Cities and globalization: Cities all around the world see themselves exposed to several megatrends. They are directly confronted with the needs of their citizens and obliged to offer competitiveness, resilience and a high-quality of life for a long-term sustainable development.

This calls for a need in the strategic positioning of cities, even more than before times of the corona crisis. Talks with progressive practitioners from seven European cities about their strategy approaches and enriched with theoretical insights, this post is a first summary of some important guidelines for cities to stick to when establishing their visions:

Cities and their corresponding regions are growing in importance in the global context, and they play a significant role in tackling challenges that arise from megatrends such as globalisation, demographic and climate changes, or digitalisation.

This puts a need on those cities to develop coherent strategies as visions to cope with multiple challenges. Therefore, cities are now more strongly engaging in the strategy development process (see here and here). However, many cites still show – at least to the outward – a complete lack of strategic positioning.

0. Be holistic!

Strategic positioning from a city perspective is, or at least should be, different from the strategy development of an enterprise. Let alone the fact that an ideal overarching city strategy is holistic and integrates areas which are traditionally seen as separate. This does not mean that all areas have to be thought of as equally important – but all areas have to be thought of in some way or the other.

Developing truly holistic strategies is highly relevant to the “business model” of a city because the city has to find solutions for all relevant areas with a direct or indirect impact on the life of their citizens.

Improving in those areas is crucial for competitiveness and for the quality of life. Relevant areas can be defined by each city individually according to their needs. However, they are likely to be similar among cities and can include the following:

  • Mobility
  • Infrastructure
  • Social Cohesion
  • Economy
  • Governance
  • Environment
  • Sustainability
  • Budgeting
  • Education
  • Energy

Setting up and implementing a consistent, straight-forward strategy is harder than it may first sound. Several questions arise from handling such a task. This basic guideline for city strategy development reflects first insights from the literature as well as learnings from talks with city strategy managers from seven European cities:

checklist city strategy

1. Assess the pre-conditions!

  • Conduct an analysis to collect relevant strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT-analysis). This analysis should be at the responsibility of the cities’ strategic unit.
  • Find out about overlapping interests across city departments. Having said that, a well-working strategy from a city perspective is holistic and deeply integrated. This also means that different areas the city is engaging in have over-lapping interests. On the one hand, this can be beneficiary as there can be positive externalities and spill-over effects at work. On the other hand, interests can be opposed and therefore, it is important to bring relevant city employees across the units to one table before going to the bigger stage where citizens are included. What follows from this is also that priorities are not necessarily set by the overarching strategy for the whole city, but that this happens when the different city units deduce all the aspects being important to them.
  • Take existing qualitative and quantitative benchmarks from external sources into account (e.g. the Regional Competitiveness Index from the European Union.

2. Make it democratic!

  • Find inclusive ways to let a broad base of people participate in the strategy development process as the cities’ purpose is to work for and represent the citizens and the citizens can most effectively express their needs themselves. Bochum for example conducted a citizen conference based on random selection to let a representative sample of citizens participate in the strategy development process. Zürich took first steps to experiment with blended participation, i.e. combining events on-site with events online. The cities’ strategy units should act as guides in this and ensure an efficient compromise between top-down and bottom-up approaches.
  • The participation process needs to be advertised in a way which ensures to include people broadly (e.g. in busses, in newspapers, at the central station). A well-founded city strategy needs to be based on collaboration and knowledge sharing across all levels of society.
  • The engagement process can take place online and offline or in a form of blended participation.

3. Set ambitious, yet achievable goals!

  • Strategies typically define a certain time horizon – and if not explicitly, they do it implicitly. When setting too ambitious goals, the cities’ staff will have problems to cope with them and officials at some point have to explain why the goals did not hold. The acronym SMART (Specific, Measurable, Acceptable, Realistic, Time-bound) can give orientation for setting achievable goals.
  • Honesty is crucial. If the current situation and the future perspective are described too rosy and in a way which clearly deviates from reality, people are easily aware of that and will not buy your city strategy. Take Eindhoven as an example. It is not the “prettiest girl in the class”. But it has its unique charm, including bottom-up developed events while offering a creative as well as entrepreneurial environment. The picture drawn by Eindhoven is therefore very authentic.

4. Achieve a broad political consensus!

  • When adopting the strategy, it needs to be backed upon the shoulders of department managers and city representatives. Without a consensus on a broad basis, it is likely that the strategy will get re-defined after an election. But per definition this is the mortal blow for a strategy as it requires some time for it to expand.

5. Have clear budgetary boundaries!

  • Implementing changes takes time and costs money. Therefore, defining budgets is necessary for shaping the manifestation of the goals and for avoiding conflicts between city departments. This is not an easy task in a constantly and fast changing environment. Especially for the longer term, it is not easy to do the planning which is why different scenarios can help.
  • Some parts of the budget can be decided about via online participation as it was the case in Helsinki where the city achieved a participation rate of eight percent in their online budgeting process. While doing so, trade-offs between different services that the city provides become apparent. This enhances the understanding for the difficulties in the provision of city services among citizens.

6. Be flexible!

  • City strategies should leave room for city employees and for city-related firms to find their own way of improving things. As Banerjee & Duflo describe it very well, the regulation of civil servants is important but should not distort their behaviour in a way which leads to inefficiencies.

7. Think outside the box!

As the importance of cities is on the rise, they should be aware of their role as global actors and integrate this awareness in their actions. Zürich for example is engaging in city-to-city development aid. They offer targeted help for cities in developing countries by sharing knowledge.

8. Promote it to the in- and outside!

  • Communicate the strategic approach to the outside. Aalborg for example does this with the help of a Green Agent. This shows openness and respect to the citizens as they probably did contribute to the strategy development process. Also, the strategy is a relevant information for would-be citizens and for companies which are searching for a place to settle because a good strategy shows future-orientation and ambition.
  • Remind the city employees of the existence of the strategy to the inside. Department managers, workshops or simply an e-mail which points to varying aspects of the strategy can find a remedy here. A strategy gives guidance but is at the same time a policy and management instrument.

9. Manage it across the board!

  • Your strategy unit is the heart of your strategy operation unit and they hold all strings together. They are responsible for advising external stakeholders working in strategy-related fields as well as for enhancing the communication between different city units. Thus, they need a broad backing within the city and from elected officials to work efficiently.

10. Engage in networks and partnerships!

  • Cities profit from engaging in exchanges with their peers. But as it is always the case with strategic positioning, prioritisation is crucial – as also recognised by Riga. You simply cannot do everything while facing restricted resources. Cities should therefore not collect a whole bunch of sister cities with the sole purpose of school exchanges. Tight boundaries with other cities need to be selected carefully and aim on co-operations in multiple areas such as economy, governance, sustainability or education. When it comes to city networks, EUROCITIES, Global Parliament of Mayors and ICLEI are some good examples, amongst others.

11. Monitor developments!

  • Collect data in diverse fields (e.g. about the fullness of trash cans or the flow of traffic). Use it for the calculation of relevant key performance indicators (KIPs), call attention to data-driven insights and promote Open Data to openly show the state of the city to the citizens. Those data can be used as a benchmark for further progress: What gets measured, gets done. But KPIs have to be selected cautiously. It has to be meaningful for insightful interpretations. Otherwise, you will measure humbug that leads you in the wrong direction.