But it's the similarities between Palo Alto and Yangpu that the City Council focused on Monday night, Dec. 17, when it voted to strengthen its ties to the increasingly entrepreneurial district in Shanghai: namely, Palo Alto's rapidly growing Asian population and Yangpu's transition from manufacturing to high-tech innovation.
Two weeks after a delegation including Mayor Yiaway Yeh and City Manager James Keene made a pilgrimage to Yangpu, the council voted 8-0 (Gail Price was absent) to pursue a series of joint efforts with Palo Alto's new Chinese partner. These include student exchange programs with internships; collaborations between high-tech companies in the respective cities; and "Smart City" conferences in which city leaders exchange the latest and greatest strategies for efficiency and sustainability.
The quickly evolving partnership between Palo Alto and Yangpu was coordinated by the Bay Area Council, a nonprofit group that focuses on economic development. The group also steered the Palo Alto delegation through a three-day blitz of ceremonies and symposiums in Yangpu earlier this month. A slideshow of the trip, which the council saw Monday evening, showed Yeh, Keene, Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd, Councilman-elect Marc Berman and Economic Development Manager Thomas Fehrenbach attending symposiums, visiting universities, riding a high-speed train and participating in a signing ceremony for the "Intention Agreement" between the two cities.
The initial agreement, which the Palo Alto council approved in September, isn't the city's first foray across the Pacific. In 2009, the city entered into a "sister city" agreement with Tsuchiura, Japan (Palo Alto's other sisters are Palo, Leyte, Philippines; Oaxaca, Mexico; Enschede, The Netherlands; Linkoping, Sweden; and Albi, France). But while the Tsuchiura relationship is based on cultural exchanges and student trips abroad, Palo Alto has higher ambitions when it comes to Yangpu, which is not a sister so much as an economic partner.
The recent trip to China was a way for Palo Alto's leaders to test the waters and contemplate opportunities. Keene said it featured "nonstop bus tours" and "innumerable technology parks." Fehrenbach said it allowed the Palo Alto delegation to consider the direction in which to take the formal partnership.
The council supported all three staff proposals for next steps. City officials will engage members of the Palo Alto Unified School District in conversations about a possible exchange program, with the understanding that the program would not be paid for by the city. Yeh pointed to the popularity of Mandarin classes at Palo Alto schools; the fact that Chinese residents now make up 15 percent of Palo Alto's population; and local youths' hunger for internships as good reasons to pursue the program.
Keene, meanwhile, had more strategic reasons for advocating the partnership. Any Pacific Rim city concerned about being economically competitive should understand China, he said.
To that end, the council supported having Palo Alto participate in the "Smart Cities" conference, which is set to take place in Shanghai in summer 2013 before possibly coming to Palo Alto in 2014. According to a staff report, the conference would likely focus on partnerships in "innovation-driven economic development, green initiatives and community engagement."
Lastly, the council directed staff to engage management at companies in Stanford Research Park to consider collaborations with the Bay Area-Yangpu Digitization Park.
Del Christensen, the Bay Area Council's chief of global business development, stressed the similarities between the two cities, including a wealth of universities and large companies. Christensen's group has had a presence in Yangpu for the past three years. It would be willing to help set up a Yangpu office in Palo Alto, he said.
"They're very excited about the relationship with Palo Alto," Christensen said. "They really want to see something come of it — put some real teeth into this partnership and build a relationship with you."
The council's conversation about Yangpu also prompted a broader discussion about Palo Alto's international relations. Councilman Larry Klein noted the disparity between Palo Alto's proposed new partnerships (in addition to Yangpu, the council is scheduled to consider next month a formal relationship with Heidelberg, Germany) and its existing ones, which vary in nature and include less affluent cities such as Oaxaca and Palo, Leyte. Klein and his colleagues agreed to hold a full discussion in the first half of next year about the city's international partners and to create criteria for entering into new agreements.
"The point I'm getting at is, do we want to be a peer only, which is what we're talking about with Yangpu and Heidelberg? Or is there a place for us to be a donor as well?" Klein asked.
The council agreed that the city's newest partnership could present ample opportunities for collaboration, though the shape of these opportunities remains to be determined. At this point, Keene said, the partnership is a test drive.
"If nothing else, I think we will learn a lot of what it takes to build and sustain a relationship of this sort," Keene said.