Cities in the modern world are beginning to share some features with the city-states of millennia past — communicating, trading, competing. But they’re two differences: Today it’s nation states, not city-states, that occasionally go to war. And unlike the walled cities that harbored flourishing trade in Medieval Europe, today there are literally thousands of cities on the rise, and looking outward in search not of silk and spices, but rather for sources of finance, global talent, and most of all, good ideas.
But the search for knowledge isn’t always easy. And there can be resistance. My colleague Neal Peirce recently chided the short-sightededness of journalistic watchdogs who see in mayoral travel only as junkets, not fruit-bearing study of better and smarter practices elsewhere.
But here’s the big news that really counts. It’s that the 500 largest cities on the planet are sending delegations to visit each other, repeatedly and consistently every year, on the order of thousands of study trips annually. The cities are selected carefully, so that visitors may acquire valuable knowledge to speed improvements back home.
The pattern became crystal clear to me conducting research, including detailed responses from 45 world cities, for my forthcoming book, Beyond Smart Cities. These cities indicated they visit often and continuously every year, often more than 10 times per year. They tend to choose visit partners that are their like themselves. The rich tend to visit the rich — for example, Stockholm visits London, London visits New York. But the “poor” — cities like Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Dakar, Senegal; and Tabriz, Iran — visit rich and poor in equal shares. And though visitors often select similar-sized hosts, even the mega cities more frequently visit their cousins in the one to five million range (like Seattle) than their sister mega-cities. Perhaps something about that moderate city size enables newcomers to get their arms around the whole thing in a short time.
So why do the cities go to all this effort, and what do they learn? They go because in a globalized economy, cities need to work harder to make a living. They no longer have the protections of trade regimes and the comforts of regional isolation. In today’s world, money moves fast, even faster than trade deals. And cities have learned that they must keep up with their principal competitors — other cities. If they want those incoming investments, they must strive to be on top of their game. They have to make themselves an attractive place for global talent, with well-connected and efficiently functioning infrastructure.
But also, city leaders spread out around the world because they have short terms of office and know that learning from others is cheaper and less risky than pursing untested ideas and ending up in false starts. Good practices in successful cities offer short-cuts. The experience of the Olympic games in Salt Lake and Barcelona in the 1990s were of enormous assistance to Turin and Vancouver this decade. In turn, Barcelona and Turin have both studied venture capital practices in Silicon Valley. And Charlotte and Denver have both studied Portland’s transit system. City-to-city exchange was ranked by survey takers by far as the most effective way to learn. Visitors see things work.
Half of the cities taking part in the survey were “reformers” (by their own reckoning, they have made “many significant reforms”). And they exhibit interest in distinct areas, such as transportation and the keys to increased local economic development. The search for transport solutions reflects the well-known spread of Curitiba’s bus rapid transit (BRT) system to other cities in Brazil, then to Bogota, Colombia, and on to Mexico City. Currently BRT is reaching East Asia. It is also why dozens of other cities (Portland is a good example) visit Amsterdam and Copenhagen: Visitors see demonstrated in those Northern European cities the power of integrating all forms of movement — walking, bicycles, automobiles, buses, and trams — into a single transit system.
The “non-reformers” in the survey — those with a history of fewer major policy or practice shifts — have a broad spectrum of topics for which they travel, including finance, urban planning, urban renewal, and basic utilities. Perhaps the reformers feel they had this ground already covered. Both reformers and non-reformers are concerned with the big and growing question for all major central cities on the planet: How to govern sprawling metropolitan areas? It’s a tough challenge. Cities on the prowl for answers to the metro puzzle may learn some ways to work around municipal lines, but they are unlikely to return home fully satisfied.
But acquiring new knowledge is only half the battle. How the knowledge is validated and applied to problems back home is a whole other drama. My research has also discovered individual styles in the way cities handle new knowledge.
Trust and a learning environment seem to be the main ingredients in the alchemy of internal processing needed in a city to adapt knowledge successfully to local circumstances. Seattle’s Trade Development Alliance has internalized this notion in its study tours. A range of business, government, and independent leaders is involved in each and every mission. Over more than 20 years of missions, with many repeat participants, the process has also produced significant bonding among its top civic leaders.
And it’s that type of trust and bonding that helps set the stage for adapting “imported” knowledge to solve problems. Even though they may not know it, smart cities create comfort zones of informal, internal networks of trust. One management guru calls this zone the “ba,” a climate conducive to exchange of shared values. With the right climate, civic leaders are able to reach consensus, and their reactions and policy initiatives have greater coherence and are achieved more speedily.
The research I’ve worked on shows the prowling of cities is not just continuous. It’s growing. The arrangements for visits are becoming more sophisticated. Intermediary organizations are popping up to help match cities, much like a dating service matches couples.
The bottom line: A wise policy environment and enlightened public support could help cities create the conditions and cultivate the soil for innovation, even while they are on the prowl.
This story is reprinted, with permission, from Citiwire, a service that reports on positive developments in urban regions.
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