Cities and states are becoming increasingly powerful actors on the world stage

“And together we shall rule the world!” Anne Hidalgo and Sadiq Khan, mayors of Paris and London respectively, meet last spring. Image: Getty.

“No matter how far away, no matter how small in size, no matter how few competences, and indeed, no matter how poor, every single region has at least one unique jewel it can share with the others.” – Vaira Vike-Freiberga, former president of Latvia.

“Sub-national presence on the international scene has become a fact of life in an interdependent world.” – Ivo Duchacek, who created the ‘paradiplomacy’ concept  in 1984.

“Global cities are increasingly driving world affairs– economically, politically, socially and culturally. They are no longer just places to live in. They have emerged as leading actors on the global stage.” – Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2015.

Almost everything in nature is self-organised, and a substantial part of what human beings do is organising their behaviour. Over the last centuries, we have organised the world so that sovereign states serve as the main compass. When asked what are the largest world economies, we think about countries. Who are the most powerful? A handful of sovereign states come to mind.

I propose a different way of reshuffling the cards. Instead of looking at foreign affairs in a state-centric way, one should also contemplate other actors such as cities and states (or cantons, counties, departments, districts, krays, länder, oblasts, okrugs, prefectures, provinces, regions, republics, territories, or zones).

Picking a different unit of analysis diversifies our understanding of the world, adding realism and density to our everyday life and choices. Any future institutional framework for foreign affairs should be deeply rooted in the principles of multi-level and multi-stakeholder governance in order to allow for interaction, synergy, and complementarity between all levels of governments –and to encourage ownership of the challenges and the opportunities of foreign affairs.

History countersigns this view. When we look back at the last 400 years, we notice that new actors emerge on the world stage in a cyclical way. Sovereign states, as we know them today, are a fairly recent political construction, dating back to the 17th century. Yet, they alone no longer monopolise the status quo of the international system, even if they still certainly play a vital role.

International organisations rose as a full global actor in the late 19th century. They were followed by multinational companies in the mid-20th century, international non-governmental organisations (iNGOs) in the 1980s, and by terror groups, religious communities, a transnational civil society, or by celebrities in more recent times. All have authority and capacity to mold world dynamics and shape rules while they dispute space and resources among themselves to enlarge and protect their constituencies.

Cities and states are the brand new international actors. If the international community has always been aware of the economic sway of some states (such as California or Texas), or of regions using foreign policy to leverage their internal autonomy (such as Quebecor Catalonia), today the phenomenon is much more widespread.

The international tentacles of “mega cities” or “global cities” have also been grasped in the past, but the list of cities that are no longer nested in a national urban system only but participate directly in global governance is much wider. Virtually no state or major city in the United States, Canada, Germany, Brazil, China, Japan, Mexico, France, and several other countries in Asia, Latin America, Europe, or North America has shied away from harnessing the opportunities opened up by an international presence. North Rhine-Westphalia, Guangdong, São Paulo (state), and Île- de-France are richer than most countries in the world and have established well-staffed and dynamic structures to defend their interests abroad.

Sub-national entities can thus be regarded less as a territory but as a space where global flows– capital, information, people, goods, services– crisscross and solidify. The startling reality is that among the thirty largest economies in the world ranked by gross domestic product (GDP), twelve are sub-national (regional or municipal). A 2001 study by the McKinsey Global Institute shows that six hundred urban centres generate about 60 percent of global GDP.

An alternative view of the world's largest economies. New York metro is bigger than New York state because it includes chunks of Connecticut and New Jersey. 

This trend goes hand in hand with the global urbanisation of the planet. Concentrated into just 2 percent of the world’s surface, urban areas now hold over half of the world’s population. And UN Habitat estimates that, by 2050, over 75 percent of the world’s population will live in cities.

According to the UN agency: “The 100 years from1950 to 2050 will be remembered for the greatest social, cultural, economic and environmental transformation in history – the urbanisation of humanity. With half of us now occupying urban space, the future of the human species is tied to the city.”

Currently, over 80 percent of global economic output is already generated by cities. This phenomenon only bears comparison to that great growth of cities that accompanied the industrial revolution in the 19th century. As Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser has said: “Cities are our species’ greatest invention.”

Aware of their economic potential and strains and faced with gridlock in the national capitals, mayors and governors have gone a long way toward filling the vacuum of effective decision-making and effective action by exercising political and economic power at their level. It is the states and cities that are the engines of growth at the ground level, where the transition from policy to practice becomes most visible.


In countries around the world, sub-national governments have now to meet the needs of their constituencies and face constant scrutiny. Processes of decentralisation of government – the downward transfer of resources, responsibilities, or authority from national to sub-national governments– is a powerful global tendency. As pointed out by Michael Storper: “City- regions are the principal scale at which people experience lived reality. The geographical churn, turbulence, and unevenness of development, combined with the sheer scale of urbanisation, will make city- region development more important than ever– to economics, politics, our global mood, and our welfare”. With the exception of the classical strongholds of sovereign countries – the military, border security, monetary policy, and justice – decentralisation is touching all segments of power.

This offers some challenges to the practice of foreign affairs. If the international portfolio of national states is still dominated by issues of war and peace, trade matters, and monetary stability, there is a tendency and pressure for foreign ministries to diversify their agendas and to include human- scale themes – such as environmental and social issues, cultural exchanges, infrastructure, education, or healthcare and epidemics.

This enlargement of the field of foreign policy into non-military and non- diplomatic issue areas is gradually becoming a characteristic feature of global interdependence. Yet, these are fields that usually fall under the legal competence of sub-national governments. And local authorities wish not to relinquish their rights and duties. If national foreign policy is outward looking to the external environment, then sub-national foreign policy looks more inward to the domestic base.

A balance is possible to strike if we view the international activities of sub-national governments as one element in an increasingly complex multilayered diplomatic environment wherein policy-makers seek to negotiate simultaneously with domestic as well as foreign interests. Chinese provinces, Brazilian states, or German länder smoothly carry out hundreds of international cooperation programmes on issues that directly relate to the welfare of their citizens.

International protocol and norms represent another barometer of the new weight that sub-national actors carry in the global arena. Emblematically, when the governor of California visited China in2013 and Mexico in 2014, he was received with pomp by Premier Li Keqiang and by President Enrique Peña Nieto respectively. Or when Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff led a mission to the United States in 2012, she held meetings not only with President Barack Obama but also with then Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. Led by economic imperatives and by constitutional rights, sub-national governments have landed on the moon of foreign affairs, signalling a fundamental challenge to some of the core logics of the modern international system.

As witnessed before in ancient history, once again local spaces – cities and states – are the cradles of change, the place where new lifestyles form and new ways of organising work, economy, and politics are being born. But how has this situation come about? Doesn’t orthodox International Relations theory claim that foreign affairs are under the exclusive purview of central governments? Why is this type of sub-national activity becoming more prevalent and growing at a rate that far exceeds the growth of international activity by the traditional representatives of sovereign states? How could foreign policy be used as an instrument to deliver domestic services, such as healthcare, infrastructure, or better education?

The international activism of sub-national governments is rapidly growing across the world, discreetly transforming diplomatic practices and foreign policy instruments. But the full import of this development and its potentially far- reaching consequences is as yet not well grasped.

Rodrigo Tavares is founder and CEO of Granito & Partners. This is an extract from his book “Paradiplomacy: Cities and States as Global Players”, published by Oxford University Press Inc. It is © 2016 Oxford University Press.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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