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I escaped the fog and rain of London for a fascinating few days in the Cape. I am in the business of city and regional economic development, which means helping places to position themselves effectively for the opportunities of the global market, and to make it work for families and firms locally.

The business of cities and regions is to provide the right combination of high quality public services and infrastructures, and high value economic opportunities for people, traders and investors, in an open dynamic system.

After helping to lead London's development efforts for the past 20 years, and having recently worked with Auckland, Toronto, Sydney, Edinburgh, Seoul and Mexico City, my first question was: "What is this Cape region for?" What should be its future place in the world?

I rapidly discovered that other people are thinking about this same question. The people include the Premier, the mayor of Cape Town, and many business leaders. That is a good start.

The Cape region is at an important juncture. Just as Latin America, China and India have done, Africa will emerge economically in the next century, and Cape Town must play a distinctive role.

In the region, a period of continual expansion and growth, coupled with improvements in fundamental public services, has shifted development forwards. The shape of things to come is more visible than before, with business investment up, the airport improvements in progress, the Fifa World Cup coming, and other developments in the pipeline.

But many people I met in the Cape region were somehow concerned about the future. They recognised many good signs in the present moment, but could not see where it was all leading, or what would be left when this beneficial phase completes its cycle.

Some also commented that Gauteng seemed to be getting their act together much better, and felt this represented a competitive threat. I don't agree about the threat, but I recognise and support the call for action, and I think Gauteng is setting a good example.

The global economy has both freed cities and regions to define their role and identity in a more open world, and it has exposed them to new competitive pressures.

Above all, it is a time to embrace change and to make planned adjustments that will pay dividends in the long term. Cities that have succeeded in the past 10 years, like Dublin, Helsinki, Ottawa and Singapore have been within regions with a clear plan. A plan that makes sense of the open international future, but is rooted in their own unique attributes and assets.

The Cape region must do the same. It needs to a long-term plan that is devised by business and the government working together, and one that embraces the whole regional market of the Cape, not just rooted in jurisdictional boundaries.

Fundamental public services and infrastructures should be the business of government and its agencies, but economic development interventions require public and private collaboration. They are not public services; they involve shaping and securing benefits from complex and dynamic markets where business has much of the "know-how".

Gauteng is not the competition, it is a partner in development, and its success is important for the Cape - from Gauteng's achievements many good things will flow. But for this to work, the Cape needs a plan that gives it a complementary role to Gauteng, just as Singapore has to Hong Kong and Tokyo, San Francisco has to Chicago and New York, and Amsterdam has to London and Paris.

There should be one main economic plan for the Cape, not 100 plans that cover different things in microscopic detail and have different champions and sponsors.

Investors want to know what business the Cape is in in the global market, and the plan must also act as an investment prospectus for the Cape's future, which can easily distinguish the Cape from other regions, and guide the investment decisions required.

What should an economic plan for the Cape be based on?

London's strategy is to be the world's first truly sustainable global city, Miami seeks to be the business capital of the Pan-American market and Singapore is pursuing a path towards being Asia's technopole. Which way should the Cape turn?

This can only be determined if we know what the Cape uniquely is.

I was a modest, and pretty under-informed, visitor recently for my first real exposure to business and the government in the Cape. I saw at least eight things that must have potential to be part of a Cape future, which is both distinctive, and also complementary to the role of the other centres.

First, the Cape has a quality of life and a quality of place that is inspiring and unique. The tip of Africa is a place that creates a compelling sense of purpose and awe, and provides a perfect location to serve the world differently. This can be enhanced to drive endeavour.

Second, the human history of the Cape is dramatic and rich, with both glory and injustice in large measures. This has now produced a diverse and tenacious population which is an asset when working in a global system. This human diversity connects the Cape to four continents, and that is important in a global system. The competitive advantage of diversity in the Cape is that it can serve global markets from a single location: China and Brazil, Hollywood and Bollywood.

Third, the development context of Southern Africa offers the potential for substantial growth and long-term international interest and the Cape has an advanced infrastructure and logistics capability that can both tap and shape that potential.

Four, the eco-system and cultural pluralism act as fuel for innovation and creativity, offering new kinds of content, products, technologies and firms, that the world has not seen before. Whether they are new visual and verbal stories, or new technologies for making the world better, the Cape offers a laboratory where they can be created and sold to a global market.

Five, the Cape is the seat of learning, with massive potential for new science, new art and a new sense of wonder at what the human mind can create. Bringing the universities, writers, scientists, and thinkers into the development partnership for the region is key, and inviting the world to learn, think, and exchange ideas in the Cape is essential.

Six, the Cape is a seat of power. It houses Parliament and is a logical venue for inter-governmental discourse, for international institutions and for global media to gather to report on the making of decisions and judgements that will shape our world.

Seven, the Cape is fertile. With food, grapes, wine and the fruits of the oceans, which when coupled with advances in science and creativity will provide a place of enduring taste and nutrition for the whole continent.

Eight, the Cape remains a great trading post and a visitor attraction.

There is tremendous scope to build a high value visitor economy in the Cape drawing upon the convention/exhibition trade, creative, environmental, academic, and inter-governmental roles that the Cape should play.

There are more roles that the Cape can play, and this is the beginning of setting them out. If these are some of the ingredients that make the Cape different and distinctive, it suggests that the Cape can become Africa's ingenious region - with a compelling cape Town surrounded by vibrant coastal settlements, distinctive cities and towns, and advanced logistics.

The shape of the region will change as it grows, it will begin as a city-region with a single major node in Cape Town, but over time other larger regional centres will grow to complement, and work with Cape Town. This growth must be planned for now.

Greg Clark is an advisor to the UK government, the OECD and cities and regions in five continents.
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