Building a ‘Growth Ecosystem’ – An Interview with Karime Hassan
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye, Photography by Pip Andersen
One of my best friends John often tells me ‘Joff, you can do anything, but you can’t do everything.’ Sage advice indeed and something I try to remember regularly. This phrase rolled around my mind on a recent drizzly mid-March morning as I walked towards Hotel du Vin in anticipation of meeting with Karime Hassan, the Chief Executive and Growth Director of Exeter City Council. I was pondering what it must be like to have the responsibility of envisioning, directing, planning and executing a strategy for a whole city. All of the residents. All of the businesses. All of the students. All of the public-sector organisations. All of the infrastructure that sits behind all of this. Being honest, I started feeling anxious just thinking about the task at hand, and it isn’t even me who has to carry that responsibility!
So, with pen, notebook and freshly brewed Americano in hand and with much anticipation, I met Karime in the private library of the hotel and started discussing the strategic goals and challenges that he, the organisation he leads and the city he is passionate about faces.
Karime, thank you for giving up your time to meet with me. First of all, I’d be interested to hear a little about your background and how you came to be in Exeter? I’m detecting a Southern-Welsh twang to your accent?
Yes, I’m a Cardiff boy originally and moved to Exeter in 1999 to become the Chief Planner of the City Council. I was instrumental in spearheading and delivering projects such as the development of the Princesshay Shopping Centre and the town of Cranbrook. I then moved to East Devon District Council to become their Corporate Director of Environment for 8 years, before transitioning back to Exeter City Council in 2011 as a Strategic Director. In 2013, I took on my current role as Chief Executive and Growth Director. Almost 20 years since moving to Exeter it is hugely satisfying to see some of the projects that we started planning for back then coming to fruition. That is one of the primary sources of job satisfaction in a role like mine, particularly as there are so many different (and sometimes opposing) opinions within the city about what should be prioritised and focused on.
Yes, I’d imagine that is an almost thankless task sometimes?
Well, to be honest, yes it is. A lot of the projects that have led to Exeter becoming a more attractive and successful city have had huge opposition. Take the development of Cranbrook for example. We received 14’000 letters of protest to the town being built (over 10% of the population of the city). I believe the real strategic challenge in my role is finding balance. How to balance the desire and appetite for growth with the challenges that this growth brings. Or the need for more housing with the lack of available greenfield spaces to build them and, importantly, how to balance the agendas, opinions and interests of the huge number of stakeholders within the city.
And all of this during a time of austerity. A time when our budgets as a council are being reduced year on year, but the expectation of the city and its neighbours is to see continued growth, success and development. In terms of mindset, motivation and wellbeing, I’d say there has never been a tougher time to work in the public sector and, I’m sorry to say, that we’re not out of the woods yet.
That’s hard to hear Karime. How do you manage to stay positive and focused on the task at hand amidst such pressure and tension?
Well, I think remembering the ‘Why’ behind what you do reminds you of the positive motivation, passion and vision that made you get involved in the first place. That often makes some of the short-term frustration or difficulty drift further towards the back of your mind. Also, people in positions like mine have to make their peace with the fact that transformational change always includes tension. There is no getting away from that fact.
On a more practical note, I enjoy sport – watching the Exeter Chiefs and Exeter City FC – and also enjoy escaping into a movie or a series on Netflix. This helps me to take a rest from the mental tiredness of balancing so many things. I also have an incredibly patient wife who is an excellent listener. Many times, I have shared frustrations or concerns with her and she simply listens to and absorbs what I say. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ as they say.
I am also relentless with my team at re-focusing them on what they have achieved rather than what they haven’t. There is always more work to do or people who aren’t happy with what you are doing, along with other tensions and difficulties to handle. But you have to be positive. People are attracted by (and want to be associated with) success. So, we keep going and keep trying to build a positive and lasting legacy in our city.
You mention vision and strategy being closely linked. Perhaps you could expand on this for me?
Bearing in mind that most of the strategic projects that we work on as a council have at least a 10 year lead time (many as long as 20 years) there is a huge amount of envisioning that goes on within our organisation. We have to predict as best we can the sorts of housing development, employment opportunities, cultural projects and infrastructure needs that the city will have, two decades in advance. So, many of the projects that are just being completed now were conceived last millennium. Think about that for a minute. Think about the technological advances that have occurred in that time alone. The global reliance on the internet alone has meant that the way we do things has fundamentally changed. So, as we look ahead to the next 20 years, we have to try to imagine and plan for what the needs of our city will be. But we have to remain open to new ideas, new technology and changes in circumstances in order to be flexible and able to achieve the best possible outcome for the city as a whole. We can’t be too rigid or proud and we have to make sure we remain humble and open to ideas and suggestions.
That’s so refreshing to hear Karime. Personally, having lived in London and Birmingham before moving to Devon 13 years ago, I can honestly say that Exeter is by far the most collaborative city I have lived in.
I totally agree and I couldn’t have put it better myself. This is so encouraging to hear, as one of our core beliefs at the City Council is that we can continue to make Exeter stronger, by working in partnership with others. It is one of the things I love the most about Exeter. It relies on other people, organisations and business relinquishing some of their control over some things in order to work together and make a larger, longer-lasting impact. The ability to do this is one of the biggest investments that people can make in our city. Adding their time, knowledge and expertise into the mix to achieve a more complete and collaborative outcome. I have seen time and time again that the default position in Exeter is ‘Let’s try!’ rather than ‘No.’ This is a hugely meaningful starting point for innovation, development and progress in the city.
And, honestly, I think that is due, in part, to you. Whatever exists at the top of an organisation trickles downwards (for good or for bad) and your personal value for partnership and collaboration has clearly played a key part in forming the DNA and value system of the City Council and beyond.
Thank you Joff. That means a lot. You can print that if you want, because you said it, not me! Even the way that we are working with other councils in the area is increasingly more collaborative. Along with the District Councils in East Devon, Mid Devon and Teignbridge, we are starting to refer to the total catchment area that we cover as the ‘Greater Exeter’ area. This marks the fact the Exeter is increasingly becoming a region rather than a city and also that this area surrounding the city is a huge part of the Exeter story.
We have the third highest daily commuting population into our city (outside of London) and 26 million pounds leaves Exeter each week in the form of salaries into the surrounding towns and villages. We have to explore more joined up thinking to make sure that this growing area develops with as many people’s best interests in mind. This means embracing change, but also enjoying the opportunities for growth that this brings.
I’m not sure if you saw in the news this morning that Stephen Hawking passed away? The need to embrace change that you have just mentioned reminds me of a quote of his, that ‘Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change’.
Yes, I saw that on the news this morning. Very sad indeed. And I totally agree. Like I said before, you have to be open to listening and adapting. If you don’t have this built into your foundation, then you’re set up for failure.
So, in terms of adapting to change, as you look forward to the future, what do you see as the biggest challenges that Exeter faces?
Well, there are many challenges born from fast growth. Transport infrastructure and associated environmental issues are a couple of the main ones that are often talked about. Working alongside Devon County Council (the local transport authority) we have to collaborate and partner with multiple local stakeholders to try and work out a way to improve the situation and reduce the strain on the local transport network. We are in ongoing conversation with the County Council to attract or source funding for the improvement of the local travel network, but this is a real challenge.
So, if you could source the required funding, what would you do with it?
There are many options to explore, including building more Park & Rides around the city, improving the rail network and looking at the road system to try and reduce strain on key routes in, out and around the city. Our desire and vision is to invest in Exeter, so we are working tirelessly to either spearhead initiatives or partner with others who are breaking ground in key areas. For example, the excellent work that Exeter City Futures is doing in terms of generating data-driven research into the real issues and opportunities ahead.
And speaking of opportunities, what are the positives that lay ahead for Exeter?
Well, we are increasingly being seen as having a world-leading offering in the areas of ‘Big Data’, Data Analytics and Environmental Sciences. With organisations like the Met Office choosing Exeter as their base (who have built 3 of the 20 largest super computers in the world here) and the University of Exeter increasingly leading the way globally in research work around areas such as Ocean Plastics and Dementia, Exeter is becoming an ‘innovation ecosystem’ where ideas are being generated, incubated and grown into initiatives and even, in some cases, businesses. This is hugely exciting as it means that we are starting to hold onto some of the incredible talent that the city has, rather than losing it to other parts of the UK or abroad. It is also a leverage point for us to start achieving our dream of putting Exeter on the global map and continuing our drive to make Exeter a stronger city.
To that end Karime, we at Grow Exeter want to wish you all the best and look forward to playing our part in supporting the City Council in the achievement of your key growth goals and future plans. Thank you so much for your time. Onwards and upwards!