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How Cities Across the Globe Are Taking Innovation into Their Own Hands

PARIS, France — I recently attended CityLab, a conference hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Aspen Institute, and The Atlantic that brings together urbanists, business leaders, artists, and activists to investigate urban innovation. The conference was, in its own way, a call to action. It offered an inspiring sense of the power of local leadership to transform policy and proffer bold, visionary ideas, like Alphabet Sidewalk Labs’ new project in Toronto that uses digital technology to better urban design, or Barcelona’s open-source participatory budgeting.

More exactly, the conference highlighted the extent to which nations and cities outside of the United States are looking to capitalize on the current, tenuous geopolitical season and position themselves as leaders in a broader move to re-imagine civic life in local communities.

Between President Donald Trump’s alienating, isolationist rhetoric and the looming impact of Brexit on the United Kingdom (and on London, in particular), other Western countries are hoping to poise themselves in the vanguard of technology, innovation, and civic engagement. Germany and France, for instance, are doubling down on their efforts to create ecosystems that attract entrepreneurial, forward-thinking young people and technology firms.

As the United States and England turn inward, Paris has begun to confidently present itself to the international community as a city of openness and as a global leader on key urban policy issues, such as climate change. Paris has taken in Syrian refugees and created a facility that includes medical centers and schools. Paris has also recently opened Station F, a tech and innovation incubator positioning itself as the “world’s biggest startup campus.”

This entrepreneurial maneuvering shouldn’t be all that surprising. Tech and innovation have been a focus for French President Emmanuel Macron, who hopes to “shake up” the nation. When he was the economy minister, Macron pushed for a friendly regulatory environment for startups. In addition, the country has developed a startup competition called “French Tech Ticket.” The contest gives winners money, a work permit, and an advisor to help them assist the country’s bureaucracy. France also launched a French Tech Visa, designed to fast-track the process of obtaining a four-year talent passport geared toward foreigners with tech prowess.  

Of course, Paris’ transition to a global tech hub isn’t without its challenges. As a recent New York Times article about Station F noted, Paris is grappling with the traditional 35-hour work week to embrace the “Silicon Valley” mentality. Yet despite these not-insignificant hurdles, Facebook and Amazon are backing Station F, and Microsoft is basing its newest artificial intelligence startup program there. The Japanese messaging app Line, meanwhile, is setting up camp at Station F, and billionaire Xavier Niel has already backed the incubator with some 250 million euros.

Yet France isn’t merely innovating for the sake of innovating. It’s also working to take a leadership position on green entrepreneurship and to address climate change, in what will likely be a global vacuum without U.K. or U.S. leadership. Macron created an initiative pointedly named Make Our Planet Great Again, which he’s aimed at recruiting scientists and engineers, among other types of professionals, to help France advance efforts to curb climate change. In his announcement of the initiative, Macron noted “to all scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and responsible citizens who were disappointed by the decision of the president of the United States, I want to say that they will find in France a second homeland.” While the United States is retreating from its Paris climate commitments, Paris Mayor Hidalgo has pledged that Paris will continue to work on the continuing challenge of global climate change.

“America First” policies aren’t the only factors pushing cities to compete as new tech leaders, though. And neither is France the only country feeling the pressure to make moves.

With Brexit negotiations looming, many organizations are being forced to consider re-locating, and Germany is trying to offer its cities as viable and attractive alternatives. It remains to be seen what financial impact Brexit will ultimately have on the British economy, although some figures estimate upward of £50 billion a year. As a result, Samsung chose Berlin—and its affordable real-estate—over London for its new headquarters. Co-working spaces are also cropping up across Germany. Mindspace opened its first German location, in Berlin, in 2016, and it’s currently expanding to Hamburg and Munich. By the end of 2017, it will have nearly 19,000 square meters of co-working space in Germany. Its closest rival, WeWork, has also, in turn, opened up two co-working spaces in Berlin since 2015. These numbers suggest a trend that those needing co-working spaces, such as freelancers, will continue to grow across Germany’s cities. For instance, a 2017 TechCrunch event, Disrupt Berlin, featured startups across sectors looking at everything from AI learning to E-commerce to biotech to urban transportation.

And—it’s not just cities harnessing the power of civic innovation. Rural communities are increasingly becoming sites of experimentation. More specifically, they’re seeking to unite disparate people around shared interests and community infrastructure, such as broadband and other communications infrastructure. We see this via the work of the Center for Rural Strategies (also documented in a recent New America white paper), which is based in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and is providing rural communities and nonprofits with resources on innovative media and communications strategies that might strengthen local work. (Whitney Campbell Coe, an organizer of the National Rural Assembly, which convenes rural communities across the country, shared her insights last week at the Obama Foundation summit on civic engagement.)

You might be thinking: But where does all of this leave the United States?

As the Trump administration makes it harder for talented immigrants to come to America, other countries are going to seize this moment to serve as examples of creativity and entrepreneurship. And as “America First” rhetoric strains the United States’ standing as a global tech leader, other countries will try to fill that void. But localities across the United States—from large metros like New York City to exurban areas like Whitesburg—will not take any of this lying down. They’re already mobilizing to stand on their own as global actors. State and local governments, along with private industry and civil society, continue to take a leadership role within the country to ensure that technology is serving and benefiting all Americans. Bloomberg Philanthropies, for instance, has created What Works Cities, a program to help create capacity for data and evidence in city governance and support better policy outcomes for residents. 95 cities, stretching from California to Colorado to Georgia to Florida, are part of this initiative.

On either side of the Atlantic, cities aren’t just thinking more creatively about geopolitics and policy. They’re thinking, too, about the city-dwellers on the receiving end of these decisions, and how they might, ultimately, work with and learn from each other.


Hollie Russon Gilman is a fellow at New America. She holds a PhD from Harvard's department of government and is the former White House Open Government and Innovation Advisor.