Joining City Networks: Lessons for Impact

By Jodi Allemeier - 03 October 2018
Joining City Networks: Lessons for Impact

Jodi Allemeier asks whether the increasing number of networks for cities are filling a critical governance gap and what the future may hold for them?

There are over 200 networks for cities, and counting. Some of them enable participating cities to influence national and global agendas, such as the South African Cities Network, the C40 commitments and the New Urban Agenda, in South African context. Others are primarily focused on enabling the exchange of knowledge and experience, such as ICLEI and 100 Resilient Cities. With so many of these networks on the scene, I and my cohort of Global Governance Futures 2030 fellows find ourselves grappling with the future role of these networks in global governance. Are they filling a critical governance gap in the age of urbanization, diverting resources from core city-making work, or serving the agendas of sponsors in exchange for public relations exposure for cities and/or their leaders? All those involved in the governance of cities face these questions.

For participation in such networks is not a good thing per se. Participation without strategy can lead to unintended, negative consequences. Through my work as a city-development practitioner in Cape Town, I have experienced some of the pitfalls of taking part without clear goals and objectives. We’ve paid the costs of temporary accolade oriented programs when they lack local legitimacy and legacy-building. We’ve failed to fully implement superficially exchanged knowledge and have learnt that mimicking strategy and form does not lead to function and substance. And we’ve made commitments on behalf of whole of society actors that we didn’t have the ability to keep. Some of these lessons came with reputational damage, some widened local trust deficits.

That being said, we also have experiences of successful participation – for example, in C40s and in 100 Resilient Cities. Both of these have dedicated staff who champion the strategy globally, and work on institutionalizing learnings locally. Both have engaged local cross-sector city actors in every step of the process – from applying to join, through to prioritizing issues and learning objectives in the local context. This helps to build legitimacy, ensure that participation is representative of our context, and strengthen relationships between local actors.

GGFSo how can cities make sure they use city networks to their and their residents’ greatest benefit? There are two key capabilities which cities need in order to be able to adapt inwardly and influence outwardly: choosing the right networks, and choosing the rights leaders to work with them.

Choose Your Networks Wisely

Cities need the capability to determine which of the 200-plus networks will work for them. Rather than static studies and recommendations, cities could develop a practice of regularly asking a set of questions:

Firstly, what are our strategic focuses? What are our key messages and whose agendas we need to influence? What are our key learning needs?

Secondly, are their existing networks that we can pro-actively join in order to meet these needs? Who are their existing members and do they offer potential for long-term collaborations? Are their twinning or other arrangements that can meet the same needs?

Thirdly, cities need to question how they will assess participation in such networks. How will we know that we’ve achieved value locally? What would failure look like? How and to whom will we account for the benefits of participation?

Finally, there are some practical considerations: What is the budget for participation? Where does it come from? What are our institutional capabilities to support the alliances that come with networking?

Using these questions as a guide, cities can strategically select which networks to join.

Choose Your Leaders Wisely

For city networking to move beyond international trips, public relations and ideas that are inspired but go no-where, cities must identify the right leaders. This may require thinking beyond local government. We must recognize that networks of actors outside of direct city government also ‘make cities’ and some of these actors may be better positioned to influence and/or learn than local government itself.

That being said, these leaders must be able to tell the city’s story in a recognizable way, and present complex issues rather than represent individual interests. Strengthening local partners’ abilities to jointly communicate and learn may be as valuable an investment as direct participation by the local authority. Finally, dedicated capacity within local networks must have the political, social and institutional legitimacy to build the adaptive capabilities and lead change in a sustained manner.

As the challenges facing cities vary in both type and intensity, so too will the roles of city networks in addressing these challenges be diverse. New forms of governance require collaboration and adaptation over compliance and mimicry. City leaders need to be comfortable with a lack of easily brandable silver-bullet solutions, be competent to understand their unique problems and to build networked leadership.




Jodi Allemeier is a Programme Lead at the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership, focusing on urban governance. She is Global Governance Futures 2030 fellow. The views expressed here are her own.

Image credit: Abdul Rahman via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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