GaWC Research Bulletin 415

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The Ontology of Global City-Region: A Critique of Statehood

P. Perulli*


Literature defines global city-regions as assemblages of economy and society looking for representation. The ontology of the global city-region is a “web of contracts” different and wider than in the national epoch, including global enterprises, services and networks. Their contracts (both written and implicit) are about flows: material (people, goods) and immaterial (services, knowledge). Any principal-agent theory is silent here, any state space theory is challenged. Forming boundless functional spaces the relational economy of flows has ‘critical’ impacts on the political space: a new theory of multilevel relational contracting is needed.

Key words: ontology, global city-region, statehood, networks, archè


Literature on “global city” has recently coined the term “global city-region” to analyse contemporary urban world. It is, as Allen Scott (2001) puts it, an assemblage of economy and society looking for representation. Global city-regions in Europe are constantly involved in European strategies. Yet their role in European policy-making is limited if not irrelevant. This apparent paradox will be explained by the interested role of Nation-States to be considered the representative bodies of “their” global city-regions. However, the ontology (in the sense of Foucaultian “ontology of the present”) of the today emergent global city-regions includes a different substance and nature than the old centralized metropolis of Nation-States emerged in the past (as well as of the “generic” and “endless” city of the urbanized third world).

Their substance is a “web of contracts” much wider and global than in the national epoch. In the past time the contract was principal-agent: the principal being the State, the agent being the city. Whose main role was to make on the behalf of the State: streets and social housing, schools and public green, local welfare and so on. Today the agglomerating substance of the global city region is “relational contracting” among actors which are global in many cases: enterprises, services, global networks, global knowledge, etc. who find their “place” in the global city region. Such place has a variable geometry and geography, functionally defined and no longer territorially defined in any administrative boundary. Such contracts are interconnected giving place to connective networks. Today it is often the case of “partnership contracts”, where the general interest has to be identified by participant actors, both public and private. The risk is that new public-private partnerships will be unable to protect the excluded, the marginal, those who remain outside (in many cases the risk of exclusion encompasses a wide plurality of social groups and interests).

The new economic base of the city

The economic base of the city is changing. One can start from two traits: the internationalisation of the economic systems and the flexible informalisation of the labour market and labour relations connected to a strong growth of the service economy. Hence the cities open to new geographies both of industrialisation and territorial development. The crossover between these two dimensions used to occur in the urban environment, today it extends over entirely new and broadened scales.

Hence the problem one needs to start off from is indeed the following: is the contemporary town or city still “installed” in a territory? As it certainly has been in its history: a point constituting a centre around which a world was built. A world that could be of different dimensions, but that certainly had a centre. Is the contemporary town or city still this? And, since we come from a world in which the same word - demos - came to mean people and territory, can we today live separating people and territory? On the one hand that is the town or city, on the other the flows (of activities made in the world and hence perennially on the move, of non resident, migrant population) that seems to be exponentially growing in all directions, within and between territories? Migrants are 191 million the world over, a small percentage of the world population. But of these 64 million are in Europe, 53 in Asia and 44 in America. In a country like Germany the workforce is 14% foreign, the figure is 17% in Spain, 12% in France, 16% in the US. The largest part of the flows is concentrated in the cities: in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Brussels between ¼ and 1/3 of the population is foreign, in London the figure is 21.1%; a 1/3 of the population of New York is foreign; in Toronto and Vancouver foreigners make up more than 40% of the population.

The second question concerns the region, that at the beginning1 is the result of an act that traces out borders that are sacred and impassable. Can this now be a region without borders? Because when we today speak of regions we are speaking of territories that have no precise borders, whose activities of production are a lot more delocated than in the past. Safe to say there are the region’s administrative borders, but these are now perforated and crossed by flows of all types and all directions. Any region, in particular those bordering on other countries, is affected by these trans-frontier dynamics. The regions of northern Italy are an example: the Ligurian ports are points of transit towards the North, Lombardy is a platform for people and goods on the move, and the logic of the hubs that attract and distribute resources and people involves the airports as it does the universities, the fairs just like the huge service centres. But the same goes for the other great European regions like the Ile de France, Catalonia, the Dutch Randstad, the large German Laender. Hence, from an administrative point of view, the region has no effect on the socio-economic dynamics that traverse the territories. And it is not by chance that territorial scholars have coined a new term, that is the “global city-region”.

What is the world made up of? It is made up of “global city-regions”, that are no longer cities nor regions. And what are they then? They are an amalgam of economy and society, they are mixtures (the theme of mixing, of mixed, of the place of opposites is typical of contemporary though as in J. Derrida). The don’t have a precise political or institutional representation: perhaps they are in search of the same. And tendentially they are “global city-regions” in the sense that the flows that traverse these territories are not territorially located, neither can they be confined in a city or regional dimension, but they are indeed global. Technology drives the world, immaterial and a-territorial as it is. Hence has this process of loss of places and centres, this deployment of ours, reached the point of impeding any margin, edge or limit to the global world? Have urbs and orbis come to mean “everywhere and no matter where”, as J.-L. Nancy writes? These are the questions we must ask in that, wherever we are positioned or “deployed”, we inevitably belong to this dimension. A dimension that certainly presents different characteristics according to the contexts, the continents. Without a doubt the European city preserves historic-political peculiarities, but this is the challenge that lies before us. At the 10th International Venice Architecture Exhibition held in 20062, this was the city that was shown. Not only were the Asian and South American megalopolises, seen in their ‘catastrophic’ physical and demographic expansion, placed on show, but also the European cites.

The global city-region

In the piece by Allen Scott that inaugurated the global city-region a table listed the first thirty in the world. Tokyo leads the way with 28 million inhabitants calculated in 2015, followed by many third world and few western cities (New York, London, Paris, Chicago). If we consider North Italy as a global city-region it would be up among the first places.

In Castells’ language one speaks of “spaces of flow”. The possibility of defining a city appears strongly undermined once the world can only aboveall be read as a world of flows, that belong to types of relations that escape control at a given point. That is to say the city can be a point, a node or junction, but these flows can in no way be identified with a spatial governance. And perhaps here lies the strongest impediment. Because throughout the twentieth century we thought that this spatial control was still possible in the form that the city fully took on in the last century, the metropolitan form. It was said that the governance and the control were entrusted to the city and its metropolitan forms: even in a highly articulate way (like the “thousand governments” of the American city) but all the same identifiable as units. It is in this point that the metropolitan intellect (Simmel) in terms of force capable of ordering a space, is most undermined. Today we see ever less spatial governance. Rather what we perceive before us is anomia, loss of capacity of governance, the traversal of flows of a physical, immaterial and virtual type in all directions. These flows do not follow an organized pattern, nor a form of governance. They are the product of market forces, of anonymous matrixes, of complex interdependencies. In some cases like that of the telematics networks or mobility infrastructures the most we can do is identify actors or decision makers who decide to invest in building a network. But the way in which myriads of actors behave, deploy, receive signals and use these networks defies any pattern or governance.

Here one has the old and new asymmetries that characterise the contemporary city. The main asymmetry to be tackled with is information access, which is highly selective. It is a matter of digital divide, including training and retraining and the creation of ‘smart’ communities not limited to privileged economic élites. In the case of Milan recent research carried on for the Milan Chamber of Commerce by Globus et Locus, a think-tank, has measured the large amount of firms which are excluded or under-represented in the access to ICT. The second asymmetry is about mobility, which is still more selective: those who can move and shift, those who simply cannot. Financial markets are much more mobile than countries and enterprises; this is why global cities like London and New York and their National governments protect their financial markets from regulations. Also multinational firms are more mobile than countries in which they are located; this is why multinational firms can play with territories through localization and delocalization choices. Among firms, big buyers can move more easily (and actively do that) than sub-contractors which are mainly local in nature; but also world experts are more mobile than their client enterprises; firms are more mobile than their contingent labour force; and so on. All this is “global city region”. It is a platform where firms can land and take-off according to their strategies. But it is also an interconnected network of enterprises, institutions and people reciprocally interrelated.

Who governs the global city-region? A mix of Europe, state, region, city? A governance without government? On a normative ground, governance mechanisms should include new soft agreements and new constitutional orderings. Soft agreements have to be managed by territorial governments and ‘secondary citizens’ (chambers of commerce and interest associations, citizens’ associations) to create a common understanding and common rules of conduct. This is a matter of both implicit and explicit contracting among different actors and stakeholders: think to human capital, externalities, and networks.

The attraction and the regulation of material and immaterial flows is the main issue to be governed. But in terms of flows we even have problems measuring and representing the same, because official statistics ignore the same: the persons and enterprises are counted and included but not the volumes or the value in transit in the territories. We haven’t got beyond the statistics of the Nation-State of the 17th-18th century, that which Foucault saw as the origin of modern sovereignty, while the contemporary world is that of global flows. The resorting to a morphology of “spaces of flow” would be even more useful. It is a matter of underlining these novel aspects, even if the flows certainly haven’t come into being today. F. Braudel already views the Europe of the Renaissance as a Europe of circulation of flows. All the same these were other flows, the dimensions were different and so too were the times, also in terms of the space-time relations.

Hence the main themes of contemporary reflection are the strong signs of a spatial crisis. In the era of global flows and disjointments the city risks losing out as a point that orders space, because of the phenomenon of deterritorialisation as well as creation of diasporic arenas the result of global migration. Hence one has to reflect on this aspect and what new models are emerging from the point of view of the analyses of the city. Neil Brenner3 asserts that the ‘cityness” of the city has been the object of naturalisation by urban studies, and that “city” and “urban” are not real or empirical elements but structural projects continuously re-created during the spatial production of capitalism. The units of analysis of “city” and “urban” are to be understood themselves as continuously co-constructed and reconstructed: the cityness of the city is a condition that is evolving continuously, multiscale and the object of strategic contestation in geopolitical relations, rather than an object or a territorially delineated site.

The risk of reifying the city turning it into a collective actor can be avoided resorting systematically to the analyses of networks. Cities are “networks of networks” of actors: companies in the productive network, persons in the mobility and communications network, institutions in the policy network etc. Hence only for simplicity’s sake do we speak of “city-regions”: in actual fact we are speaking of networks of networks as cited above.

“The city-region” is certainly a theme on which to reflect in the extended dimension today imposed by the economy of our cities. Does the “global city-region” of North Italy have a connotation that we can define? Is it a “city region”? Probably this is an interesting approach: more than a “city-region”, meant in the opinion of the Californian geographers that formulated this idea, it is a “region of cities”. A particular polynuclear fabric that thickens into networks that are ever less locally, evermore macroregionally (North Italy) and globally (towards Germany, eastern Europe, more and more Asia4) defined. But the “global city-region” of North Italy is certainly also interesting for its global flows (2.5 million foreign residents in 2008) that are dilating, that are growing and that are thoroughly placing the city-form as known up to now to the test.

Against the ‘generic city’

How can we try and start a reflection on these problems? First one has to highlight that the idea as to the uniformity of the contemporary city is more an ideology than an idea. Meaning that it has a single form that has been called the ‘generic city’. The generic city is one that has at last freed itself of its centre, of the slavery of a cultural fabric and the history of the same city, and has accepted almost like a liberation the advent of the uniform, indifferent space. This I think is the point that needs to be criticised. That is to say, even when faced with processes of transformation that see prevalence of a space of flows compared to a space of places, we have to maintain the idea that the city is a plural phenomenon. That is to say a single form of city does not exist. That a uniform approach to the city does not exist. Right from the beginning the city has always been at the same a holding back and a reaching beyond, it has always been “double”. And we witness a continuous differentiation and creation of new models of city. They are continuously reproduced by the changing conditions of technical-economic processes and politics. Thus in the era of networks, the models of cities tend to take on some characteristics of the new reticular capitalism: open models, decentralise, growing at the edges and not in the centre etc. Hence we should exercise a criticism of the position present in the practices that are applied to the contemporary city, that wishes to homologate, to uniform, to render a single form of city and reproduce it around the world. Even in the positions of scholar like Marc Augé there is the risk that many thoughts on the city converge towards the ideology of non-places. Or that is interpretable around the new vulgate of the ‘generic city’ or the ‘infinite city’.

We can respond critically these theories on the city in the era of globalisation with a true and proper research study program. And also with a true program not only of theoretical research, but also of political research. To this end it is a matter of trying to reason on a model that proposes several levels of reflection.

A first level is that which we practice every day the moment we act in the city, we live the city, we govern the city. It is the level of action of politics, one might say. And on this first level l would like to try and line up some focal points. The first point concerns the concept of local development. We have a rather limited idea of local development, because we often think that it substantially means something smallscale, that concerns the dimensions of our immediate quarter, our neighbourhood, at most the district involved. We have to move down to a model that is more committal that considers the variety, multiplicity, plurality, of which our world is very rich. From this point of view Europe is a true and proper permanent laboratory of local development, very interesting and also “contagious”. Because the models we have experimented with here (from the industrial districts to the company networks) have gone all around the world (think to America), yet we can also think of other models of local development in the same key in which we have thematised in Italy and in Europe. The local development of systems like the Californian ones –where a highly interesting contagion between Italian and American models has taken place – is a field of observation that could produce some benchmark models where the themes of culture have a central role. These are processes of local development drawn by cultural systems, because California is only interpretable – M. Castells and others have sustained – via the gaining hold of cultural systems that have produced forms of innovative organization of the economy, that in turn have encouraged decentralized and reticular forms of society as seen in the Californian model as well as in the Italian models.

There is a hard core under the theme of local development policies. This is an epistemological reflection on what is meant by “local”. Here perhaps one has reached a turning point, a new way of considering things to be proposed. That is the idea that the local is a structure that in itself contains elements of global. In other terms that the local is not a smallscale structure, but it is something that in itself already contains the global scale. And I think that the theme of the city under this point of view constitutes an extraordinary field of application. It has always been so: we should not forget that in our culture, after the tower of Babel the founding of cities and the multiplication of languages proceed hand in hand. Hence from the theme of local development one reaches the theme of the city. Perhaps here we can redefine themes of policy, of political action, dig deeper to see what families of models can be found and fielded. What is in fact needed is a plural approach to the issue of the city that questions the idea of uniform city towards which we are all heading. Hence one should again strike up the theme of the plurality of models of city, in the generation of models that we have behind us and which we should examine and on which we need to reflect. Starting from Weber’s theory as to types of towns or cities. This reflection is also born out of research studies, like that of L. Davezies on French towns and cities, on the basis of income that sustains the towns and cities. In it is demonstrated that alongside a ‘type’ of entrepreneurial city oriented towards international competitivity and that engenders a sizeable income in market activities a type of city exists whose income is mainly based on the transfer of public funds, public expenditure and pensions (Weber’s ‘pensionopoly’).

Indeed, now that it has abandoned its origins, the way the city is representing itself should be highlighted.

The city by projects

The city by projects means that this representation is defined by the interaction taking place in the city, following a path based on the idea of the project. We are emerging from a crisis in the planning models of modern rationality, when we thought that we would be able launch a network in the future and then turn back from there to be able to see what needs to be done today. This planning dimension has been dilapidated over the last decades. However a dimension for city projects can still be conceived, but of what type? This is the theme of strategic planning. It is about cities which appear to be able to withstand the impact of standardization or homologation, of the generic city that seeks to trivialize any form of construction, any form of thought. It is basically the city that manages to become a reflexive and self-reflexive structure. But how do you make a city reflexive? During the last twenty years in Europe, many cities have attempted to adopt strategic plans. An attempt at installing deliberative democracy, where the people who normally do not participate in public decision-making or who are submitted to the decisions of the representative type of democracy may instead be involved in attempts and experiments by the city to attain new horizons in terms of planning capability. But the idea that we can build future scenarios and then adjust them back to the present is finished. Instead of making useless strategic plans it would be better to subsidize pre-investment proposals for new activities that relate to the economy of an area (e.g. energy and environmentally friendly food production, venture capital, bilingual education, transport services). We need to rethink the project in a different focus, one of self-sufficiency. A project that does not have a scenario which needs to be maintained, but that is self-sustaining. What the development economist D. Rodrik calls self-discovery, the discovery by the entrepreneurs that certain goods and technologies, already well established on the world market, can be adapted and produced locally at competitive costs.

How does a city, an urban economy on its own effectively participate in the processes of distribution and growth in a global context? Cities can reassemble and connect up larger systems. Here the reference is to literature dealing with clusters. It is a theme that originates from the industrial economy, but one that is also very useful for those who deal with the city. Territorial clusters might be established that do not have matryoshka-like (state, region, province, municipality) dimensions: in fact those structures do not mean anything in the era of the space of flows, although they are still our institutions. It is the idea that territorial systems can reassemble themselves using cluster logic, contained in a word that pertinently circulates in Saskia Sassen’s recent book:assemblages. We should consider the present transformation processes as assemblages that border on the global and the local dimension. Indeed they are neither local nor global, but are a part of both. Another author who speaks of reassembling is Bruno Latour. What does social re-assemblage mean? Latour emphasizes the importance of rethinking society in general as a set of local sites. Latour is not directly interested in the theme of the city because he is a sociologist of science. But there are some interesting coincidences. He speaks of local sites where so-called global structures have been devised. It is thus a criticism of the idea of global uniformity. Here the importance of these local sites are highlighted. Indeed, in the issue proposed by Latour the macro or a micro scale, a larger and a smaller scale no longer exist. Because even the macro site connects up with other micro sites. Both of these sites are actually made in the same way, even if we think in terms of one being macro and the other micro. So the scale, this dimension we call scale, is today predefined: a macro-micro, a global and local scale. Latour states: ‘no, the scale is defined by those who enact the scale, the space, they contextualize each other, thanks to the transport of specific traces which travel by specific vehicles’. This is a metaphor rather close to the concept of network, but with an important novelty. Latour proposes to disassemble society departing from a global localization. The global is a modeled terrain where tangles, hybrids will form. And departing from this localization of the global there will be a redistribution of the local. The local structure in reality has also been pre-formed by other things, sites, times, actors. So in the end, rather than starting off from the place, we start off from the circulation between places. This is indeed very interesting. We are not starting from the place, from this place, but we start from the fact that this place has been made possible because it has been pre-formed by a number of other places, sites, actors, moments that have formed it: what we see is not so much the place itself in its definition, but the systems of movement between places that have made each of these places possible.

The result is a proposal which upturns the discussion on the construction of society, beginning from the idea of assemblages. Assemblages not only of territories but of policies: variable packages which are congruent with differentiated development strategies regarding opportunities and local constraints5. I believe that here there is something to consider when talking about cities. That is, whether the city can still be a point from which we re-assemble society, abandoning the matryoshka-like system of institutions contained within each other, restructuring new forms of societies, of interaction, of cities. Bridging the gap between cities and towns established by the institutions and cities and towns defined by functions: the former evermore distant from the latter6.

We need to start from beyond the scale, which we actually define, in order to construct. The scale of the city - medium, large or small - does not mean much compared to the system of transport and flows which become a major factor for territorial development. It seems to me that this is a useful and interesting research program to which we should commit our intellectual forces. In short, the fact that we live in societies where one can work on a program like this is a strong "defense" of the city and an antidote to the processes of abandonment, of delivering up cities to a process of homologation, and in many cases to the socio-economic decay of the same.

The relational-contract city

The new direction of research proposed here therefore concerns the connectivity of cities and the social systems they represent. We have been looking too long at cities as stocks of resources, comparing the relative importance of them in terms of endowment of economic, social and cultural capital. But we must now look at the city as connectivity: as nodes within networks of tendentially global relations. Following this approach, which is inspired by the lesson given by Jane Jacobs, the world is represented as a "blizzard of transactions" (Nigel Thrift), and this representation of flows allows us to go beyond the old image of the mosaic of local systems. P. Taylor (2001) has studied the network connectivity between global cities starting from the services (accounting, advertising, finance, insurance, legal, consulting) of 100 global companies located in 315 cities around the world, all exposed to globalization whether in central, peripheral and semi-peripheral locations. The degree each city is connected to the other, and to which ones, it is the dependent variable of the research study. This is an approach that has three levels to its network: a net level of interacting cities in the world economy; a nodal level of cities through which the network is produced; and a sub-nodal level of advanced producer service firms who are the network-makers.

Just mentioning Italy, what emerges from this research study is the strong position of Milan, which is in 8th place among world global cities, revealing an economic force that is disproportionate to its weak capacity of governance. On the contrary Rome is only 53rd, confirming itself as political capital devoid of a global economic role. The map based on interfirm relations also shows that Milan is more interconnected to North America and Asia than to some other European cities.

On this basis each global city region should develop a “domestic policy” and a “foreign policy” through alliances with, and not only in competition with, other global city regions. Think of a future Milan-Turin global city region largely including Lombardy, Piedmont, the Ligurian Ports. Or the Barcelona-Valencia-Balearic Islands. Or Marseille-Provence. Linked together these global city-regions would form a new platform structuring the main South European axis and corridor. Or Paris and Bruxelles, the Baltic region, the Danubian region and so on. A new economic and political geography of Europe would emerge based on cross-border, trans-national alliances. When it comes to global city regions, it is the field of multilevel governance, from the European to the urban levels that has still to be fully understood and developed by policy makers.

The relational-contractual ability of the city is hence the key element to be developed on the analytical side. It is a question of understanding the entirety of the contractual relations of the city: these are "many to many" contracts, both formal and informal, both explicit and implicit, as well as complete or incomplete. In economic language (O. Williamson) one is dealing with "relational contracts", in which the identity of the contracting parties is crucial, the contract open-ended, the documents are records to renegotiate the agreement, the solution of conflicts are based on social norms and codes of shared conduct. In philosophical language they correspond to "strange community contracts" (J. Derrida) in which the different participants involved know that their business is necessarily incomplete and unfinished, that like the prototype of the Tower of Babel the city is an incomplete construction.

These contractual relationships are not only exclusively typical of global city-regions, although here they are of major importance. Medium and small towns and cities can also be interpreted in a relational contract approach7. Indeed, both large and small cities can be studied as complete local societies, recalling Simmel’s lesson that the whole is a fragment, but the fragment can also be a whole. The contractual relationships to be investigated are larger and more diverse than those between state and city. Moreover it is not a question of horizontal relationships (between local participants and community-based) versus vertical relationships (between the central state and the city). These two dimensions are here intertwined and present together in forms which are often mixed, trans-local and transnational.

If developed in their potentials these trans-local and transnational contractual relations can free the city from what Charles Tilly has called twenty years ago ‘the prison of the Nation-State’. Seeing the dynamic relationships between the cities of large transnational areas will allow us to create new contractual economic and power relationships. To rewrite the logics of influence, attraction, competition that guide the behavior of local participants but also to some extent, on a different scale, of the global players who operate on that territory.

The contractual networks to be investigated are represented by businesses, groups, associations, supply chains, institutions, specialized centers, universities etc. The flows that feed these contractual networks are measurable flows of people, material and immaterial resources and services. The contractual relationships between firms, shared research projects, industrial co-design (joint design), contractual relationships that feed the knowledge flows etc. can be analysed and represented. A good example is the flow of human capital under training driven by contracts between Europeans and Chinese universities, knowledge flows through cooperation agreements established between the industrial research centers from different regions and countries. In these research studies we discover the power of appeal and relations between places, something often difficult to measure. Prevalently qualitative style research can then increase our understanding of the interaction mechanisms between actors in these relations. The importance of localization can also be measured by the presence of actors in networks that have been defined, alluding to the Italian industrial districts, new "hybrid collectives”8. Many actors are involved in the creation of new industrial objects as result of the assemblages of practical knowledge and heterogeneous theories and thus contributing to the development of a new product: the networks are made up of designers, market analysts, vendors and buyers, ‘developers' from research and development departments, craftsmen and suppliers. These hybrid collectives are interrelated and in constant interaction, this being both local and remote (but without the former there cannot be the latter).

This relational basis helps us better understand the geography of territorial governance, and which players are participating. In this dimension it is easier to understand and measure the flows rather than the stocks, and to build illustrative models similar to those that guide the most recent research on networks in other disciplines. These research studies demonstrate that a wide variety of network systems feature one law: that of being scale free. Thus nodes emerge that are hugely more connectable than others, true and proper hubs. While not having to translate computer science research into those of the social sciences, we may find similarities that help us better understand how cities work globally. City networks in this perspective are networks of nodes that have different roles and different importance. Only a few nodes have sufficient critical mass and an endowment of territorial capital (understood as a set of tangible and intangible assets)9 that would allow them to maintain global relations or develop extensive networks. Other nodes are undersized or shrinking10. These latter nodes however can refer to the former exchanging resources with them on a more limited scale, but going further via and thanks to the main node represented by the city hub. The contracts between hubs and nodes are worth studying. The city-hub has various functions to suit this purpose: they can be related to accessibility (road and rail, airport and port connections) and to receptivity (universities or specialized centers attracting students, tourists, visitors attracted by trade fairs, exhibitions and events) and international openness (various services). The combination between these different dimensions is what counts: the first places among the top European cities are held by those that have managed to combine a range of infrastructural, integrated transport services and attractiveness for businesses and individuals11. In this sense the resources of creative activities and services offered by different local work systems can also be compared. But we must go beyond this by studying the relationships between different nodes, though here it may be more a question of the lack of such relationships.

In logistics terms cities are "gates", nodes of "extended gates" which include ports, interports, retroports, inland terminals. A similar flow analysis must be made for airports, passenger ports, goods, trade, tourism and visits to cultural heritage sites and universities. In cognitive terms cities can participate in smart grids. This is about investigating the networks between and among companies. These are expressed in measurable relationships: partnerships between research centers and technological innovation (departments, associations, foundations, public research institutions, business centers, private research companies, service centers) needed to understand in which direction flows towards other cities, regions and countries are moving.

You can also study systems of systematic relationships of companies with their suppliers, companies with specialized services and the geographical origin of the management team. One can certainly and not only consider industrial manufacturing companies but also the service industry, starting from the financial and credit sector (what is the role of accumulated savings, deposits, their possible mobilization by banks? Do parasitic yields exist? Could measures to encourage better risk management by the banks be introduced?). One should also think about business services (what is the market for these services in the presence of a developed manufacturing sector, or in the absence of the same?). These are areas that are often part of multinational groups, providing an additional constituent to our understanding of extended networks in areas where businesses are located.

In this framework we also have the intermediaries and the development agencies promoted and financed by the public sector in various capacities, with the objective of proposing corrections and reinventions, to make good use of second-best instruments instead of using first-best badly12. This qualitative data allows us to understand the actual dimensions of the growth of firms located in an area: this may not be a growth in size, indeed it also may be of a relational contract type based on knowledge sharing via relationships of various kinds with other companies possessing complementary knowledge13. But these same data, referring to different contexts such as those in southern Italy, can lead to a better understanding of the dimension of crony capitalism, the contiguity between economy and politics and the seizing of the public sector by interest groups. In order to counteract these degenerative phenomena, a central-local industrial policy could work as a coordination tool for stimulating investment, socialising investment risks through appropriate safeguards.

The enterprises involving the new information and communication technologies play a particularly important role in the economy of flows. These concerns are by their very nature network linked. Milan is the main Italian hub, in the sense that it is the principal physical influx and departure point for main Italian Internet infrastructures. Yet Turin plays a special role in advanced technological research. Whilst small ICT businesses are developing in the metropolitan area including Treviso, Padua and Venice. Here is an example of a global city-region in the forming. The cities of southern Europe clearly suffer from insufficient growth of this sector. But why not take advantage of the fact that the broadband Internet connecting America with Asia passes through the Mediterranean? Mediterranean cities on both coasts could put themselves forward for the localization of global companies interested in finding convenient locations, where there is an airport and a good university producing engineers. No need to look towards India: That role could be taken over by Catania, Athens or Istanbul.

After these studies on contractual relations and flows we will have the tools to better understand the stickiness of cities, sticky places within slippery spaces, according to the very evocative image by the geographer A. Markusen (1996). We will gather facts to better understand the (in many ways mysterious) capacity of cities to attract and to create and add value14. Rereading cities, territories and regions in this new relational-contract focus will allow us to understand and reposition each city, and the networks in which it participates in the global system. Afterwards our task will be to map out the possible, and not overriding institutional arrangements that will facilitate development: those that D. Rodrik calls "the many ways to assemble these principles in institutional solutions". The capabilities to develop meaningful initiatives and intentions (agency) amongst and between the actors mentioned here represent a central aspect. In some urban situations such agency capacity in recent decades have been more developed than elsewhere (as is the case of Barcelona amongst European cities), while in other cities in southern Europe much less so. In such cases it may be useful to encourage the development of contractual-relational cities focusing on flows produced by exogenous shocks (direct foreign investment, tourist flows, a company-hub that relocates to the city). These flows could create opportunities for the cities considered to react against decline, setting in motion and virtually 'freeing' hidden or repressed local resources yet to be recognized and exploited.


According to Neil Brenner the space owned by the state is not filled, in the form of a previously empty territorial container, but it is produced and transformed through regulatory projects. The static view of the Westphalian state, a confined and self-contained arena, should be replaced by a dynamic and procedural state in which the state spaces are continuously reproduced. From this viewpoint, the city is a socio-spatial battlefield where different forces meet and confront each other, each one interested in its own prevalence or hegemony. The fragmented and widespread interests of concerns hide distributive games: in the image by Lefebvre picked up by Brenner, “is it not the secret of the State, hidden because it is so obvious, to be found in the space?”15. In the games played out in territorial space, the cities are more or less fragmented into different political jurisdictions, each one able to tax and offer services. We can see cities as “tax-service packages” set against each another. The individuals move in search of the most advantageous packages.

In this neo-liberal world the state interferes through reconfiguration of its own territorial borders within the new world system, and via the internal differentiation between territories. On both fronts spatial conflicts are underway: regions that claim greater autonomy or independence (like in Catalunya today), new institutional forms of local government, etc. Here the ever-changing geopolitics are put to the test: at times leading to real conflict. Then there are the forms of regulation of social relations using selective political geographic policies. In this sense the state often unconsciously affects social geography by promoting certain areas or by receding others. It did so during the urbanization process, via the infrastructurization of the world. It is still doing so today by designing axes, corridors, centres, nodes and networks which ought to drive development. The fact that such action is carried out by the state (as it was in the past) or rather by larger units, such as the European Union today, does not analytically alter the approach: the question is about forms of government, once national and today multi-scale, which occupy the space following mutating designs. Two forces are at work according to Brenner: on the one hand a tension between centralisation and decentralisation, on the other between concentration and re-equilibrium. The two force vectors are differently composed according to the phases of the cycles. Thus a phase of relative re-equilibrium, in which states and supranational governments saw to it that the backward regions and territories did not ‘lose out’ too much, is followed by a phase of evident reopening of territorial inequalities on both a macro and a micro scale to the advantage of the ‘winner’ territories. While a phase of centralisation of the resources seems to be followed on by a phase of more extensive decentralisation towards regions, territories and cities. In this competitive match the areas, especially the metropolises, that most count in the distribution of resources are reinforced.

A possible limit of Brenner’s analysis is his attributing the rescaling to statehood. It is the state that articulates, uses and spaces the territories according to its power, its possibilities for manoeuvre in the face of global capitalism. Hence one ends up by reproposing a state-centric analysis typical of the structuralism of the twentieth century prior to the rejection of the same by authors like Foucault. In Brenner’s view the state presents itself as a unity at the basis of the differences, while we can see unity as the product of the differences in long-lasting State conflictual representation processes16. The processes of crisis of statehood, of global polycentrism, of multiplication of the levels and the arenas of territorial governance, of global disorder demand an overcoming of the state-centric view. What we see is a polyarchic global world in which arché (which means both “ beginning” and “command”) no longer pertains to the national state. Arché here comes close to that sense given by Foucault to the archaeology of knowledge. The archeological method as horizontal reconstruction of meaning, the episteme of an epoch. The genealogical method as a vertical reconstruction of the past that has come down to us in the present.

The new polycentrism without archè (without being able to define a “beginning” nor a “command” in a unitary manner) is well covered by the French term mondialisation. But the world is lacking an institutional design that is capable of combining the forces. We are faced by a sort of world ‘without reason’, other than the permanent production of value as a sole creation of sense17.

The proposal contained in this paper has attempted to seek out an analytical perspective different to that of statehood, based on the emerging of the polycentrisms of networked global city-regions. These have been interpreted in this paper as networks of relational contracts, with a pertinent reference to the work Networks as connected contracts, by G. Teubner (2011). These are both formal (state-city contracts, strategic urban plan) as well as informal, implicit (relational contract and framework programs between the EU, cities and companies on subjects of knowledge, technologies, human capital) contractual networks, incomplete and open to the future (like the agreements on environmental goods and commons). In all these contracts the state is only a contractor in part, in many cases we are dealing with relational contracts between urban actors (both government and functional) and global concerns, networks and supranational governments. The state tries to have a voice in these contracts but its role is declining. For this reason the State, in order to maintain its political power, is now trying to recentralize when in the recent past it was required to decentralize. A theory of multilevel contracts would show the weakness of the state in:

  • new forms of government of commons
  • new forms of cross-border economic networks
  • new forms of global governance (rights, immigration, environment).

These are signs of the post-national prospects that has opened, in which the role of the “glocal cities” in formation could even be more important than that of the old Nation-States.


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* Paolo Perulli, University of Piemonte Orientale (IT) and Architecture Academy of Mendrisio (CH), email:

1. The etimology of the word region has been studied  by E.Benveniste in “The dictionary of the indoeuropean institutions”  and discussed  by P. Bourdieu, according to the interpretations alluded to above.

2.See R.Burdett, M.Kanai, La costruzione della città in un’era di trasformazione urbana globale, and S.Sassen, Perché le città sono importanti, in The Venice Biennale, City Architecture and Society, Venice, Marsilio 2006.

3.The ‘cityness’ of the city: what is the appropriate unit of analysis for comparative urban studies?, Lugano, Globalization of Urbanity, USI-Lugano, July 2010.

4. Since 2004 China has overtaken Romania as the first supplier country of northeast Italy (P. Crestanello, I processi di trasformazione dell’industria dell’abbigliamento veneto [The processes and transformations in the Veneto clothing industry], in “Economia e società regionale” 1/2008).

5. D. Rodrik, Growth Strategies, Harvard University, August 2004, explains that “first-order economic principles - protection of property rights, market-based competition, appropriate incentives, sound money, and so on - do not map into unique policy packages. Reformers have substantial room for creatively packaging these principles into institutional designs that are sensitive to local opportunities and constraints.”

6. A.Calafati and P.Veneri, Re-defining the boundaries of major Italian cities, Università Politecnica delle Marche, Economy faculty, working paper n.342, June 2010, talks about de jure and de facto cities, pointing out that the first dimension made up of laws and institutions is becoming more and more insufficient to include the design for economy and society.

7. S. Tosi and T. Vitale, Piccolo Nord. Public choice and private interests in the upper Milan area, Milan, B. Mondadori 2011, points out that in the study of local communities  “you cannot ignore studying the interaction taking place, local and translocal on multiple scales, with specific attention to the power relations which are formed”(ivi,p.23).

8. L.Parolin, L’innovazione nelle relazioni tra i nodi di un network. Il caso dei fornitori artigiani nell’industria del mobile [The innovation in the relations between nodes of a network. The case of craft suppliers in the furniture industry] in “Studi organizzativi” 2/2010.

9. R. Camagni and N.F. Dotti, Il sistema urbano, in Perulli P., Pichierri A. (eds), La crisi italiana nel mondo globale, illustrate the concept of territorial capital applying it to northern Italian cities.

10. Hollander et al. (2009) analysing decline using as indicator the  population decline in cities in the developed countries. It is an insufficient indicator. Lack of strong market demand and an abundance of vacant spaces is seen as an occasion for “capitalizing on decline to set aside land for recreation, agriculture, green infrastructure, and other non-traditional land uses”.  Thus the fact  that lack of demand is the main obstacle for development is overlooked.

11. In research on the competitive positioning of European “regional capitals”  as International hubs these cities appear in the following order: Dusseldorf, Genoa, Lille, Lyon, Grenoble, Turin, Stuttgart.

12. The thesis by D. Rodrik on Industrial politics for the 21st century (2004).

13. Research carried out by R. Grandinetti on medium-sized companies in northern Italy (in P. Perulli and A. Pichierri, cit.) provides the empirical base for these theoretical suggestions.

14. Taylor, cit.

15. H. Lefebvre, State and the Space (1978), quoted in Brenner, op. cit. p. 73.

16. On political theory of State representation see H. Hofmann, Reprasentation. Studien zur Wort-und Begriffsgeschichte von der Antike bis ins 19. Jarhundert, Berlin, Bunker § Humlot, 2003.

17. J.-L.Nancy, La creation du monde ou la mondialisation, Paris, Ed. Galilée, 2002. The term mondialisation was already used by Lefebvre.


Edited and posted on the web on 22nd October 2012