Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Cities on the Prowl

Cities on the Prowl

Tim Campbell

Posted on CitiScope 28 Feb 2010

Cities in the modern world are beginning to share some features with the city-states of millennia past.  Now, as then, cities are important, even critical, to economic development.  Unlike the walled cities that harbored flourishing trade in Medieval Europe, today, cities by the thousands are on the rise and looking outward in search not of silk and spices, but rather sources of finance, global talent, and most of all, good ideas.  But the search for knowledge isn’t always easy.

A few weeks ago, my colleague Neal Peirce chided the short-sighted carping of voters who see in mayoral travel only junkets, even if they are for purposes of study.  My recent research for a forthcoming book[1] shows that the 500 largest cities on the planet travel often, on the order of thousands of study visits annually, and they visit a wide range of host cities which are selected carefully, so that visitors may acquire valuable knowledge to speed improvements back home.

A survey of 45 large cities around the world revealed that cities visit repeatedly and continuously every year, often more than 10 times per year.  They tend to choose their visit partners that are their like themselves, the rich tend to visit the rich, 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 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. 

Why do they go? 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 inward investments, cities must strive to be on top of their game.  They have to make an attractive place for global talent and to deliver well-connected and efficiently functioning infrastructure.

But also, city leaders go because they have short terms of office and they 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 Olympics 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 have distinct interests compared to other cities. Reformers showed most interest in transport and know how in fostering 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, busses, and trams—into a single transit system.   

The non-reformers in the survey are those that had few or no reforms.  Their priorities were spread more or less evenly across a spectrum of topics, 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 cities on the planet:  how to govern sprawling metropolitan areas.  Cities on the prowl for answers to the metro puzzle are unlike to return home fully satisfied.

Great Idea!  Now what?  Acquiring new knowledge is only half the battle.  How the knowledge is validated and applied to problems back home is a whole other drama.  Our 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.  The TDA involves a range of business, government, and independent leaders in each and every mission.  Over more than 20 years of missions and many repeat participants, the TDA has achieved bonding among its civic leadership.

Smart cities   Leaders interviewed in a half dozen cities over the past 18 months also point to trust and bonding.  These are the key elements in 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.

Our research shows that the prowling of cities is continuous, it is growing, and the arrangements for visits are becoming more sophisticated, with intermediaries popping up to help match cities, much like a dating service matches couples.  A wise policy environment and enlightened public support could help cities create the conditions for innovation, even while they are on the prowl. 

[1] See “Papers and Articles” at (