In an episode of the popular sitcom "Parks and Recreation," the citizens of Pawnee, Indiana, entertain officials from their sister city of Boraqua, Venezuela. The Pawnee officials prepare their staff for poverty stricken Latin Americans; the oil rich Venezuelans assume that their greeters are their servants. Hilarity ensues with multiple misunderstandings and missed opportunities. No knowledge-sharing occurs, no investment for Pawnee’s parks is proffered. Pawnee decides that it can go it alone without international engagement.
I thought of this episode when I attended Diplomatic Courier’s conference "Global Cities + Social Good" in early July. As Marek Gootman, Director of The Global Cities Initiative at The Brookings Institution, stated, "Becoming a global city is a goal accessible to any city. Every city can and should be one". A city of any size can align itself with and learn from others around the nation and the world with similar issues. No real city can go it alone without at least considering international engagement.
So, how do cities of all sizes survive and thrive in this globally connected world? A series of panels and speakers at the conference offered some answers, which I viewed through the lens of online community building for knowledge sharing. Many of the possible solutions resembled our work here at BraveNewTalent: building communities (both on- and off-line) for stakeholders to engage around topics of mutual interest (e.g., environment, poverty, design). Throughout the day, I envisioned how technology and digital communities could facilitate the network building and solution process, particularly in three key areas.
First, a city of any size not only can contribute to global communities, it most likely will have to in the coming decades. As stressed at the conference, in 1990 less than 40% of the global population lived in a city. Today, it’s over 50%. By the year 2050, 70% of the population worldwide will live in urban areas. That’s 7 billion dwellers out of a projected ten billion. While the increase will be most significant in developing countries, cities all over the globe will be sharing “best practices” knowledge and strategies to handle environmental, infrastructure, economic and a multitude of other issues. As Reid Detchon of the UN Foundation stated, “cities are incubators of innovation.”
After the conference, I read of two interesting examples of such innovation. In this month’s edition of Washingtonian Magazine there’s an article on the impact of the coming population increase on traffic in Washington, D.C., and it’s engagement with London and a community of other international capitals around solutions. That’s not really a surprise. Yet cities such as Anderson, IN, are also engaging globally as well for solutions to their issues. Anderson rebuilt itself after a General Motor plant closure by researching and visiting foreign cities for best practice ideas and solutions. In return, over a recent 5-year period, three Chinese delegations traveled to Anderson and invested $150 million in economic opportunities with a net addition of 150 jobs.
Second, existing networks, NGOs and other initiatives such as Sister Cities International can be used for the exchange of knowledge and best practices for participating cities, their citizens and their young. Led by Sister Cities International President & CEO Mary D Kane, a panel of US Mayors discussed how Sister Cities enables them to engage and subsequently partner with others. Founded by President Dwight D Eisenhower, the initiative fosters “broad-based, long-term partnership between two communities in two countries.” Each city can build its own community of “sister cities” based on a variety of issues.
Do these partnerships accomplish anything? Yes they do – and in many interesting ways. New Orleans’ sister city in Japan raised $40 million after Katrina. Ten Philadelphia area schools offer scholarships to citizens of its sister cities. Small/mid-sized cities and small/mid-sized businesses often enjoy the greatest impact as they can build international networks, investments and markets. Finally, the cultural, economic and educational exchanges build communities of young citizens with a deeper connection to the world and better prepared to solve future problems.
Third, creative solutions result when a diverse community of stakeholders (e.g., private investor groups, foundations, design firms, universities, the city government) tackles them together. The final sessions of the day percolated with innovation. Margot Kane of the Calvert Foundation discussed her work in connecting small businesses in cities (most often those who can’t get loans) with individual and groups of investors. A panel of design, foundation, NGO and real estate development executives discussed the synergy of their disciplines in fashioning solutions to some of the most painful problems (e.g., infrastructure, poverty, health.) Jordan Goldstein, an architect and Managing Director from GenslerWashington, talked about environmentally sound design projects and how “we look at sustainability through the lens of wellness.” Jean-Claude Saada of Cambridge Holdings, a real estate eevelopment firm, talked about how “all of us need to evangelize mindful, healthy living.” He shared one idea to help tackle elder care and poverty: locating older aged homes next to orphanages to encourage interaction.
Each of these areas will need to use existing and future technologies in creative ways to accelerate the solution making process. One way will be the building of online communities and networks that drive innovation and the sharing of best practices. In the first area, cities such as Anderson, IN, can begin their search process for solutions by creating an online community or communities that invite members from cities that have faced their same problems (e.g., loss of jobs) and potential investment partners (e.g., the Chinese) and delve into meaty dialogue around solutions. In the second, cities can build communities with each of their sisters and share challenges in real time. Citizens and businesses can become members and engage with their foreign counterparts around topics of interest. In the third, designers, investors, environmentalists, developers and others can tackle one by one such problems as elder care and wellness.
Throughout the day, the importance of in-person events was stressed. Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia has a personal goal of visiting all seven of his sister cities. Face-to-Face meetings won’t go away. However, these precious and (usually) expensive sojourns can only be enriched by online engagement before, during and after to ensure the richest of experiences. Perhaps, if the Pawnee and Boraqua citizens in the “Parks and Recreation” episode had done some online knowledge sharing ahead of time, their meeting would have resulted in mutually-agreed upon solutions and not a series of disasters!