Photograph of Manhatten taken from space
World of Cities. Manhattan from space. Photo ©

Under licence from CC Creative Commons, adapted from the original

April 2017

Jo Beall, British Council Director, Education and Society - and international cities specialist - introduces a new report on the role of cities in shaping soft power in the 21st century, and asks what the implications are for the UK.

Cities Produce 80% of world GDP. They also act as increasingly significant sources of diplomatic and soft power

For the first time in history most people now live in cities. They are fundamental to economic and cultural development. They produce 80% of world GDP. They also act as increasingly significant sources of diplomatic and soft power. A new British Council report (Cities, Prosperity and Influence (2017), Jo Beall & David Adam) examines this growing diplomatic power of cities, as they forge more connections between themselves often independent of their host nations. It points out that this is more and more true of smaller cities as well as major conurbations. 

The report also considers the delicate and increasingly important balance needed to be struck between cities - which must ensure their pursuit of their city-led agendas do not run counter to national interests - and nations, which must give their cities the autonomy and support needed to prosper in the ever more competitive global race for success. Recognising and facilitating the global influence of the UK’s cities will have to be balanced carefully against the domestic needs and international strategies of the country as a whole. This will not be easy, but will be more important than ever for the UK’s success after it leaves the European Union. Effectively balanced national and city policies can be mutually supportive and benefit the UK, its cities, and the citizens who live in them.

The Rise of Cities

Silicon Valley offers one possible vision of a different future: it is plausible that technology will for the first time allow people, goods, and ideas to meet with the sort of frequency and diversity that at present occurs only in cities. However, there is no sign of the increasing economic, demographic, or soft power rise of cities slowing down. For now, cities are more important than ever.

Culture plays an increasingly important part in raising the international profile of cities, as well as regenerating them economically. Cultural institutions and events can make a big difference to cities’ soft power. This has been seen recently across a range of cities and towns in the UK, from Derry/Londonderry to Margate, Liverpool to London, Glasgow to Hull. Given the degree to which culture is cited as a leading cause of the UK’s attractiveness by people around the world, efforts to support and highlight the UK’s many and varied cultural centres will be a powerful promotional mechanism.

Meanwhile, the growing diplomatic importance of cities - including through a wide range of international cities networks - offers opportunities for the UK as it seeks to become a more internationally-connected country. For example, as is argued in the report, in some parts of the world there are negative attitudes towards the UK, but not necessarily towards its cities. If cities are increasingly seen as possible units of international engagement, this can offer alternative opportunities for dialogue with counterparts in countries with which state-to-state relations are poor. 

Getting the Balance Right

In order to get the most from the attractiveness of its cities, national governments need to understand the role cities can play in foreign policy and soft power strategies and give them the necessary support. At the same time they must respect cities’ autonomy in how they project and engage around their own very considerable soft power assets.

City governments and policymakers need to consider their options for global influence, developing international strategies where appropriate, making the most of opportunities to build international ties. It is important too that they pursue their city-level diplomacy alongside national strategies and ensure they do not directly run counter to national public diplomacy and foreign policy interests. There are now many instruments they can use to enhance their status. These include economic promotion, place-branding, attracting students and tourists, and hosting major sporting and cultural events. Increasingly, cities are linking up internationally through twinning and other partnerships, cultural and policy exchange, and membership of international bodies aiming to find policy solutions to specific issues. City-focused policymakers should consider taking part in city networks like the World Cities Cultural Forum, established in London in 2012 to provide valuable channels for policy exchange, collaboration, and soft power. 

The UK was arguably the world’s first industrialised, urban nation, and has been dealing with similar tensions for centuries

The recent EU referendum highlighted some of the political differences between London and other major cities like Manchester, on the one hand, and much of the rest of the country on the other. Brexit is likely to exacerbate such tensions as the needs and legitimate preferences of different parts of the UK have to be balanced. As electorates react against what is often referred to as the ‘Westminster bubble’, it will be necessary to distinguish between and then reconcile the different policy needs of London, other British cities, and the country as a whole. There is a long tradition of cities being drivers of political and cultural change, but this only works if they take the rest of the nation with them. The UK was arguably the world’s first industrialised, urban nation, and has been dealing with similar tensions for centuries. Its history leaves it well placed to solve these issues. 

Another important conclusion of the report is that city promotion and city diplomacy is most effective when it is consistent with the reality of a city’s citizens. City strategies succeed when they prioritise quality of life as a measure of success and enhance that quality of life for all citizens by encouraging prosperity, openness, and equal access to the benefits of city life. City dwellers should be made better aware of the growing number of ways in which they benefit from their cities’ international engagement, and of how they can contribute to that engagement and their cities’ soft power through their own international relationships.

In the increasingly urban 21st Century, the potential international influence of its cities will ever more important for the UK. If it gets the balance between city and country right then both will prosper.

Jo Beall, British Council Director, Education and Society, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, and specialist in international education and cities.

See also