There is life beyond the global metropolis

Bartek Ciążyński, member of Europa Plus in Wrocław, has published on his blog an appeal to Europe to help Polish provinces (in fact the text is addressed to helmsmen of Polish development policy). I belong to a group of experts which cooperates with this initiative, hence, I received a request to comment on the text. The appeal that prosperity should not be geographically focused only in large cities is obviously laudable. My concern, however, is that the text reveals – though not explicitly – a sentiment to make globalization, as we say in Poland “under thatched roofs”, which means it should be shared even in minor cities and towns. It may mean for example, trying to disperse corporate investments, which can have very bad consequences. This of course does not mean the “province” (or “interior”) is doomed to poverty and low standard of living. Such problems can still be overcome there in different ways than direct presence of global corporations – e.g. through tourism, services, and manufacturing facilities not being a part of a corporate network.

Several years ago Michal Boni, while developing governmental strategy called Poland 2030, formulated or at least introduced to the public discussion an idea of polarization and diffusion model. For this proposal he has been repeatedly criticized (especially by the Law and Justice (PiS) and PSL parties), but I think he was right.

It’s been some time ago, so let me recall what it was about. Boni (referring to highly praised at the time Richard Florida) noticed that the development of civilization had never been evenly spread (in geographical terms) and always had its growth poles concentrated in metropolitan areas; just as it is now in the era of global economy based on knowledge. If Poland is supposed to be an important point on the economic map of Europe and the world, it must also create its “poles”, through the development and specialization of universities cooperating with global players. Only a few such centers in Poland exist – in my opinion up to five: Warsaw + Łódz, Kraków + Silesia, Wrocław, Poznań and the Tricity Gdańsk + Gdynia + Sopot. This is the “polarization” part of the Boni’s model.

But at the poles it is not profitable to build manufacturing plants, only centres of expertise (BPO and most valuable – R&D). Production (if you manage to break bidding Asia) should be invested elsewhere, although usually within a 60-minute distance from the centre of a region (pole). Lower Silesia, for example, reflects it very well – Wrocław builds and populates the office centres, but production plants are mainly located in towns as Walbrzych, Biskupice, Stanowice, Jelcz-Laskowice, Legnica, Mirkow or Strzegom. But the valleys of Sudety Moutains of Jelenia Góra and Klodzko are omitted by large investors. Why? Because you cannot get there from Wroclaw within reasonable the time – neither by car nor train.

The accessibility is crucial only in terms of production branch of “globalization”, but also (perhaps even primarily) in terms of its antithesis – “localism”, which can also develop economically smaller towns. Normally, tourism is an example here, because people from the metropolis often want to get out of dehumanized lifestyle and “go somewhere out of town to recharge the batteries.” This of course can be an important boost, but not just that. Part of the market is simply fed up with global products and looking for local ones, often more expensive, but traditional, “closer”, “greener”, etc. The best example is the brewing industry – even Lwówek Śląski in Lower Silesia. But we have other traditional industries that are on the crest of a wave – e.g. porcelain, glass and ceramics (success stories include Kristoff of Walbrzych) or flax industry. Of course there’s the precondition of good governance and also cooperation with an academy would help (e.g. Wroclaw University of Environmental and Life Sciences works on new applications for flax that are an opportunity for the industry in the region). Again good communication with the centre of the region is another condition, and that’s the second part of the model, which consists of “scattering” (dispersion) the prosperity around the poles. (The third source of growth outside of poles may be natural resources, but they are given in advance – as Legnica’s copper or Strzegom’s granite; the development policy will not change them though may facilitate its profitability for the region).

The priorities of Polish development policy should be:

– creation of several national development centres which would be 1) strong academic centres 2) cooperating with global corporations and 3) well communicated with network of roads, railways and flight connections with one another as well as with metropolitan areas in the whole Europe and in the world

– permanent development of the “60-minute” zones, by improving local road and especially rail infrastructure. In his article Bartek mentioned the examples of European cities which created large zones around them, mainly thanks to railways. This is not taking place in Poland.

Given these two conditions the rest will be done by itself. More precisely, the rest will be done by people – free, determined, open-minded, pursuing their dreams (Boni focused on that in his strategy).

However, an attempt to plant globalization in smaller cities – for example by creating there international airports or technology parks – is a shot in the foot and the scattering the potential of “poles”. In any case it’s doomed to failure. For example, in the technology park in Wałbrzych (more precisely Szczawno Zdrój), just a few companies are located, and the biggest investor is a debt collection agency with their call center. Wrocław’s park (the largest in the country) is a generator of innovative ventures for business and science (currently there are about 150 of them) and it’s being expanded every year.

Bartek Ciążyński is right in the title. Europe can help Polish provinces. First of all, it can do it by giving money for the development of our railways. It has been anyway since the beginning of our integration – if only we could use it. Another area in which the province can count on the support, and should take handfuls of it, is environment protection and tourism, including cultural heritage. But the stream of money for an innovative economy should be aimed at academic centres. Otherwise the money will be wasted.