Abogado | Law | Cities | Politics | GovTech.
[Pablo Sánchez Chillón, Urban Planning Lawyer, International Speaker & Strategy and Public Affairs Advisor. Pablo is Co-founder of Sánchez Chillón Legal Advisors and Director of Foro Global Territorio. He works as a part-time advisor to the municipality of Alicante (Spain)]
“To improve is to challenge; to be perfect is to change often” [Winston Churchill]
[*] Local Leadership: lessons from so many changes.
The severe Covid-19 global shock has changed a lot of things. Cities and local leadership as well. Sure, the latest horrendous news coming from Eastern Europe will not improve everything as the extreme impact of the despicable real-time Putin invasion of Ukraine is still to be measured, opening up a dark hour of troubling consequences.
During the last months, Public Managing inertias, governmental clichés and many of the classical approachs to problem solving in local public spheres have been shattered into thousand pieces exposing the fragilty of our interconnected societies, putting cities and local politics at the core of the current debates around the sustainability of our way of living, the pros and cons of living in urban realms and the true nature and meaning of distributed power, with Mayors performing like true Prime Ministers and global leaders against the first and most intense effects of the global pandemics on urban population.
However, before the coronavirus great reset, the global agenda of governance was fulfilled by other current issues as climate change that have blurred almost completely behind the emergence of the Covid-19, with emerging stars as Greta Thunberg suddenly converted into a kind of supporting actress in a global film full of main characters in the form of dangerous and itinerant viruses and very bad news. Maybe you don’t remember it, because it happen one century ago, but Madrid’s UN’s Climate Summit known as COP25 was hold in december 2019 and ended without a solid institutional agreement to curb carbon emissions, far from the expectations created.
After the Madrid’s fiasco, the rising voice (and diminishing support to multilateralism) of the colorful army of climate negationists and the gap between the echoes of the upcoming apocalypse of flames defended by Greta Thunberg and her constellation of green knockers and the global dependence on fossil fuels, have put the stakes so high that no country or heavy national leader dare (or know how) to lead the process towards the green future without getting trapped in terms of domestic politics.
Sure, these were bad news for the Planet, but implied, as well, a cold lesson of realpolitik for beginners that remarks how in terms of international relations, incrementalism (small additive changes instead of a few and extensively planned large jumps) is a solid driver of global change. Despite the diversity of nuances and paces and the proven mistakes of the evolutionist thinking in history, Climate Change and this global call to action around it, is already a relevant issue of the Global Agenda of Governance, and will be in the upcoming future, coexisting with the Covid-19 aftermath and deep transformations.
In that discouraging global scenario, the good news is mayors and local leaders have proven to be more agile and to move much faster than national governments when facing problems as big as the ones addressed in this unforgettable 2020. The Pandemics have shown that last mile logistics, connectivity, food and general suply chains and the adoption of recovery measures and solutions have been provided and secured from local governments with some mayors and regional leaders gaining an extraordinary and unexpected political momentum during the Covid -19 first surge.
With lots of sanitary and environmental questions at stake and in a moment in which the World has become more open, fragile and connected than ever, where disintermediation, end of power and open and changing agendas are the new normal, Cities, traditionally mere followers of the dictates of national governments in terms of foreign affairs, are assuming a dynamic role as proactive actors in the global arena by using Global influence, Lobby techniques and ‘Soft Diplomacy’ tools to gain weight, power and resonance in the global conversation and where decision making use to happen.
With global challenges that interpellate directly to the urban arena and the local scale of politics, this brand new distributed multilateralims against all the odds is provoking that Cities are definitely demanding their seat at the table where the global agenda of Governance is being performed, challenging the position of power of Nation-States and their counterparts, despite the momentary trend of re-centralization of power forced by the first side-effects of the coronavirus pandemics.
Following my ow experience in advising local politicians and on the basis of the experience of some leading cities as Amsterdam, Madrid, Copenhagen or San Francisco and their committed and strategic focus on internationalization as tool for global relevance and influence, in this (non-academic) paper I’m intending to explain how the use of Political Leadership, Storytelling techniques, Transmedia Languages and Collective Civic efforts are helping the cleverest cities on Earth to broaden their global reputation and influence as innovative, secure, safe, green or friendly cities, gaining weight and competitiveness.
In my dedicated Urban Diplomacy Series I tried to focus on the content, extent and insights of the global performance of a true Urban Diplomacy by Cities, explaining how the mix of influence, reputation and collective efforts of mayors, advisors, private companies and engaged individuals is contributing to the opening of an international Urban Agenda and a new framework for global governance, in which Cities and urban issues are performing a principal role. For that reason, It is quite clear to me, how in a world more open, noisy and connected than ever, (wise) cities, traditionally set aside of the hot centers of decision and policy making, are pushing the global agenda of governance by taking on a dynamic role in terms of influence, lobby and ‘Soft Diplomacy’, more aligned with their interests, worries and expectations.
Against the solemn, secret and elite-reserved performance of classical Diplomacy skills, some Cities and Star Mayors (take, for instance, Anne Hidalgo and Shadiq Khan dynamic alliance after the Brexit shock for Paris and London) are getting on very well in developing the charms of soft and subtle Diplomacy in international arenas, by adding to the battery of tactics and strategies deployed in global centers of decision a brand new (and diffuse) strong commitment of a network of urban stakeholders and digital activists willing to tell, sell and defend the city abroad.
Cities, regardless of their size are working alone or joining new collaborative platforms of influence with their counterparts, linking the domestic agendas of governance with the universal challenges of massive urbanization, resilience, sustainability, economic growth and security, by adding colorful layers to their global tale based on the new urban ‘currencies’ as innovation, safety, healthiness, good reputation, livability, creativity and other valuable intangible assets.
For the very first time in the history of Cities, Urban Diplomacy is being outsourced and performed by a rising mix of Politicians, Digizens (Digital-Citizens) and a diffuse but truly committed Cloud of Influencers. Urban Diplomacy, as an emerging trend and attitude for cities attends to how urban entities build tales, brands and strategies (from lobbying to external relations) to strategically position themselves globally as places for attraction of people, talent and investments but also about the way an increasing number of stakeholders and eventual actors are engaged in international city promotion and urban branding, aligning their action with the common effort to play a significant role in the international arena.
The day after the Coronavirus crisis exploited, some cities, by pursuing a new paradigm of Leadership, started to effectively building up together a golden class family of Urban Power and invigorating the global performance of Cities in the scenario of a post-pandemic International Relations.
Covid-19 has been a global crusher for political leadership. Everything is changing at a fast pace and no one (prudently) knows the limits and true impact of the pandemics and its aftermath in terms of power and governmental affairs.
Pragmatism, digitalization, strong-commitment, resilience and soft skills emerge as global trends for the new political guidance and contemporary local management.
So, here are my 10 Do’s and Dont’s for a renewed Urban Leadership. As Groucho Marx did, I could say that “if you don’t like them… well, I have others”-
1.- LOCAL LEADERS: FROM DISCRETE SPECTATORS TO GLOBAL CHALLENGERS AND FAIR CONTENDERS’.–
The severe Covid-19 global shock has changed a lot of things.
Public Managing inertias, governmental clichés and many of the classical approachs to problem solving in public spheres have been shattered into thousand pieces exposing the fragilty of our interconnected societies, putting cities and local politics at the core of the current debates around the sustainability of our way of living, the pros and cons of living in urban realms and the true nature and meaning of distributed power, with Mayors performing like true Prime Ministers and global leaders against the first and most intense effects of the global pandemics on urban population.
In the pre-march 2020 old times, things were following a classical pattern: national leaders gathered, discuss and come to agreements with other nations, while cities counted for nothing. But most of the Planet challenges for the upcoming years regarding sustainability, resilience, equity or democracy are mostly based in Cities, involving people, governments and a myriad of urban stakeholders in the global task of recovering and regaining the future.
What if Cities decide to raise their voice and reclaim more power?
So, from the XIX century the whole status of Governance is modeled after the needs and requirements of Nation-States, but now, for the very first time in History, the primacy of States within International Relations is been called into question, following the emergence of new actors, political arenas and narratives that confront the system by asking for a more open, collective and agile agenda of global Governance.
Cities (and smart and interconnected mayors) are leading (and expected to lead) the process, holding hands with academia, companies and citizens, engaged flaneurs and digital influencers, coining new successful tales and narratives that claim for a new distribution of Power and decision making structures, challenging the pre-Covid-19 statu quo.
Maybe Anne Hidalgo, Sadiq Khan or José Luis Martínez-Almeida are not the reincarnation of the rude and volcanic William Wallace, but they did their best to spark the argument and face the worst time for mayoralty in decades with a solid leadership and a bunch of basic and pragmatic tools and solutions against the Covid 19 tornado. The World is looking up to them.
In my opinion, in that severe and dramatic times, the sad, melancholic and passive Mayors dealing with local inertias and small problem solving focus are not helpful, cool and desirable anymore, if they ever were.
There is a global call to action, and local leadership is directly interpellated.
The first lesson is clear: Be a Braveheart, challenge the status quo.
2.- ‘A ROOM FOR MANY: IF YOU CAN DO IT, DO IT WITH OTHERS’.–
Smart Urban Leaders compete by joining efforts with others. Global challenges need collaborative solutions. Networks, alliances and platforms are helping Cities to strengthen their position as global actors.
Cities, regardless of their size are working alone or joining new collaborative platforms of influence with their counterparts, linking the domestic agendas of governance with the universal challenges of massive urbanization, sustainability, economic growth and security, opening the door for the reinforcement of an international Urban Agenda.
Mayors, Cities and the ensemble of urban leaders have not just been appointed as policy implementers, but have joined together in partnerships with other international actors, paving the way for a more dedicated defense of their interests in the global scenario of Governance. Actually, things really happen when Cities (& Mayors) decide to cooperate and join efforts on behalf their needs and shared vision and problems. Networks of cities are having their say, pushing up the agenda of Governance and gaining weight and global attention. From the classical academic scenarios to the hyper-operative theater of International Relations, cities are networking rather than being networked by others.
The case of the Spanish municipalities challenging the central Government on the use of their treasury resources, savings and funds to address -without conditions- the post-coronavirus urban scenario is quite relevant in terms of the momentum of distributed power by showing the strenght, contumacy and legitimacy of a coordinated group of Mayors willing to open and collaborate by aligning agendas, efforts and narratives, despite their political differences. The result: Spanish Mayors have won the match against the almighty central government who have suffered a resounding defeat in a moment in which re-centralization of power was an incontestable issue.
In a more idealistic way, some time ago, the creative Richard Florida, Benjamin Barber, Political theorist and author of “If Mayors Ruled the World”, and Don Tapscott published a two-part research report advocating for the instauration of a Global Parliament of Mayors Governance Network. This United Nations-like ensemble of Cities, sponsored by such digital thinkfluencers as the mentioned above is actually gaining momentum and support, and the global parliament have convened several times, forcing some scholars (keen on performing the role of enfants terrible of the urban constellation of thinkers) to wonder about considering the initiative as an useful response to urban problems – or as “a half-formed idea coughed up by smooth talkers with books to sell”. The idea of a global parliament of cities is not new and, for sure, it is quite arguable (what cities don’t need right now is a new layer of bureaucracy), but the effort means to be noticeable and challenging, specially in that convulsive times post Covid-19.
Although the networks of international cities and their partners are usually committed to encourage the exchange of information, experience and best practices on urban development and city management, acting sometimes as a source of information for local leadership and a catalyst for debate, there are other rising networks of urban actors supporting a more complex and deepest strategy of soft-diplomacy, by considering the international relations of cities as a sophisticated, professional and urgent issue, where manners, influence and contacts matter.
These self-commited networks of Cities provide knowledge, inputs and practical tools to mayors and municipal offices wanting to engage in international relations and ready to address legal and institutional aspects of urban diplomacy, such as lobbying skills, communication tools, team building and relations with non-governmental actors at city level, and relevant partnerships with universities and think tanks).
Beyond the noticeable “question of size” and “west-centricity” in the latter state of the art of networked City Diplomacy (municipal networks shaping global governance have been dominated by European and American global cities, now challenged by the rising urban stars of Asia), we can find some relevant examples of networks of cities committed, somehow, to provoke and consolidate the emergency of an urban international agenda, like Eurocities, the United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) (“the voice of America’s Mayors in Washington”),the Euro-Latin-American Alliance of Cooperation among Cities (the AL-LAs Project), the C-40 Climate Leadership Group, the World Mayors Council on Climate Change, the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), the Global Mayors’ Forum (GMF), ICLEI – Local Governments to Sustainability or the RECI – Spanish Network of Smart Cities, devoted to sharing knowledge and good practises among its members, 54 municipalities of Spain, among others.
The wiser Local Leaders know it: there is room for many. If you can do it, do it with others.
3.- ALL FOR ONE: ‘CO-LEADING IS THE NEW NORMAL’.–
The days of the great man/woman’ are long gone. Despite the first wave of authoriarian Presidents and some incontestable trends around re-centralization of power around the Strong (national) commanders, after the Covid-19 blast, Global Urban Leaders don’t lead alone, they lead with others. Last, but not least, Cities are full of committed people ready to be engaged in collective challenges. Motivation triggers Collective Intelligence.
The New Urban hour requires of an strong commitment from the local leaders and their officials, and a ground based support from the city inhabitants and the rest of urban stakeholders, mixing pragmatic good manners and communication skills, and the ‘smart’ use of single messages and metrics (Big Data and Business Intelligence are of help) to transform the international City efforts in facts and figures to be understood by electors and taxpayers.
Beyond the current urban hypes and regular topics about how cities compete and grow, in a World in which international, national and domestic arenas blend together, less attention has been paid to the way in which cities are shaping the Global Agenda of Governance and to how Mayors, Counsellors, public servants, companies, entrepreneurs and other urban stakeholders are performing a true diplomatic role on behalf of a common urban interest. We can find many examples of municipalities responding better than their countries to urgent issues and challenges. From procurement (key in the post-pandemics scenario) to safety matters, smart local leaders are prone to addressing the current urban challenges through the lens of experimentation and lab-like focus, approaching problem solving to their needs, ground and stakeholders and opening the doors to collective intelligence and urban talent.
Get your Digizens (Digital Citizens) on board and challenge them. Motivation triggers Collective Intelligence.
4.- CITIZENTRISM FOR INNOVATIVE MINDSETS’.-
Cities are proved to be ground zero for economic, political, entrepreneurial & social innovation. By embracing a new vision based on Open Govt, Big Data, Smart Cities or Gig Economy, Urban Leaders are nurturing progress for local communities.
Some time ago, I coined the term Citizentrism, or Citizentric focus associated to my vision of a Smart City. The concept look at contemporary cities as ground zero for digital innovation and vibrant places for the meeting of talent, knowledge exchange and civic engagement, harnessing the links between place, technology, community and identity.
Citizentrism stresses the need for public and private stakeholders to put the citizen at the heart of any Smart City project, counterbalancing technocratic visions of cold and inhumane cities. But, what is equally important, Citizentrism is also the qualified condition of citizenship in the Smart and connected Cities.
What do I mean by this? That in a connected Smart City, where we can enjoy full access to ubiquitous internet and people moves freely through social networks, the role of citizenship is changing, and becomes richer than ever. Consider connectivity not only as a urban commodity, but as an incredible gift in the hands of individuals and groups that is strengthening their power as agents of change and making them fully aware of the city challenges and collective vehicles for spreading knowledge and innovation.
For that reason, if the Smart Cities are to be constructed around the citizens, the Citizentric condition for the inhabitants of the intelligent cities is achieved by playing a qualified role in the civic network, characterized by participation, civic engagement, territorial commitment and the will of sharing knowledge of creativity. It is the time for the #Digizen, -new Digital Citizen-, familiar to ICT languages and grown up in permanent contact with the culture of Internet (Open, Generous, Participative and deeply dynamic and curious), who becomes the link between the real and the physical city, improving the performance of citizenship in our full connected cities.
I such a context, policy making becomes so important for innovating and compete in the global arena of hyper-connected cities and territories. Politicians and Smart City stakeholders must have a positive attitude towards innovation and reasonable risk. The Smart City Plan needs to be built on three solid pillars: Vision + Project + Communication Campaign. Things need to be explained, and the sophisticated jargon in hands of the Smart City scholars is often hard and complicated, allowing critics to label the Smart City projects as arrogant and detached from the community aspirations.
In a post-pandemics World, a Mayor in search of new global opportunities for his city and planning to move to the Smart City paradigm, need to keep his hands firm on the wheel, but also to start questioning openly about the identity of the city, getting a proper feedback from the community regarding the common aspirations and their limits, trying to maximize the space for civic engagement from the very beginning.
Considering Smart and Innovative Cities as those where governments engage citizens by being open to be engaged by citizens, they are prone to supporting the co-design of technical and social innovation processes through a peer-to-peer relationship based on reciprocal trust and collaboration. A true innovative City adopts services that are born from people’s real needs and have been co-designed through interactive, dialogic, and collaborative processes.
The hour for the Govtech solutions and the rise of the entrepreneurial municipality are current trends to be addresed as the Alicante City Government is doing with the Govtech Hub to be launched within the local strategy Alicante Futura proves that smart governments are open to new ideas and proceedings-
Cities are proved to be ground zero for economic, political, entrepreneurial & social innovation. By embracing a new vision based on Open Govt, Big Data, Smart Cities or Gig Economy, Urban Leaders are nurturing progress for local communities.
5.- ‘THE RENEWED GLOBAL CONVERSATION: MAYORS, SOFT-POWER & CROWDSOURCED URBAN DIPLOMACY’.-
Against coercion and rude commanding performance, Soft-Power is all about influence, cohesion and appeal (image, brand, reputation). City Leaders and Urban Influencers are mastering in attracting and persuading others by using their soft-skills.
With many interests at stake, Cities, as the new Data Republics, are paving the way for the emergence of a brand new Person-to-Person Diplomacy, based in diffuse, dynamic and effective personal networks in which the exercise of power, in hands of committed politicians means eventual co-leadership and neglection of autocratic, ruthless and almost despotic performance.
As Global information flows, -and the Covid-19 afthermath is clearly proving that- informal alliances, social networks, person-to-person diplomacy are rising up, remarking their needs of an active role in the international instances where local interests are not much represented by central governments, are reinforcing the perceived need for cities to engage in city diplomacy by showcasing the values and merits of the City in a good storytelling strategy, to be spread mainly, by a new firmament of star-committed Mayors dealing with international agendas, events and foreign compromises.
Against the firm belief that a Mayor cannot lead remotely the City and its unique and urgent features, some mayors have taken the international engagement as a substantial part of their domestic agenda, linking both scenes on purpose. Sure, embarking on a new journey through the International Affairs arena –or supporting the previous one- is an strategic long-term decision for a City while a tempting and delicate choice for a mayor, who needs to demonstrate that the monies expended, the time devoted to, and the eventual trips abroad will be boosting the city’s profile and producing more than nice pictures and friendly press notices to be broadcasted.
In that context, my experience working with mayors and municipalities have taught me that good local leadership is one of the preconditions for successful City Diplomacy as well as a useful antidote against local criticism and mistrust, avoiding bitter tastings like the one reserve for the Cincinatti Mayor, Mark Mallory in his commitment with urban embassy “It’s not meant to just been seen in the city. It’s to be a global ambassador”. The multi- screened “Zoom Era” open by the Covid-19 aftermath is dramatically opening the chances and opportunities to committed and global cities to share their projects and vision everywhere.
When it comes to talk about joining up the global urban arena and its innovative cities (and their Mayors) are faced with a principal challenge: they have to accomplish that their efforts in this international field are perceived by citizens and opinion makers as a profitable job in terms of economic improvement and quality of life. The challenge for Mayors, aides and committed urban advisors is to share their enthusiasm about soft diplomacy and its benefits with the public and take seriously the hard task of making it accessible for every single voter, as sooner or later, accountability or re-election will be knocking the door.
In the age of social media, massive distraction and collective disbelief against politicians and institutions, it is all about metrics and ROI. Communication skills and civic engagement become crucial.
It was true until march 2020, but after the Covid-19 shock, City Leaders and Urban Influencers need to focus and mastering in attracting people, money and talent to their cities by persuading others with soft-skills and potent and believable narratives.
6.- STORIES WORK: ‘THE ALLURE AND IMPACT OF URBAN NARRATIVES’.-
Stories work, especially when aligned with identity and authenticity. Global Cities and Leaders are claiming to be green, smart, resilient, innovative, entrepreneurial, sustainable, equal etc. In a connected world of cities full of stories and narrative findings, the new local leader might look for his goldfield and tell others.
Local politicians, as its national counterparts (and especially those elected for the office), are under a 24 hours scrutiny which has been enhanced by the growing culture of transparency and accountability in public life, the unsolved tension between domestication-globalization of politics and the requirements of openness in the context of the hyper-connected networks of citizens. Any single decision taken in terms of governance (and going into the international arena is a significant one) needs to be explained to a widening audience made of local electors and a diffuse myriad of stakeholders ready to argue from the balconies of social media.
Covid-19 has relaxed temporary the strains over Mayors regarding internationalization matters as the local and current problems and recovery measures have been the only ones to be addresed by municipalities during the firsts months of the pandemics. Stated that, the upcoming scenario for cities and local leadership is expected to be changing as many cities around the the world will be forced to join the global competition to attract attention and goods and to find and pursue its alternative productive model (the monoculture of the niche of tourism, for example, is currently dead for many cities) re-adjusting their port-folio with new narratives and stories adapted to the coronavirus aftermath.
In the pre-pandemics era, and without a doubt, several Cities, like San Francisco, Barcelona, Tel Aviv or Berlin for starting-up purposes or Melbourne or Vancouver as livable cities, have succeeded in linking these new values to their global brand and reputation, using storytelling tools and collective urban embassy and digital influence to support and disseminate the message around the World. Nowdays, some ot them, specially Barcelona, due to the mix of reputational costs associated to the severe urban riots provoked by extreme independentists and the Covid-19 aftermath, are facing an erratic period in terms of attraction and global allure.
Appealing to saleable tags like Smart, Innovative, Open, Fab-like, Equitable, Sustainable Cities, or turning to classical tools like the Sister Cities programs, Cities are strategically placing themselves near the decision making processes, by engaging and promoting the action of an increasing number of stakeholders and eventual actors in the tasks of city promotion and urban branding, playing a significant role in the international arena.
The mix of new tactics based on the use (and sometimes abuse) of the Storytelling techniques, place-making of place-brandings or more subtle strategies (specifically lobbying) is helping Cities and Local Leaders to gain attention and relevance, in a world where quiet people (and territories) are supposed to be playing secondary characters.
Beyond the new post-pandemic classics around safety, healthy environments and good managerial skills, Global Cities and Leaders will be keeping their distinctive attributes globally, claiming to be green, smart, resilient, innovative, entrepreneurial, sustainable, equal etc. Dear Mayor, if they can do it, it’s time to find your narrative goldfield and tell others.
7.- ‘TRACEABLE LEADERSHIP: CONTEMPORARY COMMAND IS ABOUT BEING OPEN & TRANSPARENT, BUT NOT DEFINITELY INVISIBLE’.-
Accountability, openness & transparency are meant to be strong pillars of contemporary (Co-) Leadership. However, extreme exposition collides with the natural role of political leaders: take decisions. Don’t hide yourself before a shining and refractive light.
Under the 24 hours scrutiny siege-like of our days, no current Mayor would keep comfortable inby being compared with the “Night Mayor” James J. Walker — colloquially known as Beau James— who presided over the city of NY as elected Mayor in the 20th century golden 20’s; with an allegedly strong commitment with life, dandyism and the mundane pleasures, Mr. Walker become a symbol of the jazz age romanticism and personified the city’s rebellious attitude against social restriction. Last but not least, during his first two years in office in NY was said to have taken seven vacations totaling 143 days, not too bad for a mayor of the Big City. In our days, the script seems to be quite different.
Globalization, the Internet revolution, the epidemics of accountability and transparency and the (at least perceived) collective empowerment of citizens are long term trends that are changing the macro context of political and organizational leadership, also regarding the Cities level. In the context of this new time for a choral and soft Urban Diplomacy, the global conversation and performance demand strong professional commitment for Cities and their structures, and a new kind of leadership and global skills for Mayors and their advisory teams, as successful leaders are using a more integrative and participatory manner that places greater emphasis on the soft power of attraction rather than the hard power of command.
However, extreme exposition collides with the natural role of political leaders: take decisions and cope with them.
In an essay published in 2013 in the Guardian, Jonathan Franzen claimed against what he sees as the shallow and superficiality of the new online culture. “With technoconsumerism,” he wrote, “a humanist rhetoric of ‘empowerment’ and ‘creativity’ and ‘freedom’ and ‘connection’ and ‘democracy’ abets the frank monopolism of the techno-titans; the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic, and it’s far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people’s worst impulses, than newspapers ever were.”
In his acclaimed essay “The Transparency Society” (2015), Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han denounces the Imperium of Transparency and its dangerous threats to contemporary democracy. Sure, Transparency as a term or a slogan, dominates public discourse about corruption and freedom of information. Considered crucial to democracy, it touches our political and economic lives as well as our private lives. Anyone can obtain information about anything. Everything—and everyone—has become transparent: unveiled or exposed by the apparatuses that exert a kind of collective control over the post-capitalist world.
Yet, transparency has a dark side that, ironically, has everything to do with a lack of mystery, shadow, and nuance. Behind the apparent accessibility of knowledge lies the disappearance of privacy, homogenization, and the collapse of trust. As Byung-Chul Han warns, transparency whets an insatiable appetite for uncovering and disclosure, promoting a society of nakedness or shamelessness that verges on pornographic. The sense of life becomes inflected with performance and display, and this devalues intimacy. Last, but not least, the aggressive dialectic of transparency, which presumes disclosure, excludes the possibility of (democratic) trust. Trust can only occur in a society that allows for the possibility of concealment, decision making and eventual mistake.
The anxiety to accumulate ever more information does not necessarily produce more knowledge or faith. Technology creates the illusion of total containment and the constant monitoring of information, but what we lack is adequate interpretation of the information. In this essay, Byung-Chul Han denounces transparency as a false ideal, the strongest and most pernicious of our contemporary mythologies.
Byung-Chul Han ideas found a lighter precedent in Dave Eggers page turning novel “The Circle”, where Mae Holland, a woman in her early 20s, who secures a job at the vast techno-sexy social media company, the Circle, a mixed reincarnation of Facebook, Google, Twitter, PayPal and every other big online conglomerate to whom we have so far trusted our lives. Under the motto “Secrets are Lies”, “sharing is caring,” and “privacy is theft”, The Circle poses some relevant issues regarding democracy and contemporary hyper-sociability under our eyes.
The novel tracks her own integration into the day by day and dense philosophy of the Circle, gradually illuminating a deeply disconcerting vision of how real life might soon be chased into hiding by the tyranny of total techno-intrusion and complete real-time transparency. The techno paradise become an Inferno, instead. Mae, herself, ends up suggesting that an account (controlled by) with The Circle should be made mandatory by the government, this being the most effective way to increase vote turnouts. The novel evokes some perturbing ideas about the social construction and deconstruction of privacy, the increasing corporate ownership of privacy, and about the effects such ownership may have on the nature of Western democracy and their leaders, who are forced to be under a full 24/365 scrutiny of their voters.
Meanwhile, the Circle continues to develop a range of sophisticated technologies, including SeeChange: light, portable cameras that can provide real-time video with minimal efforts. Eventually, SeeChange cameras are worn all day long by politicians wishing to be ‘transparent’, allowing the public to see what they are seeing at all times.The dystopia of the Circle should sound familiar, as many of the issues suggested in the novel are well known and quite disturbing nowadays: the tyranny of transparency, personhood defined as perpetual presence in social networks, our strange drive to display ourselves, the voracious information appetites of Google and Facebook, our lives under the constant surveillance and the relationship between government, transparency and Leadership.
Are the Leaders of our 21st century supposed to be full and completely transparent for the shake of democracy? Have we, the audience/electors the right (and attention) to know and track the forge of any single decision taken by our politicians?
How this life under real-time surveillance and extreme exposition will affect the essence of democracy and delegation of power?
Are we giving birth to a contemporary and dull specimen of democracy where elected leaders are subjugated by the tyranny of transparency, accountability and extreme control where nobody dares to decide (and do eventually wrong) because of the social impact and immediate repercussion of political decision making?
The natural role of political leaders is to take decisions and cope with them. Extreme exposition collides with that.
I used to say that there are Governments so transparent that they have become absolutely invisible. The pandemics have proven that becoming transparent is not an option in terms of leadership and public interest.
8.- ‘IN THE AGE OF PLASTIC POLITICS, TRUTH AND REPUTATION ARE THE NEW GEMS’
In a hyper-connected world of non-stop public scrutiny where people make choices following digital rankings, Urban Leaders have learnt that reputation, identity and sense of belonging matter. True Leadership rests on good (and refined) intangible values.
If plastic has being undoubtedly pointed out as guilty of Mother Nature’s decline, this same plastic, in the form of micro particles spread everywhere, is subtly polluting the global performance around Politics. The arrival of this era of Plastic Politics, una Política de Plástico sped-up by the digital over-exposition and the slickness and short-term pragmatism that reaches all the angles of contemporary leadership, becomes especially acute when it comes to proclaim global commitments (the World is watching us) in social networks that don’t match with the lack of room to defend it domestically or the absence of elemental political consensus to implement it at home. Don’t let reality ruin your timeline on Instagram.
Fake news, dark manipulation of public opinion and crafted and toxic messages impulsed by sophisticated Artificial Intelligence tools and massive spread of hate and lies on social media are wasting the political realm as never before, with influential political leaders mastering the art of disinformation and untruth.
Local politics and urban leadership cannot escape from this sticky and oleaginous network of lies, putting municipal politicians before some unexpected scenarios that require of specific skills and prepared teams of advisors.
The case of the managing of the first wave of the Covid-19 is paradigmatic. While some cities and mayors have coined a solid reputation as pragmatic and good leaders in providing agile and positive responses to the coronavirus stuff others, for diverse and complex reasons, have sunk to the deepest abyss in terms of prestige and confidence, making these cities and their governments so vulnerable to the current global alarms and to appear as not reliable or trustworthy.
Working alone or joining new collaborative platforms of influence with their counterparts, Cities, regardless of their size, are linking the domestic agendas of governance with the universal challenges of massive urbanization, sustainability, economic growth and security, opening the door for the reinforcement of an international Urban Agenda and promoting the rise of new international urban-based ‘currencies’ as innovation, reputation, talent and other valuable intangible assets and other Soft-Power by-products.
We are living the golden age of ‘urban’ seduction, as cities, urban challenges and not few concerns about growing population and limited resources for municipalities have become a popular topic for public discourse, managerial talk and political debate.
Back to 2016, writer David Roberts, retains the honor of having coined the phrase “post-truth” meaning that (in public sphere arenas) truth has become irrelevant. Some leaders are definitely showing indifference to whether what they say is grounded in reality or evidence. It was David Roberts to say that nowadays, “There are no more referees. There are only players.” As Jonathan Friedland wrote months ago in the Guardian, “Technology has clearly played a part. Social media allows fact deniers to spread their anti-history fast and wide. Distrust in elites is also central. People are no longer prepared to take their leaders’ word on trust”.
In a hyper and infoxicated connected world, and despite the importance of truth in terms of democracy, reputation and other intangible values arise as extremely valuable and fragile assets in terms of Leadership, deserving more attention now than ever. Smart Mayors and Global Cities are mastering in the field of strengthening the structure of identity, sense of belonging and reputation of their territories,
This new time for the choral Urban Diplomacy demands strong professional commitment for Cities and their structures, a new leadership and global skills for mayors and their advisory teams, the help of a growing number of connected urban stakeholders and the smart use of the new digital tools and social networks and influencing as ‘weapons of mass diffusion’ of the merits and virtues of Cities and their strategies.
Likewise, the new engagement and intensified interaction between cities, their leaders and the legion of urban influencers moving freely in social networks and digital context is coining a new standard of global exchange on urban issues and shared concerns which is made of intangible values, trust, respect and (win to win) shared experiences, calling up many municipalities and their mayors to the international stage of policy making and discussion. Far from the classical role given to Mayors giving enthusiastic welcome to celebrities or their performance as leaders of large business delegations to promote export opportunities and emphasize the advantages of their cities for foreign investment, a new global urban leadership is emerging everywhere, for which the sophisticated mix of intangible narratives and tales, personal good manners, professional focus, influence and contacts definitely matters.
In the process, cities have become the scenarios of the global economy, acting as magnets for the new hyper-connected communities of Digizens and playing a singular role as hubs of innovation and source of universal flows of information and data produced by people, things and the interaction between urban actors. Not in vane, many key voices in urban studies like Peter Hall have steadily argued how the story of humanity is a story of cities, subtitling the impact that cities are having on an increasingly globalized world. In the context of the renaissance of the position of urban entities as dynamic places for social innovation, hybrid coexistence between real and digital layers that intersect and house for new challenges regarding governance and new leadership, Cities perform the role of true new Data Republics, expanding their policy reach to all levels of global governance, from the most localized spheres of municipal and domestic affairs to globalized issues such as climate change, security, new democracy or economic exchange.
In addition to this, cities are endorsing and promoting the rise of new international urban-based ‘currencies’ as innovation, reputation, livability, talent and other valuable intangible assets, (safety, sanitary strenght and clean environments are gaining momentum as urban properties after the Covid-19 pandemics) pushing municipal offices and local leaders to play a major role in the international arena. As a result of this global trend, we are facing the arrival of a new era of single or multi-lateral urban international relations, made of a mix of the steady commitments of devoted mayors, the oriented activity of several networks of cities, the global interaction of multiple digital stakeholders and urban advocates and the diffuse activity of a bunch of respected new social media influencers, ready to cooperate with municipal causes on the basis of diverse agreements and compensations.
Urban Leaders have learnt that reputation, identity and sense of belonging matter. True Leadership rests on good (and refined) intangible values.
9.- THE HOUR OF A ‘MULTI-SCREEN & FULL DIGITAL URBAN LEADERSHIP’.-
From personal isolation to collective agendas, information and emotions shift along screens and devices, giving shape to a new marketplace of attention. Global Urban Leaders are mastering in the use of transmedia tools to engage with audiences.
“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”
Effective communicators must adopt the new model— many-to many, multi-dimension, and multi-authored—that moves along the universe of devices, screens and part-time attention of a diffuse digital audience. Multi-screen/Transmedia storytelling is basically telling a story through multiple media channels, and politicians and leaders must use it as a new tool for connecting and engaging variable and hybrid audiences.
As Transmedia storytelling creates a storyworld with different entry points, messages and communication flow into each other using transmedia storytelling. The connection between audience and communication is achieved through relevant content, which becomes key for the new and effective leadership.
Local leaders are starting to use this transmedia storytelling tool and focus, going after their audience through the pervasive world of screens and digital devices and engaging them with relevant, interactive and interesting entry points. Paris, London, Berlin, Madrid, or Barcelona (and many other cities in that post-pandemics aftermath) are speeding up their race to become completely digital in terms of Goverment and interaction with citizens and corporations.
Digitalization of public services, the quest for data-driven Governments and the emerging trend of Govtech as a global hype are helping in widening the audiences of local politics and the number of recipients of the scents and allure of urban leadership, something that is been used with intelligence and pragmatic approaches by several local politicians and cities, so active and vibrant in social media debates and transmedia interactions with their citizens and voters.
Take for instance, a success story around the work of Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London, Prime Minister of UK and partial-time writer, who gave birth to the bestseller biography “The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History” (2014), where the blond and disheveled British politician explores what makes up the ‘Churchill Factor’ – the singular brilliance of one of the most important leaders of the twentieth century.
Taking on the myths and misconceptions along with the outsized reality, (and without denying some subtle attempts to draw a parallel between himself and Winston Churchill) Boris Johnson presents Churchill as a passion-a man of multiple contradictions, contagious bravery, breath-taking eloquence, matchless strategizing, and, then, a deep human Leader.
The relevant and innovative thing here is that Boris’s Johnson book is accompanied by an exciting and dynamic Churchill app which Touch Press, an award-winning British software developer, released in 2014. Entitled Think Like Churchill, the app worked like an interactive graphic novel, where the user was invited to test their decision-making abilities against Churchill’s own crucial decisions made at five key moments in his life; the player’s choices are then analysed and evaluated. Narrated by Boris Johnson, the app was considered as highly educational and historically accurate because it was written in conjunction with the Churchill Archives Centre and provides exclusive access to more than 70 original documents including secret intelligence, personal letters, telegraphs and unique photography. So, according to the cursus honorum deployed by the pragmatic conservative politician after leaving the London mayoralty, Boris, the part-time brexiter did it.
From personal isolation to collective agendas, information and emotions shift along screens and devices, giving shape to a new marketplace of attention. Global Urban Leaders are mastering in the use of transmedia tools to engage with audiences.
10.- ‘GENUINENESS AT COMMAND: TRUE LOCAL LEADERS HAVE HROWN THEIR MASK AWAY’.-
Loved or hated: Anne Hidalgo (Mayor of Paris), Michael Bloomberg (NY), Boris Johnson (London) or José Luis Martínez-Almeida (Madrid) built up their legacy by being authentic & loyal to themselves. Copy & paste instagram-like politicians are the new normal but we don’t like them.
In 2013 journalist Richard Greenwald wrote the nice piece “Why Is ‘Authenticity’ So Central to Urban Culture?”, in The Atlantic, affirming that It is little wonder, then, that we seek out spaces, food, and clothes that affirm a sense of realness and rootedness. The more alike we become, the thirstier we are for perceived individuality. And in crowded cities, being an individual means being rooted in modern notions of authenticity (…) In the modern age, our leisure activities, purchases, and appearance defines us. But we must be careful not to become a society that recycles someone else’s authenticity as our own. We are on the verge of being unable to recognize the real unless it is pre-packaged for us. In doing so, we miss the organic connection to the moments, people, and places that make urban living so exciting and creative”.
Covid-19 has been a global leadership crusher with no comparison. In today’s world of distrust, huge interrrogants and ruthless competition, it’s never been more important to remain distinctive and original. People assume that if you have no clear identity, it means you have no clear value proposition. Staying true to your authentic self is crucial – both personally and in business. Against the global forces of homogenization and the universal appeal to copy and paste characters and personalities, successful Cities and their leaders remain loyal to their roots and vision by promoting and spreading them everywhere, against all the odds and inertial forces.
From the delirious Paris-like landscapes rising up in China’s new developments, to the pre-cooked designs and narratives for cities to be picked-up from the global Deli of Storytelling, tags and surnames for countries evoking global attributes unfit for them, Cities and their Governments are always exposed to embrace imposture and split personalities, driving them to emptiness and severe mistakes.
In a moment in which people are re-considering many aspects of their lifes (residence, work, places to grow-up a family and a life with dignity and safe conditions) the global competition between territories to attract people, business and oportunities is about to become more crude and open than ever to new actors, with medium-sized cities gaining positions and influence as key destinations for a future where remote work, open access to clear spaces and air and to essential services is becoming a global trend (now under the tag of the “15 minutes city”, aka, polycentric city).
In that context, identity and authenticity are crucial for Cities and their leadership, and fake copies and unconvincing territorial leaderships and narratives will be penalised. “Instagram urban planning,” tactics, with cities hidden behind filters and false perspectives are absolutely out of context in the post Covid-19 era.
So, be yourself. Copy & paste instagram-like local leaders are definitely not cool.
[To be continued…]