The potential revamping of the city's 50-year-old program to include a short-term, strategic business component could revitalize the aging organization while expanding Palo Alto's fledgling "Smart Cities" initiative.
Smart Cities is a business-exchange project the city has been exploring with China and that staff hopes to expand to other cities around the globe.
On Monday evening, staff will ask council members to authorize Mayor Greg Scharff to sign a Smart Cities partnership agreement with Heidelberg, Germany, in October. The agreement would serve as the experimental model for how the new business/cultural organization might function.
City staff would collaborate with Neighbors Abroad and other community members to add the Smart Cities concept to new and existing sister cities. The hope is that the new focus will lead more community members to join the nonprofit Neighbors Abroad while advancing the city's business and technology standing on the global stage, according to a new City Manager's report.
Staff lauded Neighbors Abroad's significance, saying it provided cultural, educational and ambassadorial benefits. But given the mental shift over the past half-century away from a post-WWII psyche, the Smart Cities model could "attract a broader range of citizens to volunteer in their efforts," staff noted.
Palo Alto established its sister-city exchange program in 1963 with Palo, Leyte, the Philippines. Educational and cultural exchanges followed with five other cities: Oaxaca, Mexico; Enschede, the Netherlands; Linkoping, Sweden; Albi, France; and Tsuchiura, Japan. The impetus for these exchanges came out of the Sister Cities International concept created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 to develop peace and understanding between nations as a deterrent to war.
But in the Digital Age, as the hub of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto is being courted by other cities with an interest in technology and business rather than culture. And representatives of some current sister cities have expressed an interest in a more focused relationship, especially related to economic development, according to the City Manager's report.
Neighbors Abroad has received support from the city only peripherally, with use of spaces, help with mailings, and city officials participating in meetings with sister-city dignitaries. But the organization's lifeblood has always been its volunteers, with a vice president to lead each sister-city relationship. That leadership is aging, and although it seeks new volunteers, the program could be at risk if new leadership does not materialize.
The staff report recommended continuing city support for Neighbors Abroad while reinvigorating the organization and making the city's relationships more relevant to its business and technology goals.
"We can leverage our existing international relationships and add some new ones, especially those that benefit our city and enhance our position in the global marketplace," the staff wrote.
The city has recently begun following a separate track with business-oriented exchanges through Smart Cities partnerships. A November 2012 exploratory agreement with the District of Yangpu, Shanghai, China, resulted in a pilot business-related student-exchange program with students from Palo Alto high schools. Yangpu has also expressed interest in learning more about Stanford Research Park and developing relationships with its companies.
Palo Alto has been invited to take part in an October "Smart City" conference involving green-technology leaders in China to help instill 21st-century environmental ideas as China develops its industries, which could affect Bay Area clean-air concerns.
The city of Espoo, Finland, and its Aalto University is also interested in collaborating with the Stanford Technology Venture Program and wants to pursue an exchange of government innovations and entrepreneurship ideas with Palo Alto.
But the jewel in terms of a collaboration between cities and a pilot melding of Neighbors Abroad and Smart Cities is Heidelberg, Germany. The European city is home to several scientific and technical research institutions. Topics of discussion could include energy efficiency, cloud computing, interactive digital arts and gaming, nanotechnology, biotechnology and medical devices, sustainable development, "smart" cars and renewable energy. The two cities would serve as gateways to European and U.S. markets, the staff report noted.
The council will also be asked to direct staff to design a government innovation and entrepreneur fellowship with Stanford, with staff providing an update to the council in the first quarter of 2014.