Managing knowledge in cities and organisations

Waltraut Ritter

Knowledge Management Essentials • Das Kuratierte Dossier, Band 5 • März 2023
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Key Visual: How does a city develop? – Detail of the Philharmonie Berlin (architect: Hans Scharoun, opened in 1963) in what is now the Kulturforum area of Berlin. The area includes cultural and scientific institutions built in West Berlin in the 1960s. Until reunification in 1990, this area was located right next to the Berlin Wall on the edge of what was then West Berlin. The urban, political and societal developments associated with German reunification meant that the Kulturforum was suddenly transformed from its previous peripheral position as the ‚cultural showcase of the West‘ into one of several central inner-city locations. (Image:, CC0)

This essay discusses different concepts relating to cities as informational spaces, particularly those that explore the relationship between knowledge and (urban) space.

The idea of a city as a knowledge space draws on a wide range of disciplines, from urban planning to sociology, communication studies, computer science, human geography and economics. Informational perspectives on cities go back more than hundred years, with Georg Simmel’s work on cities and the mind (1903) inspired by the first German Municipal Exposition in Dresden, Max Weber’s sociological analysis of cities (1921) and Manuel Castells’ classic on cities in the information age (1996). A more recent information science research presents a theoretical framework for “Informational urbanism” (Barth 2017).

Could insights and practices from knowledge management contribute to a better understanding of cities? Knowledge management usually deals with processes within the boundaries of an organisation, creating and maintaining knowledge management systems, nurturing knowledge workers, defining standards and good practices. While external knowledge relations with clients, customers and suppliers are taken into account, the wider, socio-economical environment rarely is. Only in the past twenty years or so, there is a growing research community which brings together urban development and planning with knowledge management and intellectual capital to focus on “knowledge-based development”. Within this community the term “knowledge city” is frequently used. The aim is to understand the interrelation between physical and intangible urban spaces. Carillo (2016) defines it as a city capable of capturing and melding all major value elements of a community into a coherent scorecard serving as the basis for political debate, consensus building, policy making and public accountability. Does a knowledge city approach add a new dimension to existing perspectives on cities and can it contribute to addressing the great urban challenges?

Cities around the world are in the process of rebuilding as a result of geopolitical conflict, climate emergency, natural disasters, water and energy scarcity, inequality and other issues that roil the social and economic underpinnings of urban systems. National and international organisations working on building more resilient cities are under pressure to produce actionable knowledge. UN Habitat urges stakeholders to promote transformative change in cities and human settlements through “knowledge, policy advice, technical assistance and collaborative action to leave no one and no place behind”.

As we see more examples of urban systems failing to respond or not responding adequately to challenges such as zero carbon energy and transport transition, the provision of affordable housing and education, there are no easy pathways to reach an resilient, sustainable and equitable urban futures. City administrators and managers are more often tasked to develop innovative and sustainable solutions to long-term and intractable, often novel challenges, which require new frameworks for building constructive, multi-sector taskforces between business, government and civil society, to produce practical responses in areas where single-sector or lone organisation initiatives have previously failed. Building capacity through combining know-how from different agencies and stakeholders is a collective cross-boundary learning process.

In this area of community/city wide capacity building, ideas from organizational knowledge management, such as systematically encouraging learning and knowledge creation as well as nurturing an environment that fosters knowledge transfer, a sense of shared purpose and responsibility could be applied.

For example, Berlin is often described as dysfunctional city – not only by journalists, but also by scholars of public administration. While the city undoubtedly has a large number of great public and private organisations as well as talented people and dynamic networks, the institutional collaboration, responsiveness and governance is considered to be weak.

The new Berlin Smart City Strategy promises a “functional, agile and competent public administration” which constructively collaborates with citizens and makes use of digital opportunities. The Berlin senate calls it an “enabling administration” (Ermöglichende Verwaltung, Berlin Smart City Strategy, p. 15)

While most urban researchers avoid the term “smart city”, as all too often it represents an urban imaginary concept with a solutionist approach to digital technologies, the term is more widespread than “knowledge city”. Much of the excitement about smart cities relates to the availability and potential exploitation of urban data to better manage cities, support decision-making and create new services and products. However, smart city concepts tend to ignore the social context and the importance of data policies and governance. Smart cities put the data routinely collected by humans, machines and sensors at the core of urban interventions, but lack a general understanding of what a city is. (Ritter 2018)

Barth argues that in informational cities, two spaces exist side by side: geographical space (“space of places”) and the space of information, money and power streams (“space of flows”) created via digital networks. In informational cities the space of flows outperforms the space of places. Similar to this idea of “spaces of flow”, the research network at the Geography Department at Loughborough University bi-annually publishes an analysis on the state of global cities based on knowledge and trade flows. The “Globalization and World Cities (GaWC)” index examines cities around the world. Cities with low knowledge and trade flows to the outside world are less powerful than world cities with a high degree connectivity. According to GaWC, New York City and London are classified as Alpha cities, whereas Berlin is a Beta city (the only German Alpha city is Frankfurt). In knowledge management language, this connectivity is called “external relationship capital”.

Cities as “spaces of flow” also appear in the field of creative city research. Here, industrial cities are seen as places with repetitive patterns of living and working, whereas creative cities are assumed to have a high percentage of independently-minded people with diverse working patterns.

Culture and creativity as differentiating factors to identify and reconceptualise the image forming of a city were popularized in the beginning of the 21st century according to Kunzmann, as new ideas are more likely to emerge from an urban environment. The crowds, clusters, connections, contradictions, and cultural diversity are the “humus” of the creative ecology which generates ideas and opportunities. Cities are “prime energy exchanges” and “attract people who are both producers and buyers: people who want to learn, adapt and explore new perceptions and who are discriminating and spend above-average amounts on novelty and style (…)”. (Kunzmann, p. 13). For Jan Morris, cities are the most fascinating of all creations of human energy and ingenuity, and in her book “Among the cities” she describes the impact of places on her thinking.

In the discourse on cities there are a lot of other labels, such as Design Cities, Green Cities, Learning Cities and Liveable Cities, indicating that the roles and functions of cities as socio-economic places and knowledge spaces can be analysed from diverse angles and perspectives. Both popular and scholarly journals regularly publish city rankings to benchmark cities such as “Global Liveability Index” by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the “Most Liveable Cities Index” by the Monocle Magazine, and the “IMD Smart City Index”. While some of these popular listings seem to be taken from city marketing materials, they draw the attention to the point that cities require concerted effort and know-how to make them liveable spaces.

“A key question for creative people and knowledge workers today is: Where do we want to think?”

Despite the lack of objective assessment in city comparisons, the ability to attract talents and business determines the competition among different places, which causes city governments, local and regional economic development agencies to develop such marketing plans in the first place. Howkins suggests that the key question for creative people and knowledge workers today is: Where do we want to think?
This question is also highly relevant for organisations trying to attract and keep talent, and talent management certainly is an important part of knowledge management practices. Equally important for organisations and cities is value creation.

In 2006 the Journal of Knowledge Management published a special issue on knowledge cities tackling the questions of applying the concept of organizational value creation to cities. It was argued that measuring and managing organizational intellectual capital assets also makes sense for cities. Such assets include networks of information and knowledge flows between and within certain industry sectors or groups of individuals working in certain fields, the human capital of a city such as education level, attractiveness for talents, diversity of workforce and general population. Infrastructure capital includes not only the physical infrastructure of a city, but also the ease of access and moving around in a city, the quality of connectivity and interconnectedness, and coordination and planning competencies of agencies governing a city.

Intangible capacities of cities mentioned in the literature are: openness, initiative, vision, experimentation, learning, use of information and communication technologies, connectivity, cohesion, self-reflection and leadership. These terms can also be used to describe individual and organisational characteristics, but in the context of cities refer to the capacity to create the conditions for an environment conducive to dynamic and sustainable development.

A knowledge perspective on cities shall answer questions about the future and long-term sustainable development of a city through better understanding of its “hidden”, intangible strengths and weaknesses. The concept of knowledge cities is only beginning to gain attention among city planners and decision-makers, urban economists and architects. One of the weaknesses of the intellectual capital view of cities is that value creation processes are related to business and stakeholders, however, citizens more than stakeholders, and their “right to the city” exists regardless of outcomes and impacts of intellectual capital considerations.

“A knowledge perspective on cities shall answer questions about the future and long-term sustainable development of a city through better understanding of the ‘hidden’, intangible strengths and weaknesses.”

Therefore, the field of urban sociology, which goes back to the early 19th century, may provide deeper insights into the inner workings of cities. There is a rich literature on urban issues such as the complex division of labour, occupation patterns and other aspects of the socio-economic urban environment, as well as social psychology of the city, social interactions and relationships between different groups in the city. Others have analysed the physical and social environment and the interrelationships between them.

The early city sociologists also thought about the city as a personality, with a “soul” and a “mental life.” Georg Simmel’s “The Metropolis and Mental Life” is perhaps one of the earliest expressions of the intangible dimensions of a city. Another early contribution of sociology to the concept of knowledge cities is the Chicago School, a group of urban sociologists who conducted socio-ethnographic research on Chicago between the 1920s and 1930s, which looked at human behaviour as determined by physical and social structures and environments. Using terminology from biology, they saw cities as microcosms largely determined by intended and unintended, internal and external factors, but also studied “natural forces” in the environment and emerging patterns that could be observed but not directly controlled. This thinking about cities as ecosystems is reflected in the newer literature on cities, for example in Howkins “Creative Ecologies” (2009).

The discussion around the degree of planning – ecosystems and self-organisation versus design – is reflected both in organisational and urban knowledge management.

Design is understood in the widest sense, and includes design of work flows and social relationships with an industry or in public space, as well as design applied to public policy, education and services, how citizen organise their urban life as well as how cities develop strong identities of which characteristics are part of the branding efforts of city marketing agencies.

In urban design circles, finding a balance between planned and “unplanned” city development that would allow the intellectual capital of cities to flourish in all dimensions is the ambition. In “The Art of City Making” Landry (2006) discusses the skills required as foundational for this art which goes beyond conventional city planning approaches in architecture, engineering and land-use planning.

“Flexibility in city planning and re-urbanisation approaches allows a different response to the changing needs of a place.”

Cities can be “labyrinths of roads, agglomerations of buildings, mazes of relations”. The urban panorama is a system of close-knit connections between material objects and immaterial factors produced by man. Flexibility in city planning and re-urbanisation approaches allows a different response to the changing needs of a place. Flexibility is intended as the ease with which a system or components of it can be modified and adapted for use in different applications or settings in addition to the ones for which they were originally designed (rewrite), for example the use of former industrial spaces for creative industries or the current discussion about turning inner city shopping areas into housing or non-commercial co-working places.

These different views on design processes often lead to confrontation between traditional city planners and planners with a knowledge-based development perspective, as the former often base their planning on maximising the financial value of commercial use of land, whereas the latter include the intangible value of city regeneration, which includes understanding the value of local characteristics, culture, and existing social networks. Commercial developers and planners often follow a different model when assessing the value of inner city spaces.

An example for this changing perception on planning is the discourse on the role of public spaces in cities. From a knowledge city perspective, public spaces are vital to create spaces of flow. Public spaces are an organizing factor in connecting the city’s different areas and functions. Central Park in New York City has many connecting functions and serves as a focal point for different activities, between business and culture, private and public intersections of city life, but it is also an inclusive place “owned” by citizens across all social and ethnic backgrounds.

Designing public spaces often fails, because the “intangible value” is overlooked. There are many examples where public spaces are not adopted by the city community because the existing social complexities of a place are not understood as architects and developers are largely guided by aesthetically, financial or technical considerations. Organically grown public spaces may not look perfect from an urban designer’s point of view, but informal structures and even partially dilapidated buildings are important for a liveable environment. Such “informalities” are important to understand in urban design and development. Place-making is the term used in architecture; “space-making” should be the one for knowledge city planners. There are plenty of examples of ill-designed knowledge sharing places in organisations, but experienced knowledge management professionals always find those where the real conversations happen.

In 1956, Jane Jacobs delivered a lecture at Harvard University, addressing leading architects, urban planners, and intellectuals, speaking on the topic of East Harlem. She urged the audience to “respect – in the deepest sense – strips of chaos that have a weird wisdom of their own not yet encompassed in our concept of urban order.”

It may be hard to find a sentence more beautifully referring to the notion that there are limits to managing cities, and with all respect to the great Jacobs, knowledge management professionals could learn from her writings on cities, that there are limits to managing knowledge in organisation, as both, managing knowledge in organisations and in cities, remain an art.


Barth, Julia 2017. Informational Urbanism. A Conceptual Framework of Smart Cities, in: Proceedings of the 50th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.
Berlin Senatskanzlei 2021. Strategischer Rahmen fuer die Entwicklung einer neuen Berlin Smart City Strategie
Carillo, Javier (2006). Knowledge Cities
Howkins, John. (2009). Creative Ecologies: Where Thinking is a Proper Job. Queensland: University of Queensland Press, p. 81
Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol 10, no 5, 2006
Kunzmann, K.R. (2004). Culture, creativity and spatial planning“ in: TPR 75 (4), pp. 363-403
Landry, C. (2006). The Art of City Making
Ritter, Waltraut (2018). Data governance in (Smart) Cities, in: Thomas Menkhoff, Siew Ning Kan eds. Living in Smart Cities

Waltraut Ritter is an independent researcher, spezializing on knowledge society topics in the broadest sense. She holds an M.A. in Information Science and sociology from the Free University of Berlin, and an M.B.A. from Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK. She is board member in the International Council on Knowledge Management, member of the Euro-Asia Management Studies Association, and a founding member of the New Club of Paris. She holds teaching and research assignments at various universities, has lived and worked in Stockholm, Singapore, Hong Kong and is now based in Berlin.

About this contribution Text: Waltraut Ritter · Editorial Team: Andreas Matern, Stefan Zillich · Key visual:, CC0 · Editorial Design: Stefan Zillich, re:Quest Berlin · published in: Das Kuratierte Dossier, vol. 5 “Knowledge Management Essentials”, March 2023, ISSN (Online) 2940-1380 · Published by Gesellschaft für Wissensmanagement e. V. · order print edition · About the series “Das Kuratierte Dossier” · © authors / GfWM e. V. 2023 · Imprint: Creative Commons Attribution NoDerivatives 4.0 International (BY-ND)

Knowledge Management Essentials • Das Kuratierte Dossier, Band 5 • März 2023
Alle BeiträgeKontakt Redaktionsteam