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.

 
 
 
 

North central Melbourne is becoming a test bed for smart, integrated transport

A rainy Melbourne in 2014. Image: Getty.

Integrated transport has long been the holy grail of transport engineering. Now, a project set up north of Melbourne’s downtown aims to make it a reality.

Led by the School of Engineering at the University of Melbourne, the project will create a living laboratory for developing a highly integrated, smart, multimodal transport system. The goals are to make travel more efficient, safer, cleaner and more sustainable.

Integrated transport aims to combine various modes of travel to provide seamless door-to-door services. Reduced delays, increased safety and better health can all be achieved by sharing information between users, operators and network managers. This will optimise mobility and minimise costs for travellers.

The National Connected Multimodal Transport Test Bed includes arterial roads and local streets in an area of 4.5 square kilometres in Carlton, Fitzroy and Collingwood.

Bounded by Alexandra Parade and Victoria, Hoddle and Lygon streets, this busy inner-suburban area is a perfect location to test a new generation of connected transport systems. Our growing cities will need these systems to manage their increasing traffic.

How will the test bed work?

The test bed covers all modes of transport. Since April, it has been collecting data on vehicles, cyclists, public transport, pedestrians and traffic infrastructure, such as signals and parking. The area will be equipped with advanced sensors (for measuring emissions and noise levels) and communications infrastructure (such as wireless devices on vehicles and signals).

The test bed will collect data on all aspects of transport in the inner-suburban area covered by the project. Image: author provided.

The aim is to use all this data to allow the transport system to be more responsive to disruption and more user-focused.

This is a unique opportunity for key stakeholders to work together to build a range of core technologies for collecting, integrating and processing data. This data will be used to develop advanced information-based transport services.

The project has attracted strong support from government, industry and operators.

Government will benefit by having access to information on how an integrated transport system works. This can be used to develop policies and create business models, systems and technologies for integrated mobility options.

The test bed allows industry to create and test globally relevant solutions and products. Academics and research students at the University of Melbourne are working on cutting-edge experimental studies in collaboration with leading multinationals.

This will accelerate the deployment of this technology in the real world. It also creates enormous opportunities for participation in industry up-skilling, training and education.

What are the likely benefits?

Urban transport systems need to become more adaptable and better integrated to enhance mobility. Current systems have long suffered from being disjointed and mode-centric. They are also highly vulnerable to disruption. Public transport terminals can fail to provide seamless transfers and co-ordination between modes.

This project can help transport to break out of the traditional barriers between services. The knowledge gained can be used to provide users with an integrated and intelligent transport system.

It has been difficult, however, to trial new technologies in urban transport without strong involvement from key stakeholders. An environment and platform where travellers can experience the benefits in a real-world setting is needed. The test bed enables technologies to be adapted so vehicles and infrastructure can be more responsive to real-time demand and operational conditions.


Rapid advancements in sensing and communication technologies allow for a new generation of solutions to be developed. However, artificial environments and computer simulation models lack the realism to ensure new transport technologies can be properly designed and evaluated. The living lab provides this.

The test bed will allow governments and transport operators to share data using a common information platform. People and vehicles will be able to communicate with each other and the transport infrastructure to allow the whole system to operate more intelligently. The new active transport systems will lead to safety and health benefits.

The test bed allows impacts on safety in a connected environment to be investigated. Interactions between active transport modes such as walking and cycling with connected or autonomous vehicles can be examined to ensure safety is enhanced in complex urban environments. Researchers will study the effects of warning systems such as red light violation, pedestrian movements near crossings, and bus stops.

Low-carbon mobility solutions will also be evaluated to improve sustainability and cut transport emissions.

Environmental sensors combined with traffic-measurement devices will help researchers understand the effects of various types of vehicles and congestion levels. This includes the impacts of emerging disruptive technologies such as autonomous, on-demand, shared mobility systems.

A range of indoor and outdoor sensor networks, such as Wi-Fi, will be used to trial integrated public transport services at stations and terminals. The goal is to ensure seamless transfers between modes and optimised transit operations.The Conversation

Majid Sarvi is chair in transport engineering and the professor in transport for smart cities; Gary Liddle an enterprise professor, transport; and Russell G. Thompson, an associate professor in transport engineering at the University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.