Are interregional relations the new international relations?

Universities can link important second-tier cities that are often growing faster and are more innovative

Relations between regions will be the new international relations. The diplomats of the future will represent cities. That, at least, is my hypothesis based on two trends:

  1. The focus on cities as emerging units of governance, taking on the problem-solving responsibilities traditionally held by nations. I’ve written about this before (for example here). The focus on cities is due to more than population growth and new buildings, which we often associate with the term urbanisation. Yes, cities are growing. But they are also political actors and centres of ideas and innovation.

  2. The need for these cities to work with each other. I’ve written about this here. Agglomeration economics are not new – the northeast megalopolis in the US is a prime example – but relations also need to stretch beyond individual clusters.

Similarly, there has been quite a lot of attention paid recently to universities and place, but not so much on how universities work with other universities and partners across and between places, and the connecting role they have between local, national and international. The focus on cities and their connections magnifies the importance of universities in cities, and the connections they can help broker.

Two recent articles in Times Higher Education mirror this. The first frames universities as problem solvers. Michael Crow writes:

…universities should take responsibility for the betterment of society; that we can and should be measured by the impact that we have on the public good… Education should move beyond singular academic disciplines as the point of focus and towards multidisciplinary programmes and schools capable of understanding and solving complicated real-world problems.

Second, Clare Melhuish references historian Thomas Bender, who

has compared urban universities to immigrant neighbourhoods in US cities, where residents live in both local place and in a trans-local, diasporic culture at the same time – grounded, while globally connected. From this perspective, universities need to develop a long-term view of how they nurture and evolve those everyday interactions.

In a recent post I asked what might happen if we were to frame development in terms of cities (and the towns in their orbit and the spaces that separate them) rather than nations. Here are four initial thoughts:

  1. Networks of cities (such as this one or this one) will greatly increase in importance. Most people would struggle to name a group that brings together city or regional leaders, but there are countless well-known examples of gatherings for heads of state. I think international networks of cities are in their infancy and will greatly grow in profile and influence.

  2. Similarly, bilateral relationships between cities and regions become more significant. There is growing evidence of this. To take an example of relationships between British and Chinese cities: earlier this month a Confucius Institute opened at Coventry University, a new collaboration between the university and a longstanding partner – Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics (JUFE) in Nanchang. And there are already smart city collaborations between Bristol and Guangzhou, and between Manchester and Wuhan.

  3. Freed from the constraints of nations, we start to think about groups of people. For example, the pioneering work of Andy Sumner found that 72% of the world’s poorest people live in middle income rather than low income countries (in particular India). In part this work helped increase the focus on inequality and highlighted that poverty is often a distribution problem between regions in countries rather than an international distribution problem.

  4. Development issues don’t conform to nation states. Simon Maxwell, the former director of the UK-based Overseas Development Institute, recently gave a speech exploring development agency choices in a new landscape. Reflecting on the shrinking number of low-income countries, he talks about development agencies focusing less on specific ‘target’ countries (except, perhaps, the small group of ‘fragile’ states) and more on the ‘essential building blocks’ of global public goods. These include preventing the emergence and spread of infectious disease, tackling climate change, enhancing international financial stability, strengthening the international trading system, achieving peace and security, and generating knowledge – all challenges that cross borders and require extensive cooperation. He concludes:

the emphasis on global public goods suggests turning an old mantra on its head: not ‘think global, act local’, but ‘think local, act global’.

Universities already have strong links across regions, and in particular international links that aren’t solely between one capital city and another. They link between the important second-tier cities that are often growing faster and are more innovative, but have a lower profile. They draw on alumni, research, staff and institutional relationships. They think local and act global. They can play an important role in facilitating new regional connections.

Photo Credit: Shenzhen cityscape by BBC World Service on Flickr

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