It is easy to believe that the formidable economic achievements of China in the past decade are a reflection of the simple fact that the country’s best brains (in a particularly brainy country) are working in the government not primarily for private businesses at home or abroad.
In the UK, politicians and business people alike have long lamented the shortage in government of people who have ever actually managed anything in the wide world, whether a charity, business or public body. Although it may be a slight exaggeration, Michael Heseltine and, before him, David (Lord) Young seem like the only successful business people who have also cut it in modern UK politics. Archie Norman, chairman of the ITV network and saviour of the now Walmart-owned ASDA supermarket chain (who enjoyed an all too brief spell as a Member of Parliament) may be testimony to just how frustrating or discouraging a UK political career can be for a successful business person.
Managing with flair
That is why it is so interesting to watch Mike Bloomberg, billionaire Mayor of New York and one of the most successful entrepreneurs of the past 25 years, managing his city in a business-like way, solving problems and getting things done with a real flair, excitement – and effectiveness. For a slender example, witness his opening this week of the second stretch of “High Line”, New York’s most fashionable green space, crafted from disused rail tracks 30ft above the city streets. The half-mile-long park (on space that had been invisible to millions of New Yorkers for decades) attracted 2 million visitors last year and was described as “urban regeneration at its sexiest and cleverest” by The Times. This is fabulous public space and a real symptom of adventurous thinking in NYC which has required a spirit of encouragement and support to make it happen.
Londoners have reason to believe their city is being regenerated in a similar spirit. Mayor Boris Johnson’s rental bikes are a huge hit, with 22,000 trips a day. Then there are the plans for an amazing kilometre-long pontoon walkway (with shops, restaurants and attractions) on the River Thames from St Paul’s Cathedral to the Tower of London. Both these projects and the planned cable car across the river are being funded by private capital and/or sponsorship, an important element at a time of austerity. Ahead of the 2012 Olympics (and all that means for the morale and promotion of the city) London’s river is coming alive.
Both New York and London have gritty problems of crime, transport and urban development but these two quite individual mayors (Bloomberg with a gilt-edged business background, and Boris as a tousled energetic creative, sometime journalist and Member of Parliament) are applying themselves with dynamism and flair to the task of making their cities better places for residents, tourists and businesses alike. And they are out there: visible, accountable and active.
Boris and Bloomberg have something else in common. They have each developed the knack of appearing almost apolitical. Bloomberg is the famously benevolent and egalitarian boss of the mighty financial information business that bears his name, and he’s not consistently Republican in approach or outlook. Boris Johnson does look and sound like a UK private school-educated Conservative but many of his policies are bipartisan and he is often to be found fighting the Conservative-led government, not least on behalf of the financial services industry that is at the heart of London’s (and the UK’s) economy.
Waking up the world
For all the fact that these two mayors have to keep getting elected and, therefore, need to make sure that the gritty problems <em>are</em> tackled, Boris and Bloomberg are waking up the world (or, at least, their own electorates) to a new way of governing cities that might just say something about how our countries could be governed too.