peak which was designed by Farrell & Partners in 1997. From there it’s just a quick hop across to mainland China to visit the Beijing Olympics Cultural District, also masterplanned by Farrells. On the way back I’ll try and have a look at something a bit older, perhaps Fry and Drew’s buildings at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, and finish off with a project in the making: Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, a new sustainable city being built from scratch according to the plans of Foster and Partners.

My trip has been a personal distraction from a grey day in London, but it also illustrates a point – that London has developed a highly internationalised architecture and urban design cluster, whose architectural and engineering firms are exporting their services around the world. London is not the only city with such a cluster.  ‘Urban services’  – industries which support city building and growth, including planning, architecture, design, energy, water, infrastructure, engineering, waste management, and even housing development – have become important tradable economic clusters in many developed city economies. Businesses which have emerged to meet the urbanisation needs of their own (now mature) cities are rapidly internationalising to support the growth of cities outside their own national systems.

Other cities which have become associated with certain urban services include Sydney, which together with other Australian cities like Melbourne and Perth, has developed a tradable cluster based around engineering and construction. Companies such as Leighton Holdings, Worley Parsons, Woods Bagot and PTW Architects, all headquartered in Sydney, have developed a significant presence in cities in the Middle East, particularly Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Their services as contractors, project managers and consultants are sought after on construction, infrastructure and sustainability projects. Austrade, the Australian Trade Commission, even has offices in Saudi Arabia and Dubai to assist local businesses looking to source competitive Australian suppliers.
La Defense skyline

Parisian companies mean while have strong historical links with Francophone Africa. Today, major Paris-based corporates such as Veolia, GDF Suez, Egis and Saur International are exporting their water, waste and energy services to developing cities across the continent. Veolia, for example has developed the Durban Water Recycling Plant, while Egis is improving access to drinking water and sanitation for the city of Kimuyu in Kenya, and is also involved in the development of new cities in Congo (La Cite du Fleuve) and Algeria (El Menea). Suez has won contracts for water and wastewater services in Algiers.

The future of urbanisation is forecast to be predominantly based in Asia and Africa, where 90% of urban population growth up to 2050 will be concentrated.i The character of that urbanisation remains unknown. But it is beginning to become clearer which cities will be home to the businesses servicing the world’s urbanisation needs. The very smartest cities will be those who recognise their nascent tradable clusters, and actively promote them to the world’s rapidly urbanising cities.


[i] UN World Urbanization Prospects (2014)

About the Author

Greg Clark has spent more than two decades putting his passion for cities to good use, by advising and mentoring global cities, firms and institutions. He has worked with over 100 cities around the world and holds senior advisory roles at international bodies including the OECD, Brookings Institution, ULI, and the Future Cities Catapult. A prolific author, Greg has published ten books to date on cities and investment practices, with three more in the pipeline for 2016-17. And as Chairman of The Business of Cities research and intelligence group, Greg leads a small high calibre team that advises and reports on global trends and changes in cities. In his academic life Greg is Hon Prof of City Leadership at UCL and co-chairman of the UCL City Leadership initiative, Visiting Professor at Strathclyde University, and Global Fellow at LSE Cities. He has received international awards for his work from cities as far afield as Barcelona, Brisbane, London, and Toronto and in 2016, Greg was honoured by HM Queen Elizabeth II with a CBE for his services to city and regional economic development. Meanwhile, outside of the day jobs, Greg is an avid tennis player, wine enthusiast, and lifelong follower of Arsenal FC.

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