Thursday, 15 June 2017

City Olympics to Improve the World

By Dirk Helbing

We could organize City Olympics, i.e. competitions for the best kinds of technologies, solutions, and city-wide implementations, driven by ambition, competition, engagement and fun. Global City Olympics to progress energy, sustainability and resilience solutions would be a promising new way to make progress towards global goals in a bottom-up way. Competitions could take place every two years, while every other year, cities would learn the best solutions from each other. That is, competition and cooperation would alternate.

Going a step further, in full agreement with Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom's "polycentric" approach to solving global problems,[i] I believe that cities and social communities can be important agents of global change. A suitable combination of competition and collaboration among cities can advance us in our efforts to solve the challenges of the 21st century. If we manage to find ways to make our cities smarter, this will make our planet smarter.[ii] In this way, acting locally will cause a global change for the better. For example, I recently proposed that we might establish something like a "City Olympics" to address global problems such as climate change.[iii]

As we know, calls to combat climate change are often met with skepticism by companies and citizens, who see it as a threat to their preferred ways of business and life, and that's why these attempts receive so little support. However, doing something for our climate could be rewarding and even fun, if we ran a climate-oriented City Olympics every few years. These events would have a sporting spirit, whereby cities all over the world would engage in friendly competition to develop the best science, technology, and architecture to counter climate change. They would also compete to achieve the highest degree of citizen engagement (in terms of environmental-friendly mobility, investments in renewable energy technology, better thermal insulation, and more). These events could be presented by the public media in pretty exciting ways. Furthermore, after each Climate Olympics, there would be a cooperative phase, where the best ideas, technologies and urban governance concepts would be exchanged among the participating cities, thereby allowing them to make faster progress. Which city or country can reach its climate goals first? Let's be ambitious! While we may dislike regulations that tell us what to do, we love competitions, and we love winners!

We could address other global challenges in a similar way. This would simply mean a change of the disciplines in which cities compete. It also seems natural that cities would form global networks with other cities that struggle with similar problems. Exchanging knowledge, ideas, technology and experts, or supporting each other when disaster strikes would give such global networks of cities an advantage. Why shouldn't we have an alliance of cities that takes a lead in supporting better, climate-friendly technologies? Just suppose that cities next to rising oceans, such as New York City, Singapore, London, Hamburg, Sydney, and a few others would start this together. Wouldn't that create a first-mover advantage, which others would soon seek to copy?

The "glocality" principle "think global, act local" can be implemented in various ways. For example, it might also be beneficial to establish governance structures based on representatives of regions. Global negotiations between nation states have often failed, because nations have acted selfishly and sometimes wielded veto powers. But what if we built institutions that could make decisions from the bottom-up in parallel to the top-down institutions we already have today? An institution such as a council of regions, for example, might help to reach agreements that are better adjusted to local needs and would provide more space for local cultures and diversity. We might even have institutions working towards the same goals in parallel from the top-down and the bottom-up. The first agreement reached through either approach would then be implemented (and it might be further improved over time). Wouldn't such a competition between two institutional settings be good?

To have a strong degree of legitimacy, regional representatives should be directly elected. In order to avoid political casts, all adult citizens should be eligible to be a candidate, regardless of whether they belong to a political party or not. Moreover, it would promote integration if every adult resident of a region would have the right to vote. Remember that lack of participation is one of the most important factors causing crime, extremism and conflict.

To solve problems that have trans-regional relevance, the corresponding regional parliaments could send representatives for a limited time into trans-regional and global councils, which would be established to address specific problems. After all, these representatives would know best how to serve the needs of the people they are representing. To ensure flexibility and avoid accumulation of power and corruption, the global representatives of the regional parliaments should rotate every few months, or have a mandate which is restricted to certain subjects, or both.

[i] E. Ostrom, Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems, The American Economic Review 100(3), 641-672 (2010)

[ii] B.R. Barber, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities (Yale, 2014).

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