What is City DNA?

Our team’s academic research and partnership with cities and city leadership organisations highlights to us that every city inherits a unique set of traits.

Some of a city’s DNA is established in its early years – reflecting its geography, early political environment or principles, its initial infrastructure, economic roles or cultural ethos.Decisions made early on set the terms for what kinds of modifications and remodeling are later possible.

Later on, in each stage of a city’s development, features are passed down from one generation (or one political or economic cycle) to the next, shaped by elements such as population change,infrastructure development, climate change, location in global markets, urban design or political reforms.

This dynamic, historical perspective means that a city’s DNA is not linear nor deterministic. DNA is not a master molecule for a city. External and internal impulses in each cycle combine withthe city’s DNA to take the city somewhere new.

Epigenetics and a city’s DNA

What happens to cities can also affect their hereditary material. Just like living organisms, cities experience epigenetic markers on top of their DNA, which can switch certain genes on andoff. The epi in epi-genetics, means “on”, or “in addition to”, and highlights that cities possess characteristics that cannot be explained simply as being derived from their DNA code.

Outside events or trends can act as an epigenetic marker for a city, and ‘tag’ its DNA. This activates, enhances or represses some of its core characteristics. These external, social factors‘bind’ to a city’s DNA and become embodied by it. They can produce social and cultural influences that affect a city’s direction, identity, competitive strengths.

Epigenetic influences may be ‘positive’. A spike in demand, investment in knowledge, sector specialisation, or inter-city collaboration. Alternatively they may be the result of stress or shock- traumatic external events such as war, disaster, disease and authoritarian rule.

Both types of influence may affect the expression of the city’s DNA, and can lead to some aspects being emphasized, whilst others are toned down. Such factors can also affect the tempo of acity’s evolution, how quickly or slowly it can learn, adapt or evolve.

Maturity of DNA also matters - cities that experience shocks or turbulence in the early stages of their history are more likely to see their DNA permanently mutate.

It pays to understand your DNA

Cities which understand their DNA are at an advantage in the latest phase of globalisation. To know your city’s DNA is to understand some of its underlying truths. Marketing and brandingexercises that grasp the city’s DNA will have an authentic resonance, and be it corroborated by the experience of visitors and inhabitants.

Comparing the DNA of different cities can help identify peers and role models. They can help leaders better understand a wide range of city ‘diseases’ e.g. endemic crime, underinvestment,racial segregation, or limited external appeal. Knowing your DNA gives leaders clues as to which future pathways have the best chances of success.

Mapping your city’s genome

Knowing your city’s DNA also helps leaders understand:

  • the difference between short term fixes and long term success
  • the assets the city has and how they can be best leveraged
  • which communicational narratives and devices are likely to be most successful