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Wichita Kansas
The Avenue

Against the trade winds, cities must stay the global course

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Authors

The tallest office building in Wichita, Kan. is only 22 stories. Metro Syracuse, N.Y.’s population is barely 650,000 people. The Des Moines, Iowa airport has one direct international flight. San Antonio is not headquarters to a major multinational bank. Thirty-eight U.S. companies generate more revenue than Louisville, Ky.’s entire annual gross metropolitan product.

These places are not ranked on any list of international influence alongside London, New York, Tokyo, or Paris.

And yet, they are global cities.

Their leaders have embraced strategic international engagement to ensure their cities’ futures, challenging the premise that being global belongs to economic giants, infrastructure gateways, financial services hubs, and cultural arbiters with legacy visibility.

Seizing this mantle remains an urgent task for cities in an increasingly complex, interconnected web of global value chains. Continued urbanization created new international competition among mid-size metro areas. Rapid technological change enabled extreme mobility of talent, invention, and investment. At the same time, the gravitational pull of innovation assets increased the concentration of economic strength among fewer elite superstar metro areas.

In order to compete, diverse city-regions are rediscovering their historic foundations for economic prosperity as centers of global trade versus coffee shops. The evidence is clear that greater exports and foreign investment are beneficial to firms, workers, and metro economies. Every region can—and must—be global in its orientation to take advantage of these trends, rather than be taken advantage of. But, as one San Diego leader observed, having a port or a border crossing does not make a region global. A proactive metro strategy to strengthen international economic connections and competitiveness is needed. Over the past eight years, cross-sector coalitions in more than 30 diverse U.S. and international cities have committed to action through research, problem-solving, and peer networking in the Global Cities Initiative.

These city leaders have embraced strategic international engagement to ensure their cities’ futures, challenging the premise that being global belongs to economic giants, infrastructure gateways, financial services hubs, and cultural arbiters with legacy visibility.

These metro areas began to redefine their position in the global economy—from increasing exporting firms to managing foreign investment, investing in infrastructure connectivity to cultivating and welcoming talent, establishing metro economic partnerships to projecting a distinctive identity in the global marketplace. In doing so, they helped unwind a narrative tying globalization solely to plant closings and foreign outsourcing, instead elevating the possible benefits of growth, innovation, and exchange.

Now this movement is being tested by tariffs and trade wars. Hopes to sign agreements with European and Pacific Rim countries have given way to uncertainty over the trade climate. Economists estimate the impact of this new federal trade policy cost billions of dollars in GDP and a double-digit decline in targeted exports. Firms and cities are questioning the value of staying this course.

But despite these headwinds, metro areas must remain committed to sustained global engagement. Cross-border flows of goods, services, and capital currently account for almost 40% of all global GDP, representing the reality that globalization is difficult to reverse despite current politics. To remain competitive and grow, history proves that city-regions must stay focused on their global fluency for the long-term.

The evidence is clear that greater exports and foreign investment are beneficial to firms, workers, and metro economies. Every region can—and must—be global in its orientation to take advantage of these trends, rather than be taken advantage of.

Over the next few weeks, we will provide updates on the innovations and lessons from this new breed of global cities. We will examine how metro areas expanded their export pipeline by motivating more firms to consider exporting and delivering better assistance. An economic developer will share her novel framework to focus on middle-market firms and assess their export readiness. We will highlight how the focus on global engagement leads to new relationships and structures for regional economic governance. We will feature how metro areas are making global activity core to their mainstream economic development goals, leveraging international connections and foreign investment to advance their sectoral specializations. We will outline how city-regions can identify and organize economic partnerships with global counterparts for mutual benefit. And we will share guidance from a new “global identity” pilot project on how a region can define and communicate its distinctive value to international audiences.

From Salt Lake to Stockholm, this diverse array of emerging global cities possesses distinctive traits, governance structures, and socio-economic realities. However, they share the same challenges for growth and prosperity in a global future. A continued commitment to international engagement and pioneering practices for global fluency must be their North Star for economic success.

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