The cachet of communications: Why city planners are enamored with media

Policymakers worldwide believe they can create vibrant media cities and are heavily investing public funds in hopes of reaping economic and cultural benefits from media and communications developments.

They believe media cities will help improve transportation systems and the provision of a range of public services, rejuvenate existing media firms, promote entrepreneurship and innovative start-ups, and create well paying employment for a new generation of workers. Policymakers believe media cities have transformative power to modernize the economy and support renewal of industrial or urban districts. These are highly optimistic beliefs.

The biggest problem is that few cities have monopolies on information and media production although the scope, scale and types vary. If that is the case, how can one community stand out as a media city?

To be unique the city must find new ways to use communication and media to make life easier and help the public interact better with each other and society as a whole. But it is hard to keep others from adopting those practices as well. To be unique a city must provide a locale for information and media firms that is more attractive than other places. Locations with strong social and cultural amenities, skilled labor forces and supportive cultural and/or industrial policies tend to produce that result, but media cities also need a pre-existing base of media and information companies and need to build relationships among those companies and social institutions.

The idea of the media city is attractive to policy makers because media and digital products are fashionable, contemporary, and desirable. They are environmentally clean businesses and don’t produce heavy traffic and social disturbance. Policymakers also like them because they can connect the media city idea with other economic, industrial, and cultural policies such as telecommunication infrastructure policies, information and communication technology policies, and cultural policies supporting national identity and culture expression.

Political realities also come into play because media cities provide politicians opportunities that manufacturing, logistics and service industries do not. Pictures of politicians with celebrities and media proprietors tend to provide positive images and lead to access to people who can help them politically. The media city thus becomes a mechanism of political power and policies to create media cities tend to gain great political backing.

The fundamental question one has to ask is whether the hopes and benefits sought by policy makers and politicians are realized through media cities. Clearly transport and public services are improved by better information systems that inform the public and allow better management and deployment of public resources. Media cities have not, however, been highly successful at providing the value added, employment gains, and economic multiplier effects found from other types of industries. This is primarily because most information and media firms are microenterprises and dependent upon contract work.

Media cities have more successful in their transformative goals for modernizing perceptions of the local economy and renewing urban districts. They are especially effective as real estate development projects that benefit construction and building owners. But are those the best outcomes for a media city policy and the use of public funds?

There are downsides of media cities because the highly mobile nature of employment and production in information and media industries permits companies to play off competing governments for funding and tax advantages and to move when they are no longer available. Information and media firms also have higher product and firm failure rates than other industries and this tends to reduce long-term economic benefits by comparison.

The results for media cities are mixed, but they still carry cachet among policy makers. A good dose of realism is required in considering whether a media city policy is desirable in a community. To be effective, they policy must be nurtured and configured so it actually produces results beyond mere urban renewal and changing perceptions of the economic base of a city. Merely calling a place a media city is not enough.

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