Why Cities Should Act Internationally

The recent release of Birmingham’s new European and International Strategy reminded me that for so long international work of cities has been under attack for wasting resources.  So much so that Cities are often reluctant to sing about their international work. In the world of openness we live almost all of the international activity is open and visible but often is downplayed. This post is outlining some of  the more hard edged reasons why cities should work internationally.

To support inward investment activity

Recently Birmingham has done incredibly well in attracting in FDI. This presentation outlines the recent success of Business Birmingham in attracting FDI to the City and Region.

FDI Business Birmingham June 2013

No one will object to Business Birmingham working internationally to deliver this investment. Often however the City Council needs to work closely with Business Birmingham to maximise their impact. So at MIPIM (the largest global property development conference) having key politicians and senior officers attending shows a commitment to supporting inward investment and raises the profile of the city in the conference. This can’t easily be valued but is invaluable. Importantly as well in many countries the role of the City Council is to open doors via its City to City links. So in China there is great importance played on such links and therefore Cities can use these to help others link.

To support its Universities

What is interesting is that Universities nowadays do far more international work than cities and that is probably the right approach.The University of Birmingham has recently evidenced that it adds over £0.5bn to the regional economy and much of that impact comes from overseas students and research. The reality is the HE sector is now the seventh largest UK export industry and so they need to invest in international linkages. In Birmingham, the University of Birmingham has decided in part to follow Birmingham’s partner city approach – so investing in making linkages in Chicago, Guangzhou and supporting the Region’s and the City’s Brussels Office presence. It is important, often, for the University to be part of a joint effort, as as with Business sometimes the City can open doors. It is also important as the City can support the marketing effort of Universities in portraying  positive images for students. A longer term positioning to policy makers and thought leaders is equally important. Successful cities need to attract knowledge workers, academics, research monies and institutes. Joint work in this area is key to this.

To learn from elsewhere and promote its good practice

No one city is an island. Cities across the globe face a range of issues with real similarities and a range of different approaches that are worth learning about. So cities face problems with unemployment, innovation, environmental issues, housing to name a few.  Bristol has just won European Green Capital award for 2014. This has raised a lot of good publicity for the city which in itself helps to profile the city as a forward looking city where firms and people might like to locate/visit. But as part of the work that has gone into this bid; the city has learnt from elsewhere. Bristol is active in the European Big Cities network, EUROCITIES, and they will undoubtedly have learnt from it. So the very recent introduction of car free Sundays is far from a new idea and Bristol has learnt about the hows and the wherefores from such networking.

Albert Bore, Leader of Birmingham City Council, recently speaking at the Birmingham Made Conference compared the approach and time taken to install a small metro extension in Birmingham’s City centre – it has taken about 17 years to Lyon’s radical approach to extending its network. It recently significantly extended one of its metro routes…it took just 4 years from planning to it opening. He also compared the scale of investment which is far greater in Lyon. Working internationally can help learn lessons and point the finger at where the problem is.

So when reading the Green Commission and the Smart City Commission outputs some of the ideas they contain will have come from elsewhere. This is both the work of officers but also importantly of Councillors. For instance Birmingham, through Cllr James Mckay, chairs the Eurocities Environment Forum, just as previously Cllr Paul Tilsley chaired the EUROCITIES Social Affairs Forum. These are big city groups that focus on real issues of importance to Birmingham. It is not however just through these networks that cities work.  Often when there is a specific issue specific bespoke meetings are arranged; so Cllr Huxtable when Cabinet Member for Transportation visited a number of cities looking at how high speed train stations had changed these cities in preparation for HS2 in Birmingham.

To access resources

This is a key argument for working in Europe. There are numerous sources of funds open to cities across the different Directorates of the European Union. The EU is strategy led and its latest strategy EU2020 is seeking to promote Smart Sustainable and Inclusive Growth. Underneath this there are different programmes. This is not the place to go into the detail of these funds; sufficient to say most large cities in the UK and across the EU target these funds. These are not usually funds to fund core services; rather they are funds to develop new approaches; to innovate; to pilot and to work with partners across Europe. So recently I attended the launch of CITISPYCE at the University of Aston, in which Birmingham City Council is a partner, which is a project focused on social innovation and young people. A quite appropriate project for the city given the size of our young population and given the high levels of youth unemployment in the city.

These  transnational projects can then lead on to specific projects in individual cities. An example of this is a current bid for ERDF resources called Innovation Engine; this all about raising the level of innovation in Birmingham. The idea for this project came from a transnational project called Making Knowledge Work

where the city worked with among other cities Eindhoven and Helsinki both leaders in the Innovation field.

It is hard to quantify the resources coming into cities from this funding but in Birmingham it is clear from my experience that significant funds do flow to the city and far more comes in than is spent accessing the resources.

Concluding remarks

There used to be a lot of criticism in the press about international travel. Birmingham and other cities have opened up the process so that it has an open, clear and transparent process for deciding when it is appropriate to allow travel by Councillors and Officers. They have also moved away from ‘twinning’ and a softer cultural focus to a focus on making work with partner cities and networks much more related to city strategies. So for instance, Cllr Bore, when in Frankfurt recently with the University of Birmingham talk to the Goethe University about joint work in Life  Sciences – one of the key sectors the City is promoting.

So, in my view, the work of Birmingham (and other cities) in supporting inward investment, in supporting work with its Universities, in networking and accessing funds is invaluable and despite real shortages of resources needs to be continued.


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