Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

Globalization and the Soft Power of Cities

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard has stressed the need for the city to become more international. A recent blog posting elsewhere covers some interesting facets of his program, so I thought I’d use that as a departure point for thinking about globalization and the city. Mayor Ballard is absolutely right that to be successful in the 21st century economy, a broader vision is required, one that acknowledges global realities and gets the city more engaged in the great global conversation. In my view, there are five main planks of any city’s globalization agenda:

1. Fostering increased global business, cultural, and social connections; being a part of the global network.
2. Raising the city’s brand awareness and improving its brand image internationally. This is related to point #1. Interestingly, I think Indy’s brand is probably stronger globally than it is nationally due to motorsports.
3. Retooling the local economy and civic environment to effectively compete in the global marketplace. This involves addressing the institutional structures of government, legal and regulatory frameworks, economic development strategies, culture and social structures, financial and business practices and capabilities, academic and research capabilities, facilities, and civic associations or NGO’s.
4. Attracting and preparing the next generation workforce for the jobs of the future. This is related to point #3
5. Increasing the percentage of foreign-born residents locally. This is related to point #3.

I could write a novel on any of these points, but this post will deal mostly with the first two points around the interconnections and the brand image, and how cultural or “soft power” is a big part of it.

Mayor Ballard caught a lot of grief for proposing a major international cricket tournament and the creation of a Chinatown locally. I think this was totally unfair. Neither proposal might be workable, but they aren’t prima facie stupid. In fact, I think they show some creative thinking and have a lot going for them. Cricket is huge among people of Indian background. With India and China being big players globally, those are definitely two key communities to get linked with. While I think Chinatowns tend to be a legacy of previous generations of segregation, Indy already has an organically growing Asian commercial district in the Lafayette Square area that it isn’t hard to imagine providing some city branding support for. A cricket tournament would fit in with the city’s longstanding sports strategy. While I’m not sold on the Chinatown concept, I actually think the cricket one is still worth pursuing as it would appear to be a bit of a whitespace opportunity to exploit.

Mayor Ballard is also making two international trips: one to Europe and one to South America. And he’s looking to re-invigorate and leverage Indy’s sister city program. Lest some sophisticates mock this too, note that it is a page straight out of Mayor Daley’s playbook in Chicago.

However, the linked blog notes a rumor that Mayor Ballard plans to shut down Indy’s sister city relationship with Eldoret, Kenya because there is no economic benefit in it. This one would be a mistake. Getting plugged into the global economy isn’t just about quid pro quo economic development. It’s about cultivating the soil. It’s about creating an environment in which the city can flourish, in which companies and businesses choose to create their futures. A sister city relationship with Kenya might not fuel jobs locally in the short term, but it definitely could play a role in the city’s overall globalization strategy, because a) it is oriented towards Africa, an often overlooked part of the globe that is likely to be increasingly important in years to come, and b) it helps build cultural and philanthropic “soft power” that can help strengthen the city’s brand image. Both of these are underexploited areas for smaller American cities and thus represent an opportunity for Indianapolis.

Much is made of the United State’s supposed use of “hard” military power around the globe in contrast to the diplomatic, economic, and cultural “soft” power of the Europeans. That supposedly garners us hatred and them affection. While this is no doubt oversold, there is something to the idea of thinking about the various dimensions of power. For a city, one might think of hard power as its financial and economic control over hinterlands and global economic networks. Soft power might include cultural exchanges and philanthropic endeavors.

For an American city, I think there are opportunities to boost its brand by including the soft power aspects of globalization in its internationalization strategy. Given the general view of the United States abroad, it could potentially draw extra attention and create differentiation versus an average American burg.

Imagine Indianapolis being involved in facilitating economic development in Kenya, or in the provision of humanitarian services there. This would be the city planting its flag in a struggling region and doing some good in a way that, if handled correctly, could both help people and get some great recognition. There are any number of other programs out there that might work in this same way.

For example, the Children’s Museum isn’t just America’s best children’s museum at home. It also has mounted several major international traveling exhibits and maintains relationships with cultural institutions around the world, including the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the Guangzhou Children’s Place and four other Chinese institutions, and Children’s City in Dubai.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art is also active, both in bringing traveling exhibits to Indy, loaning works to help other museums stage exhibits, and even creating its own traveling exhibits. Its Moroccan rug exhibit, I’m told, is still out there on the road traveling the world.

The Rotary Club of Indianapolis has had a “twin club” relationship with a Rotary Club in Savannah la Mar, Jamaica for many years. This included significant cultural and humanitarian exchanges. Rotary has maintained relationships and exchanges with other clubs as well.

These are just a few examples. I stumbled across a lot of this serendipitously. If you mapped out the humanitarian and cultural connections Indianapolis has to the world at large, you would probably be surprised at the breadth of what is there. I’m sure, for example, many religious groups maintain both evangelical and humanitarian connections around the world.

I’m not going to say that Indy is the only small city with these connections. I’m sure most cities have them. But I am not aware of any smaller city that has taken a strategic look at its soft power connections globally and how they could be marshaled to both drive business connections over the longer term, and to boost the city’s brand image abroad. It certainly wouldn’t be a slam dunk to figure this out, and perhaps most smaller cities have bigger fish to fry at the moment, but I think there’s an opportunity there if someone can figure out how to take advantage of it. At a minimum, cities should not shut down whatever initiatives they have in the works, such as the aforementioned Kenya sister city relationship, just because there is no immediate term gain. We all know how overly focusing on quarterly results has brought down many a company that took its eye of long term success. Similarly, cities require a practical mixture of both shorter term business development and longer term fertilizing of the soil.

Topics: Globalization
Cities: Indianapolis

3 Responses to “Globalization and the Soft Power of Cities”

  1. Graeme says:

    I have to agree with the motorsports idea, the only time my family overseas hears about Indy is when the F-1 or GP race is in town. If your goal is global recognition, motorsports is a good start.

    I recently attended a Columbus Crew soccer game at their stadium, and they definitely have a good amount of fan support. Hosting soccer events at the old Bush stadium could be one more way to connect with foreign nationals looking to settle someplace.

    As far as trying the cricket and international village approach, I say why not? Making the city attractive to foreign nationals is a great strategy to gain an advantage over similar cities.

  2. emlingj says:

    You couldn’t be more spot-on regarding the Kenya sister city program. Keep in mind the connection to Kenya via Indiana University – the medical school is deeply involved with AIDS treatment and rural medical care in Kenya, and the Kelley School of Business is also involved in economic development through microfinance strategies. It would be a tremendous synergy to have Indianapolis strengthen its sister city program. The city could also host a cultural summit – inviting educational, cultural, and business leaders from Kenya to Indianapolis to discuss social, economic, and cultural differences. Artists from Indiana and Kenya could display their works and perform both separately and together. A scholarship fund could be established to allow students from the Indianapolis area to spend a semester there while Kenyan students study here. These are the kinds of things that make a city great.

  3. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for sharing that emlignj. I wasn’t aware of IU’s involvement in Kenya. To someone in Africa, Indy and Bloomington are the same place. People in Indiana should start thinking the same way. It looks like the opportunity is even greater than I believed.

    I continue to be amazed at the amount of international connections I find going on in Indiana. Thanks for sharing that.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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