A data-led renaissance in city twinning

Some may think that the era of ‘twin towns’ or ‘sister cities’ is over. But in our globalised innovation economy, city twinning is having a data-led renaissance – and the UK and South Korea are leading the way.

This article features in the first edition of the Connected Places Magazine

It’s a story that begins and ends with cities as the engines of national growth. According to the World Bank, more than 80% of global GDP is generated in cities. By halfway through this century, three out of four of us will live in cities.

Cities are not just our past, they’re also our future. But we don’t always recognise that.

We know, for example, that cities drive economic and social change thanks to their concentration of people, academic institutions, and access to new technologies and ideas. But traditionally when we think of bilateral innovation and R&D partnerships, we tend to think at the national level.

For instance, countries will agree to cooperate. Missions are held between capital cities, and perhaps a handful of smaller cities are included where possible. That centralised model is now changing. Governments and cities around the world are recognising that economies and place are closely intertwined, and you can’t grow an economy without strong local leadership.

This is why the Catapult has been supporting the governments of the UK and South Korea in breathing life back into the idea of city twinning. It’s doing so using new data models and insights into the unique personality of a city’s innovation economy. And rather like a dating app, it can help match cities anywhere in the world that have complementary governance systems, business climates, and innovation markets.

The UK and South Korea are highly developed, innovation-based economies. The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world, and the third top destination when it comes to private technology investment. Similarly, South Korea is an urbanised, tech-enabled society with a highly skilled workforce. It was ranked by the Bloomberg Innovation Index in 2021 as the most innovative country in the world. This is nothing short of staggering for a former agricultural economy that emerged from civil war in the 1950s.

Both countries also have a strong policy focus on innovation-led growth that creates opportunities across and between regions. For the UK this speaks directly to the Government’s commitment to ensuring the innovation economy is playing its part in levelling up growth right across the country.

The adoption of smart and resilient technologies in cities is also a shared aim for Britain and South Korea. So too is creating new markets for smart city solutions, regeneration projects and urban testbeds. This is why the Catapult is fostering city-to-city relationships. It’s providing UK and South Korean companies new opportunities to collaborate and to remove barriers to market access for small businesses seeking to gain a foothold in their partner cities.

But the unique ingredient is the new intelligence this approach offers. It’s now possible to analyse which British and South Korean cities would twin best with each other.

This is based on a rigorous understanding of:

  • 1The overlap between two cities’ performance and trajectory
  • 2Similarities in their internationalisation appetite
  • 3Synergies between their various projects and ambitions

Because long before the post-war town twinning movement, cities had been trading, exchanging and learning from each other for millennia. Our global economy began with the networks that connect cities. In fact, many of our cities pre-date the nation states in which they are located.

London is certainly older than the UK, or even England. Athens and Rome speak for themselves, and on the Han River near present-day Seoul, a city was first recorded over 2,000 years ago.

Yet Sejong only emerged on the map as a new planned city in 2007.

So perhaps the renaissance of city twinning we’re seeing between the UK and South Korea is as new as it is old – an embrace of the digitally-driven global innovation economy on the one hand, and a rediscovery of a deeper history of urban collaboration on the other.

According to the World Bank, more than 80% of global GDP is generated in cities. By halfway through this century, three out of four of us will live in cities as the world population moves towards 10 billion.

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