Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
This blog is part of a series Global Communities: Accelerating Innovation in the Internet of Cities which discusses how cities can learn, adopt and transfer innovations between each other in order to solve local issues of global significance.
As the world urbanizes, cities are poised to take the lead on many global issues like climate change, economic development, and poverty reduction. And the world will increasingly look to cities to take the lead.
In the face of stagnant international negotiations on climate change, for example, cities are taking the lead through groups like C40, a network of the world's megacities taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Likewise, in an increasingly globalized economy, cities are investing in infrastructure and assets that maintain and attract companies in an effort to keep their competitive edge.
Local leadership and problem solving have been happening on the US domestic stage for generations. Where I live now in the state of Colorado, the city of Denver provides a good example. This frontier city was founded by prospectors during the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s but was almost deserted as prospectors pushed westward.
Denver survived and thrived because 19th century visionaries invested in a rail link to the Union Pacific Railroad in Wyoming. Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans led these visionaries, partnering with local business leaders to form a railway company. This effort was hastened along by competition from another railway company racing to invest in a rail link to a neighboring town. Governor Evans didn't slow down. He orchestrated a large publicity campaign to attract investors and then called on both the wealthy residents to invest capital and the poorest citizens to provide sweat equity.
Denver moved from vision to concrete action by forging a partnership between the local government, businesses, and the full spectrum of its citizens spurred by a healthy dose of competition within the region to connect with the dominant economic force of the time, the Union Pacific Railway. This partnership involved much more than just money; it required a determined effort by citizens who joined together to accomplish something they could not do alone--making Denver the dominant regional center that it is today. Stories like this can be told across America, and across the world.
Internationally, as the world urbanizes and government responsibilities decentralize in many countries today, the need to strengthen burgeoning local governments to play a wider role as community developers, as well as traditional service providers, is urgent. To achieve this, we must create space to build relationships between civil society and local governments. Such space should enable transparency and accountability to be exercised and embedded in decision-making. And such space should nurture non-state actors who can help innovate and shape these important emerging partnerships.
This “localization of development” presents an exciting opportunity to invest in city-to-city and peer-to-peer partnerships and networks.
Development assistance is no longer the sole domain of multilateral donors and national governments. Local governments from both North and South have been recognized for their role in international development and cooperation. But to keep such partnerships actionable and accountable they must also engage non-governmental organizations and multiple stakeholders.
I have seen first-hand how development organizations like Global Communities play a catalytic role in bringing stakeholders together. They approach from the middle, engaging citizens and local governments in productive solutions by filling gaps in information,
trust, and technical skills to implement projects. Their staff and programs serve as informal instructors and guides, taking them to other cities to illustrate lessons learned, gain new ideas, form partnerships, and even on occasion compete. And they embody the core value of inclusion throughout their work.
If we are to establish an atmosphere for learning and risk-taking that will encourage innovation in urban partnerships and networks, then we need to include educational institutions in this mix. In fact, if we want cities to flourish in the 21st century, we must invest in education of all kinds. Colleges and universities play a crucial role in the fabric of flourishing knowledge and service economies. These institutions educate for the future, create new knowledge through research, partner with communities and businesses to solve problems, deepen culture and build citizenship.
Educational institutions are a magnet for both people and businesses. Continuing education has been replaced by a nearly universal need for continuous, lifelong learning opportunities. As Perlman pointed out earlier in this series, "cities don't learn, people learn." We need to instill thirst for education – starting with our youth but also in our organizational cultures, including our governments. And we need to insure that the opportunities to learn and grow are open to all.
Denver survived and thrived because 19th century visionaries invested in the railroad – the infrastructure of that age. But modern-day Denver, and frontier cities around the world, will flourish by investing in educational opportunities that enable our communities, our institutions and especially our citizens to actionable 21st century visions.