Leveraging local power: What cities and citizens have to teach us on international cooperation?

Posted in October 30, 2015 at the German Marshall Fund of the United States website

Since 2010 more than $110,000 has been raised for Detroiters by Detroiters through the initiative  ”Detroit Soup“. The premise of the initiative is very simple: by giving $5 at the door of each event you get soup, salad, bread and a vote. At each SOUP dinner there are presentations on projects ranging from art, urban agriculture, social justice, social entrepreneurs, to education, technology and more. Audience members then vote on what project they think benefits the city the most. Whichever presenter gets the most votes wins all the money collected at the door!

In 2014, on the other side of the Atlantic, in the city of Thessaloniki, a group of young women organized the first crowdfunding dinner named “FEAST“. The success was immediate and the concept was exactly the same as Detroit Soup. Through the power of social media the concept of Detroit Soup travelled to Greece and inspired these active citizens, who then sought guidance from the original founders— creating a strong Detroit-Thessaloniki collaboration.

There are numerous similar examples of innovative transatlantic collaboration throughout the cities of the U.S. and Europe.  Groups of citizens exchange ideas, solve problems and create networks despite the vast distance and the multiple physical borders they divide them. Citizens of the 21st century know how to communicate in a global level, and have the networks, skills and awareness to do so.

In an era where nations and governments have proved incapable in dealing with the most simple problems, and international collaboration seems like an unsolvable puzzle (i.e. TTIP or refugee crisis) the question that arises is: there are lessons politicans and policy makers can learn from citizen cooperation?

Traveling to different cities on both sides of the Atlantic, someone can easily observe a change in the way local governance is being structured and practiced the last few years towards more inclusive, participatory decision making. More community leaders are entering the administration in elected positions (i.e. councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López in Detroit); innovative civic engagement tools and methods are being developed and used locally; civil society organizations (formal and informal) have become an integral part of the decision making and implementation of policies; theories of community asset mapping; concepts related to identity and equity have entered the local rhetoric; and new international networks between cities are created every year on different cross-border themes. Cities, nonprofits, and associations work together locally and globally, forming networks that connect cities and citizens across the world (from the city of Pittsburg to the city of Rotterdam).

But how did this change in local governance take place? Are local leaders more capable than their national counterparts? Probably not. But they are closer to their citizens and to their actual problems. Local leaders can -in real time- identify both challenges and opportunities in their cities like no other level of governance is capable of doing.

Cities have historically been laboratories of experimentation for new methods of participation, economic growth and social change. Local authorities were the first to experience the change that has emerged on both sides of the Atlantic during the last decade, when citizens actively demanded their voice be heard. Because citizens, businesses, and nonprofits stood up when governments were preoccupied with dealing with their own internal mismanagement, the never-ending conflict between regional and central government and a number of different financial crises that hit the countries on both sides of the Atlantic the past decades. Citizens frequently took responsibility for their place and acted collectively, and the private and the philanthropic sectors often understood that the only way toward a more resilient future was through the creation of strong collaborations and partnerships between all stakeholders, no matter their impact and size.

People want to express themselves. Voting every 4 or 5 years is not enough.  Citizens demand a different way of life, and they want to have a say in this. Cities and citizens of today connect in subnational and international networks (ie. C40100ResilientCitiesGlobal Parliament of Mayors), reinventing how local governance is being held and create an alternative vision for the future of our cities. A vision that is designed not by the ones in power but in common between all the actors within the city truly holds the power to change the world.

ina Liakou, a Fall 2015 Marshall Memorial Fellow, is a Municipal Councilor for the Municipality of Thessaloniki.