Is it Time for a North America Week of Cities and Regions? Capturing the Potential of Urban Innovation Through Distributed Networks

by Jennifer Clark

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Since 2003, the European Union’s Committee of the Regions has convened local, regional, national, European, and global decision-makers and experts in Brussels each October for the European Week of Cities and Regions — more than 100 workshops, debates, exhibitions, and networking opportunities. Working with organizing partners like the European Commission’s DG for Regional Policy and the Regional Studies Association, the European Week of Cities and Regions attracts over 6000 participants.

The goal of these annual meetings is to share innovative policies and projects across the cities and regions of EU member states through direct exchange rather than the top-down replication of the models that filter up from cities and regions to national and EU experts and only then diffuse back down to cities and regions.  Instead, the Week of Cities and Regions allows local policy experts to share success stories, challenges, and models directly with each other while simultaneously learning from national and international experts.  In other words, the European Week of Cities and Regions has, more than a decade after its first iteration, become a predictable and regular opportunity for policy researchers and designers, as well as those tasked with policy implementation, to check in and check out what works, what doesn’t, and focus on tailoring broad national and regional goals for local implementation.

In 2015, the Center for Urban Innovation’s Director, Jennifer Clark, was invited to talk in Brussels at that year’s European Week of Regions and Cities. Dr. Clark spoke on ‘Working Regions’: Rethinking Regional Manufacturing Policy, during a panel themed around “Rethinking regional-level industrial policies for the ‘new manufacturing.'” The talk highlighted analysis and policies discussed in her 2013 book, Working Regions: Reconnecting Innovation and Production in the Knowledge Economy. Working Regions focuses on policy aimed at building sustainable and resilient regional economies in the wake of the global recession. Using examples of four ‘working regions’ — regions where research and design functions and manufacturing still coexist in the same cities — the book argues for a new approach to regional economic development. It does this by highlighting policies that foster innovation and manufacturing in small firms, focus research centers on pushing innovation down the supply chain, and support dynamic, design-driven firm networks.

For the 2016 European Week of Cities and Regions, Dr. Clark was also invited to speak on the a panel themed: Is EU manufacturing ready for Industry 4.0? on October 13th at the European Commission. The panel is organized by Professor Lisa DePropis from the Birmingham Business School at the University of Birmingham and includes Professors Patrizio Bianchi and Steffen Kinkel as well as Dr. Clark. The entire schedule for the European Week of Cities and Regions is available here.

The panel will focus on emerging themes and regional policy issues around manufacturing and Industry 4.0. In 2015, the European Commission (DG for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs) and the European Parliament started to raise awareness that a new manufacturing model was emerging: this is referred to as Industry 4.0, or smart manufacturing. Technological change, digitalization, and a new demand are driving a ‘production organisation revolution’ that is redefining the nature of the manufacturing sector and its contribution to the wider economy.

Industry 4.0 is argued to mean more servitized — that is, with increased value due to an added service component — and customized manufacturing goods, as well as the pervasive exploitation of key enabling technologies across all sectors. Industry 4.0 is believed to offer a unique opportunity to upgrade EU industrial capability, to reshore competencies and functions, and to repopulate advanced industry systems across regions to secure jobs and prosperity. Despite the hype on Industry 4.0, it is still unclear what the triggers and drivers are in the EU context, and also what its constraints and headwinds might be. Speakers will discuss what it means and what it will take to align EU regions and EU manufacturing sectors to Industry 4.0.

Now, it is true that the EU, as an organization, has been exceedingly active in urban and regional policy design and implementation. For example, the EU’s Cohesion Policies have long sought to promote sustainable growth across EU regions and mitigate inequalities.  Recent regional policies include the Smart Specialisation (SP3) and Industry 4.0/smart manufacturing.  The US has often left urban and regional policy innovation to the state and local level. What these panels about these particular topics illustrate are the ways in which national policy priorities are necessarily connected to local and regional implementation.  And what’s more, they show how that implementation can be more effective when coordinated at the policy design phase, not simply assessed after deployment.

The benefits to the US of engaging in a similar approach — exchanging innovative policy models for urban and regional growth and development — is worth considering, as is its potential advantages for its neighbors, Canada and Mexico. The benefits of that knowledge exchange are well understood in the broader policy community. We at the Center for Urban Innovation have observed and documented the proliferation of ad hoc policy diffusion networks over the past half-decade across the US (and internationally). Examples include the Bloomberg Foundation’s Innovation Delivery Teams, WeWorkCities, the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities, the City Energy Project, and many more.

This ad hoc approach tends to privilege certain places and certain policy priorities.  In other words, the participants and the policies promoted are selective rather than representative. Perhaps it is time to create a formal, predictable structure for this exchange of project models and innovative approaches to urban and regional governance.  The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has moved in this direction with its support of smart cities initiatives, through the launch of city-university partnerships organized through the MetroLab Network.  This week, the White House also announced the Local Frontiers track at the White House Frontiers Conference, in which we will participate. This track is another example of a step in the direction paved by the Week of Cities and Regions. Such efforts signal an awareness and recognition of the value of convenings similar to those seen in the EU.  The model already exists for a Week of Cities and Regions, and it is a model with a decade long track record of successful knowledge exchange. Is it time for a North America Week of Cities and Regions? It seems we have reached the moment for capturing the promise and potential of urban innovation by acknowledging, valuing, and enabling the work of urban and regional policy professionals across the US by creating our own annual convening of the people who design and conduct policy in our cities and regions.

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2 thoughts on “Is it Time for a North America Week of Cities and Regions? Capturing the Potential of Urban Innovation Through Distributed Networks

  1. Regional Councils of Government exist in every state and in many cases have been operating for 50 years or more covering metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas alike. The National Association of Regional Councils (NARC) and National Association of Development Organizations, plus State associations like the Virginia Association of Planning District Commissions have great experience and resources for building regional communities of communities. The only thing lacking is a geographic database of these territories to enable comparative analysis. That could be achieved for the 2020 census. Senator Tim Kaine has extensive experience with the Virginia system which was implemented by Governor A. Linwood Holton beginning in 1968. By Executive Order, Virginia state agencies which used substate districts were to align their districts to the 22 planning districts defined in 1968 by the General Assembly. The 400+ variations in use were simplified to the use of individual districts or multiples. State data became aligned to the PDs and the Commissions chartered by the member local governments were to plan and assist local governments in planning. Virginia had used the encouragement of local government planning as its key economic development strategy. All counties, cities and towns were to have an adopted Comprehensive Plan by 1980. Results? In 1960, Virginia was 14th in Net Earnings in the U.S. In 2010 it had risen to 9th. Many states with complete systems of regional councils which go by various names had success, including Georgia, Texas, Colorado. This level of substate regional planning and cooperation has been invisible to analysts because the data set does not exist. Further, the focus on MSAs, whose territory grows over time with expansion of the commutershed, are simply markets and have no organization at that level, though early councils in the 1950s -70s may have matched MSAs. See PowerPoint: http://goo.gl/pGJlou

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