Universities are places where talent is nurtured. People are educated on how to think critically and come up with solutions that think outside the box. They are places for new ideas and new opportunities.

Cities have been the hubs of societal development since their inception. With over half of the world’s population living in them, they are fundamental to the progress of society and the globe as a whole. 

Unfortunately, cities are not immune to the challenges facing the world in the modern age. Climate change, housing crises, lack of mobility, and social and economic challenges are just a few of the issues that cities have been confronted with in recent times.

So what can be done?

The Role of Education

Universities are places where talent is nurtured. People are educated on how to think critically and come up with solutions that think outside the box. They are places for new ideas and new opportunities.

Universities are often found in or in close proximity to cities. They bring a certain ecosystem to the city, in that universities become hubs of research where people want to learn, share their findings and collaborate. 

In the Netherlands, for example, there is a university that focuses on food, food production and the environment. Due to this research focus, there are now many startups and students with the right skills and education—focused on this one domain—enriching the city. 

The development of cities is directly linked with access to talented resources and people better qualified for certain jobs. In turn, this leads to a faster increase in wealth.

The History of Cities and Universities

Throughout history, there are a number of examples of how cities have developed and grown around universities. For Europeans, the ones that spring to mind are Oxford, Cambridge and Paris (The Sorbonne). The US, however, has a couple of heavily-documented examples, namely Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and Stanford.

Ithaca was similar to other post-industrial 19th century cities, but with one key component. Cornell University propelled the supply and demand for human capital, largely through producing degrees and by engaging in research. 

Silicon Valley was essentially built around Stanford University, enabled by the education and talent of people attending Stanford. This is another example that showcases how the innovation and research of universities drive economic growth and can even lead to the inception of new cities.

The Importance of Research

Research is what drives knowledge forwards. Universities nurture the key ingredients that result in innovative research: the acquisition of new knowledge, a place where brilliant ideas can be discovered, and somewhere where creativity can be fostered.

Clearly, cities benefit from universities when looking for future solutions, but it is important to note that universities have also played a historic part in the development of cities, both economically and socially. 

Research can be carried out on the communities surrounding the universities, in turn ensuring that these universities are very closely aligned with what is going on around them. Academic institutions and their research become an important part of a community and so contribute to the strength of a city. 

Currently, we don’t have the answers to what makes a healthy, prosperous future city. Research in academic institutions will create and share the new knowledge needed to make cities more sustainable, resilient and vibrant.

Knowledge is Currency 

Cities create an environment where knowledge can be created and expanded because of their proximity. In many cases, universities can be described as being both transporters and translators of knowledge. They act as a bridge between scientific knowledge and local reality and are then able to carry out the implementation of this knowledge. 

Another key element is that universities are directly educating the people that will build cities in years to come. The link between knowledge and economic and social prosperity within cities is clear, and the continued furthering of education in universities is vital for the future of cities.

Leaders of Change 

For universities to successfully contribute to the creation of a prosperous society, research must be done with and within the city. Universities taking on a leadership role can help to tackle present and future problems.

Climate change and its effects on cities have to be mitigated. Change is already happening, with greener lifestyles being linked to greater happiness and scientists implementing changes for the future of urban living. There is no planet B: rethinking cities and ensuring the involvement of universities in this must be a current priority.