Innovation Through Urban Paradiplomacy: Atlanta’s Smart City Workshop Welcomes Barcelona

By Chris Thayer

Los Angeles, A Prominent Sister-Cities-Network Member

The concept of “paradiplomacy” (from ‘parallel diplomacy,’ referring to sub-national states engaging in international relations) has grown increasingly prominent over the past 50 years due largely to the natural outgrowth of national decentralization in conjunction with a globalized economy whose major players are megacities. Cities have proven to often resemble each other more than their home regions and to face similar challenges unique to their urban status. Thus, it is  unsurprising that cities have reached out to the international community of their fellows for support, investment, and insight — an activity which falls under the banner of paradiplomacy. In fact, “the global urban government network UCLG estimates that 70 percent of cities worldwide participate in some kind of transnational urban partnership” or related endeavor, marking this as a valuable trend to study.

The intimate, direct connection of physically remote cities is hardly a new concept. This conceptualization of “sister” or “twin” cities emerged in the mid-40’s, originally as an effort to support cooperation and friendship between disparate societies as a response to the Second World War, though proto-sister-city relationships have been documented since at least the 9th century CE. This relationship type was initially conceived of as primarily a cultural exchange and opportunity to foster goodwill and understanding, though in recent years the term has started to blend with paradiplomacy as city-city relationships intensify.

Likewise, the place of cities as economic actors on the global scale is well-known. Cities (particularly the City-State-like modern megacities) are economic engines in their own right, interacting with and driving the global economy, and their activities extend from merely serving as markets for goods and services well into courting international investment and negotiating city-specific trade benefits.

However, paradiplomacy evolves these interactions from single-silo cultural or economic exchanges to true diplomatic government relationships, encompassing culture, economy, knowledge-sharing, and much more. Several prominent concern areas with an established history of being addressed by paradiplomatic organizations and approaches include issues such as migration management and climate change.

One major issue paradiplomacy has been used to handle is migration management. This management may take on a variety of forms, including: co-development and migration preparatory assistance, charitable aid in home-cities to prevent forced migration (the ‘right to stay’), and even the direct municipal provision of social services and limited in-city citizen rights to migrants when the national government has not or will not take on such functions. Certainly, some of these approaches are executed by non-governmental actors, such as migrant organizations, but nonetheless city governments must interact with these likewise city-level foreign NGOs to provide for and integrate the migrants and manage the shift in population successfully — another expression of paradiplomacy.

It is unsurprising that cities (and therefore urban paradiplomacy) have also risen to the forefront of climate change mitigation efforts. Cities, especially in their more sprawling form, have historically disproportionately impacted the environment and in turn are uniquely vulnerable to some of climate change’s earliest effects, therefore becoming a target area for sustainability efforts. Many regional and municipal administrators are sensitive to the seriousness of cities’ role in climate change and are striving to take significant action to curb this problem, both to deal with shorter-term threats such as a major oil spill that national governments may be slow to move against, and in longer-term strategies for greater sustainability. Out of this desire and the need to share best-practices for achieving change, paradiplomatic organizations such as C40 Cities, which focuses on limiting greenhouse gasses, have developed to spread tactics and ideas that work in one city to many others globally.

Barcelona, Widely Regarded As The Current Global “Smartest City”

No longer is transnational development limited to haphazard outgrowths of international investment-cum-charity. Global cities are now engaged in exchanging ideas on how best to foster growth, not just monetary aid, and can engage in peer-to-peer learning activities and efforts to increase the city’s global prestige. The broad-ranging UCLG (Global Network of Cities, Local, and Regional Governments) prioritizes the sharing of best-practices for policy creation and implementation. Similarly, Metropolis (World Association Of The Major Metropolises), the largest organization for connecting major cities in the world, particularly emphasizes the sharing of knowledge, such as policies and innovation strategies, among world cities independent of their national governments. It is just such a passion for innovation within the larger spirit of cooperation and mutual benefit that brought a delegation of innovation scholars from Barcelona to participate in Atlanta’s IPaT Smart City Strategy Workshop and work with the City of Atlanta’s new Office of Innovation Delivery and Performance. This office was initially created in 2011 to focus on implementing strategies for concrete city improvements, and has evolved to focus on fiscal resilience. The Office’s leaders were an important part of the two-day workshop for Smart City Strategy definition, ensuring Atlanta’s continuing growth with an eye to the $50 million funding opportunity through the USDOT Smart City Challenge announced recently. Barcelona is well-known for its redevelopment and re-urbanization efforts and has already been acknowledged as a leading Smart City, and the visiting party from Creafutur provided crucial experience to the exciting discussion of options to further brighten Atlanta’s future — paradiplomacy at its finest.


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