Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

Replay: Globalization and the Soft Power of Cities

[ This blog is 2 1/2 years old and has many more readers than it did even a short while ago. Since many of you may not have seen my older postings, I wanted to inaugurate a series of “replays” featuring some of the best from the archives. This post originally ran on October 8, 2008 and is presented in slightly edited form. I hope you enjoy – Aaron.]

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 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 – 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 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 cultivating of the soil.

Topics: Civic Branding, Globalization
Cities: Indianapolis

4 Responses to “Replay: Globalization and the Soft Power of Cities”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    I question what Indy would get from a partnership with developing cities. They're not going to become its dedicated hinterland. Thus, the benefits of trade with those cities will go to the entire first world, rather than just Indy. This makes it an ideal program for the federal government and for the IMF and World Bank, but not for local governments.

    A good piece of evidence for this fact is the difficulty of telling what a given city's sister cities are just by living in it. The only way for me to find out what cities are twinned with the three cities I've lived in (Tel Aviv, Singapore, New York) is to look it up. With Tel Aviv, the list of sister cities includes a lot of cities I'd never heard of when I lived in it, and a few I still haven't heard of. I certainly never saw any influence from those cities, even the ones I knew about, apart from their global influence.

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    Alon, my point is exactly that this isn't a hinterland economics model. Rather, the question is are there international branding benefits, and can you largely harness existing activities to do it? I'm not saying Sister Cities are the answer, only the soft power / cultural type exchanges are useful for building international relationships, which are clearly key in the new century.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    From the points of view of Tel Aviv, Singapore, and New York, I just don't see it. All three have large foreign born populations, and all three have some cultural exchange with the communities they import people from, but in no cases are such exchanges ever formal. In terms of formal ties, New York is closest to its finance co-center London, but London's influence in New York is minimal outside the ruling class.

    Instead, cultural exchanges usually come from below, from the power of the Russian community in Israel and the power of the Dominican and Puerto Rican communities in the New York area. The authorities tend to snub such communities to varying degrees, depending on how powerless the communities are. Ultimately, this boils down to your point that cities should prioritize reducing racial tension and discrimination.

  4. The Urbanophile says:

    Well, if you are city that has large foreign populations, you can leverage that. Otherwise, how do you build your brand and connections overseas? I'm not saying this is the most important idea, but I think there is some opportunity to try some things out here.

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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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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