Today there are literally thousands of cities on the rise, looking outward in search of finance, global talent, and most of all good ideas.
The search for knowledge isn't always easy. There can be resistance — for example the short-sightedness of journalistic watchdogs who see in mayoral travel only junkets, not fruit-bearing study of better and smarter practices elsewhere.
But here's what really counts: the 500 largest cities on the planet (roughly those with populations over 900,000) are currently sending delegations to visit each other, repeatedly and consistently every year, on the order of thousands of study trips annually. Delegations are selecting their destinations carefully, so that they may acquire exactly the right knowledge to speed up improvements in their home cities.
Where do they go? The pattern became crystal clear to me while conducting research for my forthcoming book, Beyond Smart Cities, research that included detailed responses from 45 world cities. These cities indicated that they make visits often and continuously every year, often more than ten times per year. The rich tend to visit the rich — Stockholm visiting London, London visiting New York. But the 'poor' cities — Ho Chi Minh City, Dakar, Tabriz — visit rich and poor in equal shares. And though visitors often select similar-sized hosts, even the mega-cities visit their cousins in the 1-to-5 million range more frequently than they visit each other. Perhaps something about the moderate city size enables newcomers to get their arms around the whole thing in a short time.
So why do cities go to all this effort, and what do they learn? They go because in a globalised economy, cities need to work harder to make a living. They no longer have the protections of trade regimes and the comforts of regional isolation. In today's world, money moves fast, even faster than trade deals. And cities have learned that they must keep up with their principal competitors — other cities. If they want those incoming investments, they must strive to be on top of their game. They have to make themselves an attractive place for global talent, with well-connected and efficiently functioning infrastructure.
But city leaders also spread out around the world because they have short terms of office and know that learning from others is cheaper and less risky than pursuing untested ideas and ending up in false starts. Good practices in successful cities offer short-cuts. The experience of the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and Barcelona in the 1990s were of enormous assistance to Turin and Vancouver this decade. In turn, Barcelona and Turin have both studied venture capital practices in Silicon Valley. Within the US, Charlotte and Denver have both studied Portland's transit system. City-to-city exchange was ranked by survey takers as by far the most effective way to learn: visitors see things work.
Half of the cities taking part in the survey were "reformers"; that is, by their own reckoning, they have made "many significant reforms". And they exhibit interest in distinct areas, such as transportation and the keys to increased local economic development.
The search for transport solutions reflects the well-known spread of Curitiba's bus rapid transit (BRT) system to other cities in Brazil, then to Bogotá, and on to Mexico City. Currently BRT is reaching cities in East Asia. It is also why dozens of cities, most prominently Portland, visit Amsterdam and Copenhagen: visitors see the demonstrated power of integrating all forms of movement — walking, bicycles, automobiles, buses and trams — into a single transit system.
The "non-reformers" in the survey — those with a history of fewer major policy or practice shifts — have a broad spectrum of topics for which they travel, including finance, urban planning, urban renewal and basic utilities. Perhaps the reformers feel they had this ground already covered. Both reformers and non-reformers are concerned with the big and growing question for all major central cities on the planet: how to govern metropolitan areas sprawled across municipal lines? It's a tough challenge; cities on the prowl for answers may learn some ways to work around these boundaries, but are unlikely to return home fully satisfied.
What happens back home?
But acquiring new knowledge is only half the battle. How the knowledge is validated and applied to problems back home is a whole other drama. My research has also discovered individual styles in the way cities handle new knowledge.
Trust and a good learning environment seem to be the main ingredients for a city's internal processes to adapt knowledge successfully to local circumstances. Seattle's Trade Development Alliance has internalised this notion in its study tours. Over more than twenty years of missions, with many repeat participants, Seattle's study tours creates substantial bonding between the city's business, government and independent leaders.
It's that type of trust and bonding that helps set the stage for adapting 'imported' knowledge to solve problems. Even though they may not know it, smart cities create comfort zones of informal, internal networks of trust. With the right climate, civic leaders are able to reach consensus, and their reactions and policy initiatives have greater coherence and are achieved more speedily.
The research I've worked on shows that the prowling of cities is not just continuous. It's growing. The arrangements for visits are becoming more sophisticated. Intermediary organisations are popping up to help match cities, much like a dating service matches couples.
The bottom line: a wise policy environment and enlightened public support could help cities create the conditions and cultivate the soil for innovation, even while their leaders are on the prowl.
Tim Campbell is CEO of the Urban Age Institute in San Rafael, California.