Thursday, March 22, 2012

Global Solutions from Below

Tim Campbell, PhD
March 2012

Over the last few decades, nations states and bumped up against real limits in their ability to solve problems in global goods.  The failures on climate change and trade in Copenhagen and Durban and Doha, respectively are only the most visible of many such issues, such as environmental sustainability, peak water, and renewable energy use.  All have failed to develop gain much traction among national governments and international organizations.  At best, progress has been slow and disappointing.  Yet we cannot and should not surrender our ability to tackle global goods issues until all options are given a hearing.  One unexpected source of new ideas is coming from below, from cities.
Usually ignored in matters of national and international significance, for decades, cities have been pecking away at many smaller-grain versions of global problems. Data developed for Beyond Smart Cities reveal a flowering of city-to-city exchange in policy and practice that may hold promise for some global issues and many local issues of global significance.

Cities on the Prowl

Findings from a global survey conducted for the book are eye-opening.  The 500 cities on the planet with a half million or more in population are shuttling around the globe at a brisk pace to learn from their peers.  By my estimate, these and smaller cities conduct somewhere between a thousand to ten thousand visits every year.  These are technical exchanges concerning policy and practice, not goodwill and cultural visits.  Cities are on the prowl to uncover proven practices in transit, energy, management, water use, and environmental sustainability.  The most innovative of the cities set up a system of learning.

Experiments High and Low

We know that organizations like C40 and ICLEI have been pushing the envelope on sustainability and the carbon economy in cities.  And urban specialists have long known about Curitiba’s smashing success with bus rapid transit, a practice that is now spreading rapidly around the world.  Fewer observers are aware of reports (by Spink, et al) that city regions and states in Brazil have for a decade been quietly pursuing joint partnerships with neighboring states and regions to provide better service in water resource management, health care, and solid waste disposal with good results.  Brazilian regions are literally reinventing governance.

Cities can never solve globally significant problems by themselves, much less pay for the costs.  But they are beginning to act like self-sponsored laboratories of invention.  At the same time, they are establishing a new edge in best practice that can lead to more readily adoptable standards by nation states.  Perhaps more important, cities are forging a system of learning and exchange that stretches right around the world, north and south, rich and poor.  As national policy makers debate intractable problems of global goods, the solutions for some problems might be popping up where we least expect them.

Spink, P., V. Rodriquez, et al. (2008). Government and citizens:  The changing nature of civil society. Governance in the Americas:  Decentralization, Democracy, and Subnational Government in Brazil, Mexico and the USA. P. Spink, P. Ward, R. Wilson and V. Rodriquez. North Bend (USA), University of Notre Dame Press: 200-247.