The city signed its first sister agreement in 1963 with Palo, Leyte, Philippines, and the focus at the time was on cultural and educational exchanges. The same principles applied the following year, when Oaxaca, Mexico, became the second city to join Palo Alto's international family, and in the subsequent four decades, when Enschede, Netherlands; Linkoping, Sweden; Albi, France; and Tsuchiura, Japan, joined the roster of municipal siblings.
These days, as Palo Alto basks in its status as a global leader on climate change and technological innovation, officials have different priorities. Under a new model for partnerships that the City Council discussed Monday, the city's new international partners will function less like siblings and more like business partners. Bonds will revolve around "mutually established metrics" relating to entrepreneurship, information technology, online public services and "smart mobility." Coordination would come from the city manager's office rather than Neighbors Abroad, the nonprofit organization that has been managing the city's cultural-exchange program. And unlike the sister relationships, these new partnerships wouldn't last forever. Economic Development Manager Thomas Fehrenbach described the relationships as "more nimble and less permanent" than existing ones.
Not coincidentally, Palo Alto's new partners tend to have more in common with the city than its sisters. In November, the city entered into its first "Smart City" partnership with Yangpu District of Shanghai, China, an area that is transforming from a garment district to a technological hub and that counts VMWare among its major employers. Since then, staff and several council members have traveled to Yangpu to tour business campuses and meet with government officials. More recently, six Palo Alto High School students took a trip to Yangpu as part of an exchange program.
Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd, who traveled to Yangpu and who is on a steering committee that is organizing the "Smart City" conference in China, praised the student program. The youth, she said, got to learn Mandarin and received a "global introduction to economics," which she called "very useful."
"I see nothing but other good experiences that we'll have as we pursue this further," Shepherd said Monday, moments after she made a motion to enter into a "Smart City" partnership with Heidelberg, Germany. Like Palo Alto, the German city brands itself as a global leader in sustainability and climate protection.
"I think we have a natural synergy with Heidelberg, Germany, because of our interests in green technology," Shepherd said.
The council approved on Monday a partnership with Heidelberg and agreed to explore a student fellowship program that would involve Stanford University as well as the city of Espoo, Finland, and the University of Aalto in Espoo. The idea is for the two cities to simultaneously create graduate-student programs with their respective universities focusing on "government innovations and entrepreneurship," according to a staff report.
The council praised both ideas, though members were less enthusiastic about two other staff proposals, one that would have sent a council member to represent the Bay Area Council at the U.S.-China Collaboration Symposium in October and another one that would direct staff to explore adding "Smart City" components to existing relationships with sister cities.
The council voted 7-2, with Shepherd and Liz Kniss dissenting, to approve the Heidelberg partnership and exploration of the Espoo fellowship program. Shepherd and Kniss backed the entire package of staff recommendations, including working with Neighbors Abroad to modify existing Sister City partnerships.
Councilmembers Karen Holman and Larry Klein both warned against trying to do too much at once. Holman said it would be "prudent for us to do this in a phased manner." Klein said that before the city goes further it needs to answer two questions: What are we trying to accomplish? What would success look like?
"Yangpu and Heidelberg are two big pieces," Klein said. "Until we see what they do, I don't see why we should start thinking even bigger."
He was also skeptical about introducing "Smart City" concepts to existing sister cities, many of which are not in a position to exchange information about best practices with Palo Alto.
"With Heidelberg, we're dealing with a peer city, for example," Klein said. "Palo and Oaxaca are certainly not peer cities economically. So if we wanted to do something with them and we can't be a peer, are we just trying to help them out? To sort of be a donor? Those are questions to be answered before we start spending lots of staff time or any other resources of the city on this."
The goal of Palo Alto's non-binding agreement with Heidelberg is to "exchange ideas and value, especially in areas of environmental sustainability and innovation-driven economic development," according to the agreement. Once the two cities build a "strong foundation, we will seek to create mutual programs with measurable results."
"These programs will target the areas of sustainable practices and community engagement, as well as the development, market introduction, and application of new technologies," the agreement states.