The existing political and economic system has evolved to respond to the challenges of the period of industrialization more than 150 years ago. Now, the urgent climate crisis and rapid technological change are challenging old structures such as the division of power between supranational, national and local entities. Cities and cross-border city networks have a possibility to redeem their potential as more influential players in global agenda setting by tackling these challenges efficiently and fairly. By strengthening city networks from peer-learning platforms into capable changemakers, we can have a truly global impact on the wicked problems of our day.

In December 2016, the United Nations General Assembly endorsed the New Urban Agenda that presents a shared vision for inclusive and sustainable urban development. The 193 United Nations (UN) member states agreed to adopt the New Urban Agenda without reservations.

The New Urban Agenda was prepared at the Habitat III Conference in October 2016, which was one of the most inclusive and innovative UN Conferences to date. A large number of experts and stakeholders – including local governments and city experts – participated in the process of drafting the final document. However, even though the representatives of cities had the possibility to participate in the drafting of the New Urban Agenda, in the end, they were not the ones with the right to vote on its adoption.

In general, the increasingly important global role of cities is widely accepted. But global governance structures still do not officially acknowledge this. In international organizations, local governments and city representatives may be given an observer status and their inputs are collected in informal hearings, but the actual negotiations take place between national governments.

Now, the question is, should cities and city networks have a stronger mandate and official status with voting rights on global governance structures? This possibility is especially relevant for questions and resolutions directly concerning cities such as the New Urban Agenda. As cities are crucial actors in solving the most pressing challenges from the climate crisis to a fair digital transition, it is essential to seriously discuss their role in global institutional settings.

Transforming Institutions

The changing role of cities is an embodiment of a wider institutional transformation around the world. The existing political and economic system has evolved to respond to the challenges we faced during the period of industrialization more than 150 years ago – which are very different to those we face in the forthcoming decades.

During and after the period of industrialization, institutions such as political systems based on voting and representation, economic systems based on growth and jobs, and the division of power between supranational, national and local entities were created. They have served us well for a long time and brought unforeseen prosperity, peace, and wellbeing for billions of people. 

Unfortunately, it seems that our current political and economic system is ill-equipped to respond to the environmental, economic and social challenges of the 21st century. There is a clear demand for envisioning and experimenting new ways of tackling these common challenges. However, the truth is that there is not enough time to invent all the institutions from scratch. That is why we need to focus on making the existing building blocks serve us better.

City Networks of the Future

In the context of cities and global governance, these building blocks could be city networks. How could they redeem their potential as a truly influential global power? 

The main purpose of city networks is often understood as being platforms for peer-learning on common challenges. Sceptics might describe them as forums to show off achievements, clubs for praising each other and places full of bizarre trophies. True or not, we believe that there is a need for more influential cross-border city networks to solve global challenges.

Global population, economic activities, social and cultural interaction and greenhouse gas emissions are increasingly concentrated in cities. Therefore, it is vital to enable efficient peer-learning to tackle city challenges related to, for example, pollution, mobility, housing, and waste management.

Some city networks have already created common financing mechanisms to accelerate innovation in these domains. Also, common standards in data sharing, mobility, and even citizen participation would accelerate the diffusion of innovation. However, in order to make real global impact, city networks should seek common political positions and coalitions, and take a more active role in global agenda setting.

We can already see cities stepping up to push for more rigid climate action and to resist reactionary nationalism. In order to achieve more urban proof EU policy, cities need to actively identify where the current EU legislative framework hinders the implementation of the Urban Agenda, and what are the concrete disparities to address when moving toward more holistic agendas. City networks are important lobbying organisations and gatekeepers for the voice of the European cities and metropolises in the process of European urban policy development.

Even if it sounds like a good idea to strengthen the role of cities in solving pressing global challenges, unfortunately good ideas per se are not always enough. Global impact of cities requires a new kind of symbolism and rhetoric – good ideas also need to create feelings. For cities to get the mandate as a truly global power, the agendas city networks drive forward must find their way into people’s hearts, passions and, eventually, votes.

Demos Helsinki will facilitate Leaders’ Session with EUROCITIES, Metrex and Deputy Mayors of Helsinki, Stockholm and Tallinn at Helsinki Impact Conference on 10th October. The aim of the session is to challenge the city leaders to think about how to act together towards common goals and how to be stronger together.

This blog was written by Henrik Suikkanen and Maria Malho. Henrik is a senior consultant and Maria consultant at the Helsinki-based think tank Demos Helsinki. 

Maria Malho
Consultant at the Helsinki-based think tank Demos Helsinki
Maria Malho
Consultant at the Helsinki-based think tank Demos Helsinki