Published June 19, 2008

Take a good look at the 'Soul of the City'

Planners must consider behavioural economics to build great places to live, work and play


THE year 2008 is when more than half of the world's population lives in cities, a trend that will gain velocity as we barrel towards 2050, where 75 per cent of the world's population will live in cities. The city, mankind's greatest invention, will only get more important.

Many a social scientist, economist, psychologist, not to mention politicians, public and private sector leaders are turning their attention to cities. Think about the competition for talents, economic success, societal progress, financial and business growth. Looking ahead, the playing field will be in cities, not just in countries and continents.

A man's home is his castle, so the saying goes. A collection of 'castles' is a community. In an urban setting, where 'castles' and communities are taken together, we see the makings of a city.

In 1900, there were 16 cities, each with a population of over one million, London and Paris being two very famous ones. In 2008, there are more than 400 cities, each with a population of over one million. In addition, we have mega-cities such as Shanghai, Tokyo, New York City, Mexico City and Seoul, with populations greater than or close to 10 million each.

For the person or family with the means and talents to be globally mobile, a wide variety of options exist on where to go and where to live.

Place has become very important. For many people, which community to site their 'castles', which city to belong to and live in, is a very important decision which they will reflect upon and act on, a few to many times in their lives.

Moving from city to city (from a macro perspective), or moving from community to community or 'castle' to 'castle' (from a micro perspective) are all part and parcel of life in today's global, connected world. Everyone aspires to a more favourable environment and a better life. This desire to progress which makes man so unique a species will make people all over the world continuously search for, go to, and settle in places with a strong sense of 'Soul'.

'Soul of the City', as a construct and metric, has found its time.

Whether a Chinese national moves from Sichuan to Singapore in search of a better life, a better job or whether a Singaporean family moves from Tuas to Bishan in search of a better environment and a more comfortable future; place and community, the 'Soul of the City' where one lives cannot to be ignored.

Gallup, which has been studying 'Soul of the City' for quite a while now, currently has 21 cities in its 'Soul' database. Singapore, together with Montreal, Los Angeles, Toronto, Sydney, New York City and London, falls into the top one-third of Gallup's 'Soul' database.

For Singapore to be a 'Global City of Distinction' and to be the 'Best Home for All', leaders in Singapore will need to look beyond traditional factors such as jobs and economic growth, and population and urban planning to include softer, more intangible aspects to growing a city like 'Soul' and its components of well-being, personal expression and engaged citizenry.

In 2002, Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics. Dr Kahneman was a founding father in the field of behavioural economics.

Behavioural economics

Behavioural economics (the discipline that merges psychology, economics and other disciplines such as sociology) has many applications to city planning and society building.

For example, one of the things which Dr Kahneman talks passionately about is 'moments'. Dr Kahneman believes that a person experiences as many as 20,000 'moments' in a day, and that these 'moments' are memorable only as long as there is a positive or negative emotion linked to the 'moment'. For example, one's drive to work is not memorable unless someone swerves into the driver's lane and creates a negative 'moment'. Likewise when one hears a favourite song on the radio, or does or learns something interesting, positive 'moments' are created.

When a city's leaders think about improving 'Soul', one of the ways is to look to the field of behavioural economics to design and implement policies that impacts and improves the 'moments' of the various population segments that reside in the city.

'We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,' Albert Einstein once said.

As the competition for talents, jobs and businesses move to cities, as cities become the new playing field, and as the world and its inhabitants become increasingly mobile and more discriminating of where they want to live, work and play, the new lens of behavioural economics is very much needed.

Beyond traditional factors such as law and order, food and shelter, work, economics, and health, all of which (I must stress) are very important to a city's continued progress and success, 'Soul' should also be looked at.

All things being equal, cities and societies where behavioural economics and its various concepts such as 'moments' and 'Soul' are considered, are more likely to become great places to live, work and play.

The author is managing partner of Gallup in Singapore, Hong Kong and South-east Asia.