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The Economist's Most Liveable Cities: Bias or prank?

    Yorick Wilks, Professor of Artificial Intelligence (Emeritus) at the University of Sheffield, examines The Economist's top 10 of the 'World's Most Liveable Cities' list.

    According to the Economist’s Intelligence Unit, eight of the world’s ten “most liveable cities” are in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, but none are in the UK or the US. Is there some message here, anything we can learn from to make our cities more liveable, assuming that is something we all should want? After all, these eight cities were all founded by the British - they do not include Montreal - and run on principles and habits we would find familiar. Yet our own cities, like those in the US, are far down the list; we were not just pipped at the post by our urban offspring. What are the reasons for this? They cannot include major differences over immigration, the dissolution of culture and the overloading of service infrastructures: those three English-speaking countries in the top bracket above have suffered massive immigration over the same period just as we, and the US, have.

    Could the difference then lie in local democratic control, which our cities notoriously lost under Mrs. Thatcher and which they have been struggling to reclaim. Influenced by events in Sheffield under David Blunkett, or London under Ken Livingstone, Mrs. Thatcher came to believe that local councils could not be trusted with ratepayers’ money, nor to run schools or indeed anything much. But that cannot be the explanation: US cities are fiercely independent of state and federal control but that does not help them up the Economist’s list. Climate is clearly not an issue, given the prominence of Canada and the presence of Helsinki in the same list.

    In the meagre explanations given of how the judgements are made, there are hints to do with “personal safety” and “stability” which “reflects residents’ fear of terror, crime and conflict”. Even more curious: all five English-speaking countries would seem about as stable politically as countries can get, they simply have no rivals in terms of lack of invasion or revolution, apart from an incident in 1776. Stranger still, New Zealand, Canada and Australia all have murder rates higher than the UK. True, Britain and the US have had terrorists incidents, as the other three have not, and both countries have seen a consequent rise in official surveillance and, in the UK at least, a degree of disaffection with the police - yet the Australians have never loved their police as the British once seemed to, and for obvious historical reasons.

    Could it all be some strange mix of experimental bias and anti-bias in the Economist’s team itself: it has already been criticised by the New York Times. “The Economist”, it thundered, “clearly equates liveability with speaking English”. That is not quite the case: it has systematically downgraded the two countries in which it is based.

    Personally, I cannot connect the list with my experience of living in an English city packed with magnificent buildings and culture, which seems to run well: there are buses, trains, far more than in our three prize countries. Apart from an occasional drunk in the street I have no awareness of disorder of any kind, and I suspect there are many such cities in the UK, probably a majority. Is the whole Economist list an elaborate joke?

    Yorick Wilks is Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Sheffield, and is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. He studied maths and philosophy at Cambridge, where he got his PhD in 1968. He has published numerous articles and six books in artificial intelligence concerned with language processing.

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