Friday, 29 July 2016

Should Bristol set up a Citizens' Embassy?

All over the world, two things people know about Brexit are that Scotland and London did not vote for it. I'll wager the fact that Manchester, Bristol, Brighton, Liverpool, Cambridge, Cardiff and many other cities also backed staying in the EU is not well known.

Why does this matter? Well, some might argue that the vote to leave the EU has done huge damage to the UK's reputation and cities and towns would do well to make their intentions known. Personally I suspect this is a good reason to get things going (London is certainly making its case), but something which may not such a big deal in the end. The fall-out, though real, will eventually pass.

What is more interesting to me is the very low international visibility of UK cities and regions - apart again from Scotland and London.

Okay, okay Oxbridge and Liverpool FC and the Beatles and Madchester may all be well known, but they are specific topics. Very little of the contemporary politics or cultural identities of UK cities makes it abroad. In art, design, fashion and general 'soft power' they lag. I have travelled the world and seen substandard French or US design trumpeted in stores in Japan, while UK branding is generally restricted to a 'London' tagline. Partly this is because in some respects the UK's regional cities do lag, at least in a global sense, but its a chicken and egg thing. In an information age, the story of a place really matters.

With that in mind I think Bristol could think about opening some 'embassies'. Not real ones obviously, but paradiplomacy is a growth area and there is no reason why cities and regions cannot have their own cultural centres and trade missions. It could even be independent of City Hall - a Citizen's Embassy if you will.

Other UK cities might like to follow suit. Perhaps three or four could team up.

What would they do? Well broadly speaking they would fly the flag for the city, arrange cultural exchanges, promote the exchange of urban development ideas, and connections in science, art, music - whatever. It would need to be honest, not pointless tub-thumping or tourist board nonsense, and open for serious business and engagement. So far so boring. But it could go further.

It should be participatory. It could crowd fund ideas, and the means to support them. It could have a budget set aside to allow people from the home city a say in how they wish to be represented. When problems faced by the home city are being addressed they could be opened up, advertised as it were, to source ideas from the other countries or regions. Bristol has aspirations to be an open-data city. By presenting the data sets abroad and inviting citizens in other countries and cultures to address problems we might come up with new and exciting ideas.

Where would I put them? I'd probably start with two. Say Berlin, and Brussels or Stockholm. If it worked, a few more, in Hong Kong, Korea, Japan or North America. Since the idea would be cultural exchange, there would not be a specific need to always base in the largest cities. A city like Bristol might gain more from an outpost in Taipei or Vancouver than Washington DC or Shanghai, making links where they might not be expected.

Okay, perhaps its a bit of a gimmick, but there is a real idea here. Cities in the UK need to be representing themselves, and building on their cultural identities, more so than ever in the face of Brexit. If the story of the last decades has been the growth of the globalised metropolis, it feels as though there may now be a shift towards the mid-scale, independent but internationally connected city as the driver for cultural and economic change, and Bristol is well placed to take advantage. And think of it this way - Iceland has 22 overseas Embassies and Missions. It has half as many people as Leeds city centre.

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