Smaller Cities Unite! Looks at New Model for Sister City Relationships

Thinking big and acting fast is the name of the game

by Andy Cutler

Approximately two years ago I set out on a journey to discover how cities could collaborate with one another. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it wasn’t. After conducting 1000’s of hours of research, expanding my global networks and connections significantly, listening and learning from colleagues I respect across a broad range of economic sectors, and drawing upon my own experiences promoting products, places and people, I came up with a new model for connecting cities with Providence, Rhode Island—in this case, connecting cool smaller cities with populations of 1.5 million or less and exploring collaborative opportunities in the areas of--Arts & Culture, Economic Development, Entrepreneurship, Policy and Student Engagement. It’s called Smaller Cities Unite!

Smaller Cities Unite! was founded on the premise of cultivating the question of What if….

What if smaller cities (and their residents) explored interesting and impactful ways in which they could collaborate; thus, creating new paradigms for problem solving, product and policy development, as well as engaging its citizenry (particularly its student populations)? In other words, Smaller Cities Unite! is a platform that wishes to explore a new form of citizen diplomacy—one that is based on trust, respect and action; proving to the world that smaller cities can align quickly, open their networks easily, and create new kinds of relationships leading to unique forms of engagement fast!

Smaller cities understand and work within the confines of their size each and every day. Size matters, and smaller cities have the power to enlist professional (and personal) networks in order to bolster ideation and ultimately create meaningful change quicker than their larger counterparts.

Smaller Cities Unite! looks at the following criteria in forming substantive relationships:

  • Cities with complementary resources, assets, experiences, challenges and opportunities
  • Cities that view what they DO well as “exportable”
  • Cities with an underlying environment that fosters a desire to learn, teach and mentor
  • Cities that seek substantive partnerships/relationships
  • Cities that seek out active engagement by (and for) its citizenry
  • Cities that are capable of leveraging closely-knit networks
  • Cities that believe their platforms (and environments) for ideation and change can serve to help other locales (while nurturing new global ties)

Smaller Cities Unite! will ignite and catalyze new relationships, which can (and will):

  • Find new ways to engage its student populations through internships and projects aimed at creating change, promoting place, and developing new ventures (e.g., internships, job opportunities, case studies and classroom projects based on real-world issues).
  • Create new forms of arts and cultural exchanges between cities that were once non-existent (e.g., exploring ways to promote up-and-coming individuals’ work in various communities; learning from different arts and culture models dealing with education, learning and creativity; inviting unique artistic endeavors into new locales; viewing the arts as a form of cultural export that can benefit other communities as well).
  • Foster student and professional exchanges that can take full advantage of each community’s academic assets (e.g., through coursework, case studies, classroom learning, experiential learning, and research).
  • Leverage existing events and conferences to engage other communities and showcase an interest in building new bridges of understanding between locales (i.e., inviting change agents/innovators to participate in each locales world-class conferences and events).
  • Enhance the quality of interaction of cities by opening new channels of understanding and information sharing (e.g., how can a city become more bikeable or bike-friendly; awareness of each others unique startup communities; and
  • Explore new economic development opportunities on both large and small scales (i.e., import/export of physical products as well as new business models).

First up in this “lively experiment” is Providence and Copenhagen. Why these two cities? There are lots of reasons, but namely:

  1. Both cities are amongst the first settled on their respective continents (Copenhagen in 1137 and Providence in 1636);
  2. Both are “college” towns rich in academic assets (Copenhagen has 14 colleges and universities and Providence has 7);
  3. Similar in geographic size (Copenhagen encompasses 34 square miles and Providence 20.5 square miles); population size (Copenhagen has 1.2 million residents and Providence has 180,000, but the Greater Providence Area has upwards of 1 million and is the 2nd largest city in New England and represents the 37th largest metro area in the U.S.)
  4. Both cities are globally acclaimed for their arts and design communities;
  5. Both cities are “gateway cities” (Copenhagen is not only a gateway city to Scandinavia, but also to most of Western Europe; Providence is a gateway city along the I-95 corridor in the Northeast Region of the U.S. stretching from Maine to Washington, D.C.)

There are other similarities like both cities were selected as IBM Smarter Cities. But it’s how these cities are dissimilar which captured my imagination as well. Copenhagen is a world leader in alternative transportation (i.e., bicycle transportation), having opened the world’s first bicycle superhighway (with more to come). Copenhagen (and Denmark) is also home to an energy independence movement recognized globally, and calling for their country to become energy independent by the year 2050 (and they already reached the 40% benchmark 8 years early in 2012). No doubt these are two examples of how Copenhagen can not only help advise another city, but prove out to the world that its methods are replicable elsewhere.

Providence is also becoming known the world over for its unique approach to entrepreneurship; namely, in the way it approaches mentoring and community support for cultivating individuals with an interest in any number of areas of entrepreneurship ranging from design to technology and social impact ventures to edtech. The “Providence Model” is a simple one; leveraging our networks to progress ideation as well as fostering startups. Saul Kaplan, the Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory, coined the phrase, “Innovation at Scale” several years back while serving as the state’s director of economic development. He was spot on! Since then, Providence is now home to several startup accelerator programs (one in tech and design, Betaspring and another helping social impact ventures known as the Change Accelerator), which have been widely praised. Whether it’s a young artist or designer who has a big idea or a tech startup started in a dorm room, you are never more than a phone call or email away from government officials, academic leaders and other civic leaders who are willing to assist you in Providence.

On February 16, I will leave for Copenhagen on a journey for two weeks to see if Smaller Cities Unite! can gain some traction and support there. We shall see. But as H.G. Wells once said, “If a thing’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing well.” After two years in the making and spending all of my retirement savings, this has been equal amounts passion and obsession—two ingredients any successful entrepreneur needs to have, and then some.

 Andy CutlerThis post was written by guest contributor Andy Cutler, follow Andy and his journey on twitter @andypvd. To contribute to Andy's adventure contact him at [email protected]

Photo Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University

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