The ‘city’ as a unit of study

The Redwood Blog
Published:  03 June, 2014
Mike Redwood

A few years ago Alvin Toffler wrote that "the future arrives faster than you expect, and in the wrong order." It is a simple way of reminding business of the importance of scenario planning. It is why strategic marketing is increasingly moving to the forefront. Sometimes it is not realised that this is marketing, having consigned "marketing" to making brochures and organising trade shows. But strategic decisions need to have the big picture data about trends and context in order to be meaningful.

There have been a lot of comments, mostly positive, about the growth of cities. One of the top places to learn about this urbanisation is at NYU Stern, where the economist Paul Romer lead's the way top business schools look at "the biggest macro trend in the world right now". So much so that Paul Romer was quoted in the Financial Times just a few days ago saying that the "fundamental issues (for business schools) is whether the unit for academic study should be the business unit or the city." Those readers who have MBAs will know that their courses were all about case studies and other material related to companies; the idea of studying Mexico City, Shanghai or Tokyo instead is a really big shift. Your topics would build around infrastructure, sustainability, big project management, financing, traffic, education and employment.

While business schools are behind in working out how to handle this trend companies like IBM, Arup, Siemens and Google are all looking at smart city projects and urbanisation. Listening to Adam Hughes of BLC Leather Technology Centre, talking to the World Leather Congress in Rio a couple of years ago made the point that the LWG audited tanneries already accounted for about 60% of all the shoe leather made in the world. I do not know the precise numbers but it was not a lot more than 100 tanneries. We know that the automobile trade is also very concentrated into a few big groups with large plants so the movement suggested towards a small number of pretty big units plus lots of specialist ones is in a way already started. 280 major tanneries plus a number of specialist units, with extra concentrations where there are big raw material supplies does not look at all foolish as a long-term goal.

Chinese officials closing tanneries in Wuji today is the continuation of the policy laid out in the mid-naughties when China said it had finished with polluting tanneries. Resilient or not the little tanneries who were not big enough or interested enough to have an efficient effluent plant should be closed, and China is doing just that. We need to support this.

When I joined the trade we said the European family owned tanners were resilient. Most are now closed. The survivors without exception have good effluent facilities and are further developing their environmental reputations and their processes.

I have great sympathy for the tens of thousands of tannery staff in Bangladesh and elsewhere who work hard in poor conditions and would prefer to see the tanneries improved so they can stay in work. But if they are not put right quickly then they should close. The same for Sialkot, Kanpur and all the spots in Africa where owners continue to ignore the basics of worker health and the damage their waste is doing to their community. We need to help them to put it right and if that does not work they need to close.

Despite extensive corruption and weak governments increasing education levels and consumer power will be what stops these small family tanners from continuing if they do not respond. There is no resilience in leaving waste management to someone else and being careless with working conditions. Consumer power seems to have been the primary driver in China and it will be elsewhere.

Open tannery in Fez

A major worry has to be Morocco where in Fez and Marrakesh the squalor associated with the old tanneries is used as a tourist attraction. These old pit processes do not need to be filthy, the French tanners used long tongs to handle skins in pits 300 years ago so standing for hours up to the waste in lime, tan or dye liquors is totally unnecessary, and no one in either city should be allowed to use chromium. Ancient tanning processes in both cities should be a celebration of technology and culture but not a foul smelling environmental hazard.

What we need are a few more tanneries like the best European ones and the top 100 LWG producers. And it looks like long term one or two should be back in Northern Europe and North America. 

Mike Redwood

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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