Giving Them Something to Talk About

The Global Cities Dialogue gathers cities from five continents to learn about and exchange experiences related to information technology.

by / December 12, 2000
By Bryan M. Gold | Contributing Editor

The Global Cities Dialogue gathers cities from five continents to learn about and exchange experiences related to information technology.

The Global Cities Dialogue (GCD) is more than simply a dialogue. Launched in 1999, the GCD brings together cities, such as Phoenix, Madison, Santiago, Antwerp, Stockholm and Prague, to find and develop ways to make information technology accessible to everyone. The GDC Web site states, "The GDC, as a powerful and multilateral network, initiates and supports joint ventures between local communities, helps link cities to the private sector and tries to implement sustainable transfer mechanisms for best practice of information technology."

According to the Declaration of Helsinki -- which was signed at the European Information Society Technologies Conference in Helsinki, Finland, in November 1999 -- participants in the Global Cities Dialogue believe "cities are essential to the process of building a fair information society because they are the geographical, political, socio-economic and cultural entities where millions live, work and directly exercise their rights as citizens and consumers." Additionally, "the effective creation and implementation of information society technologies in our diverse societies has the potential to improve."

Admission to the Global Cities Dialogue requires a signature from a citys mayor. According to organization officials, a mayors involvement enhances the organizations visibility and political relevance because it ensures that one of the citys key decision makers is aware of the GCD. The organizations connection with other organizations and their events, such as the Asia Pacific Cities Summit to be held next May in Seattle and the second Stockholm Challenge the following month in Sweden, has raised the international awareness of its members.

Learning from Each Other

Seattle, a charter member in the Global Cities Dialogue, sees itself as a teacher and a student of the problems and solutions of information technology.

"Its an honor for Seattle to represent the United States," said Mayor Paul Schell. "Because our Web site is seen as a leader in city government within the United States, I believe we have some knowledge and insight to offer others.

"More important for me, however, is the opportunity Seattle has to learn from others," added Schell. "For example, the worlds developing nations have far greater challenges in addressing the digital divide than we do. But the divide is a problem here, too. By taking part in the Global Cities Dialogue, we can learn by example from other cities how to approach our challenges in reaching out to our disadvantaged citizens. We can also learn more from our international Global Cities partners about the Webs impact on citizen dialogue with their own democracies. Seattle can find new ways to be more inclusive and innovative so more of our residents are involved in our democracy."

"These days, American cities seem to be focused on service delivery and payments. Outside the United States, cities seem to be more focused on how the Internet affects democracy and citizen interaction with government," said Rona Zevin, Seattles director of interactive media and a contact for the Global Cities Dialogue. "I have met with at least one group from Europe or Asia every month for the last several years, and have lots more contact by e-mail, and this is a consistent theme. Sharing with my peers in the United States has been invaluable, as we are all dealing with the same issues -- each department wanting its own URL, advertising, outside links policies and Internet filtering.

"But long term, the impact of the Internet on government is going to be profound in the way it relates to its citizens," added Zevin. "So the opportunity to talk and share information [internationally] about this has been invaluable."

The U.S. members of the Global Cities Dialogue arent just involved for political reasons. They join to exchange ideas and learn better ways to use information technology.

"With my digital pager, I have access to more information on my belt than our police officers have access to in their squad cars. And thats wrong," said Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza during his state of the city address in April. "As mayor, I make a thousand decisions a day. But do you know how many of those decisions are life and death? None. A police officer also makes a thousand decisions a day. Do you know how many of those are life and death decisions? Too many. And thats why they deserve all the information we can give them."

Madison, Wis., might be among the surprise members of the Global Cities Dialogue, but it clearly has a need, since until recently, the city was more widely known for being one of the best places to live and among the best small cities for families than for its emphasis on technology.

"Technology is changing rapidly and Madison is not at the cutting edge," said Mayor Susan J.M. Bauman in July, during her state of the city address. "I find it very disheartening to be able to renew my automobile registration via the Internet but unable to do the same with my bicycle registration.

"To remedy this, I have formed an e-government staff team. I will be preparing a report to the council, which will indicate when Madisonians might be able to pay water bills, traffic tickets, bicycle registration fees, dog license fees and the like over the Internet," added Bauman. "We are also working on a project whereby police accident reports will be available online. In a community that was designated the most wired in the country, we should be further along."

Madison is likely to move further along by being a part of the Global Cities Dialogue. Phoenix has used its membership in the organization to help Arizona escape from Californias long shadow. Seattle has seen benefits through networking -- the old-fashioned kind.

"We know our Web site is a model for cities all over the world, because we have frequent international visitors and e-mail requests for assistance," said Seattles Zevin. "The Global Cities Dialogue seemed to be a chance to share with others what we have learned and to learn, in exchange, from them."

Bryan M. Gold is a writer based in Washington, D.C.