Onur Eryüce on How City Diplomacy is Helping Izmir Build its Global Influence and Soft Power

The Turkish port city of Izmir has played a strategic role as an important trading hub for thousands of years. But how significant is Izmir in the 21st century?

In this interview, Onur Eryüce – Counsellor to the Mayor of Izmir Metropolitan Municipality – shares with us the initiatives adopted by Izmir aimed at boosting its international presence and building soft power through city diplomacy. Onur also discusses the need to ensure the sustainable development of Izmir amidst rapid urbanisation, and the benefits of open data in making Izmir a smart city.


Onur, you are a leading advisor on city branding and city diplomacy in Turkey. Do you remember what brought you to this interesting field of work?

I can say that my career is very much based on my Master and PhD researches. At Science Po Grenoble in France, I wrote a thesis about the Turkish civil society and business organisations’ activities for integrating Turkey into the EU. The activities that I studied involve a lot of public affair practices and a lot of branding endeavours.

Following this academic research, I started working in Brussels for a public affairs consultancy, where I represented Turkish business organisations at the EU institutions and to the wider European networks. These works allowed me to combine my academic knowledge with experience from different fields.

I developed expertise in advocacy and location positioning. In 2011, I contributed to the founding of the Association of Social Democratic Municipalities (SODEM), which fosters strategic partnerships among Turkish municipal leaders and their European counterparts, thus bolstering the position of Turkish municipalities in the EU accession process. For the last two years, I have been the counsellor to the Mayor of Izmir Metropolitan Municipality.

In a few words, what is city diplomacy all about? And why do we need it?

City diplomacy is the practice of increasing the connectivity of your city with the rest of the world. This connectivity increases the social, cultural, economic, and technical interactions between the people of your city and the people of the world. These interactions lead cities into prosperity and a better quality of life.

Mass urbanisation of cities make people live, work, interact, and engage in political matters. Urbanisation triggers massive changes in a global society. The COVID-19 pandemic, global warming, loss of biodiversity have threatening effects on human civilisation.

Sustainable urbanisation and ecological transition appear to be an indispensable global field of action in the fight against these threats without borders. Cities are at the heart of action against these global challenges. They are extending their capacity to orchestrate collective action among local actors to deal with global challenges. In this way, cities contribute to the progress of more inclusive, transparent, legitimate, and sustainable global governance.

City diplomacy will have a crucial role in pushing the global agenda forward to ensure the well-being of citizens all around the world. We need more interaction and connectivity between our cities to overcome these crises through collective action.

Which specific actions does Izmir take to benefit from city diplomacy?

We invest lots of our time and efforts in city-level international cooperation. We focus on building strong relationships with cities from all four corners of the world. Together, we produce knowledge, exchange best practices, and help each other fulfil our potentials.

Izmir plays a leading role in Congress of the European Council, UCLG, Urban 20, Medcities, and in many more international city organisations. In 2020, we volunteered to chair the Inclusive and Prosperous Communities taskforce in Urban 20, which is a G20 engagement group. Urban 20 represents the voice of cities to G20. As the chair of the taskforce, Izmir has led the efforts of 11 large cities and 15 resourceful knowledge partners from G20 countries. Cities such as Barcelona, Berlin, Riyadh, Montreal, and knowledge partners such as Metropolis, UN-Habitat, IFC, World Economic Forum, and Brookings Institution have worked in this taskforce. We collaborated to prepare actionable policy recommendations for the G20 Leaders on youth empowerment, future of work, gender equality, affordable housing, and urban inclusiveness.

Sustainable development goals, innovation, and finance are the cross-cutting priorities in our policy recommendations to G20 leaders.

Also, Izmir is benefiting significantly from the SDG framework. We included the 17 sustainable development goals of the UN in Izmir’s city strategy and prepared our strategic plan according to this vision. In addition to the goals of the UN, we integrated 10 regional priorities in our strategy. We have identified parameters that will help us measure every year, the accomplishment of the municipal units in fulfilling the SDGs, including the reduction of poverty, quality education, economic growth, and reduced inequality.

What are the characteristics of Izmir that set it apart from other cities in the world?

Izmir is one of the largest port cities in the Mediterranean. It has 8500 years of history. Thanks to maritime and land routes, Izmir has become an open city to the rest of the world. For hundreds of years, the goods traded through the Silk Road have been sent to European and North African countries from Izmir. Services and people came to the city along with the goods. People also brought their arts, their culture. The city has become the point where Eastern and Western cultures mingle and live together in harmony. Its geographical location, history, and demography have empowered the city toward successful economic, social, and cultural trans-border interactions.

Today, Izmir remains an important prosperous city and a major logistics hub. As a pioneer city, it connects Turkey to the global value chain with its 13 organised industrial zones, 2 free zones, 4 technology development zones, and 4 main commercial ports. The city creates talents for the new economy, with 180,000 students enrolled in 9 universities.

Izmir is home to extraordinary heritage sites which have an outstanding universal value for humanity. The ancient cities of Ephesus and Pergamon are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites that are located in Izmir. The historical city centre of Izmir that is called Kemeralti is currently on UNESCO’s Tentative World Heritage List. It is hard to name all the attractions but as one last example, the Gediz River Delta where ten per cent of the world’s flamingos live is also located in this beautiful city.

Izmir is a pioneer city and it is also known as the city of Fairs and Expositions in Turkey. Izmir International Fair is Turkey’s oldest, most comprehensive, most glorious, and first international fair. It has been taking place for 89 years now. Izmir International Fair is not only essential for Turkey and Izmir, but it has also contributed to international political, diplomatic, economic, cultural, and social relationships since its earliest days.

The municipal corporation IZFAŞ plays a crucial role in everything I have just described. IZFAŞ  works very hard and diligently to organise hundreds of international fairs, which further strengthens the image of Izmir as ‘’The City of Fairs’’.

Since all the fairs around the world have been cancelled due to the pandemic, IZFAŞ decided to digitise its fairs and provided an experience close to physical ones to overcome the economic challenges caused by the pandemic. It has organised the first digital fair of Turkey – Shoedex 2020, in the shoe and leather sectors. Shoedex 2020 had visitors from 35 countries and was a big success.

Izmir has made tangible progress in the domain of international relations since Mr Tunç Soyer was elected as its mayor. Can you highlight a few of them?

Izmir has been very active in the domain of international relations. Mayor Soyer and our city assume leading roles in very important international organisations.

Mayor Soyer is a member of the UCLG Executive Bureau and the World Council. He is also the Vice President and member of the Executive Bureau in the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe. He is Vice-president of Citta Slow International City Network.  These are very powerful roles that allow the Mayor to advocate his vision of city-level trans-border cooperation.

Intercultural exchanges play a crucial role in the dialogue between cities and people. We must give priority to culture and people to people contact. With this vision, in September 2021, we are going to host the culture summit of United Cities and Local Government. Izmir was selected as the host city after a very competitive process, leaving Kazan, Russia, and Merida, Mexico behind.

In the same year, we will also host the International Mayors Summit on Living Together. This summit will be organised in collaboration with the city of Montreal. We are very excited to welcome Mayors and experts to our city and learn from their experiences. International gatherings are the best environments for global ideas to spread. This is an effective way to move forward and create better cities that offer a higher quality of life for people.

Izmir has recently been invited to join UCLG’s Committee on Local Economic and Social Development. It was also an important leadership and learning experience for us to chair the Inclusive and Prosperous Communities taskforce in Urban 20. We are proud to be part of this process where cities have closely collaborated under the orchestration of Izmir and produced research-based policy recommendations to be presented to G20 leaders. We hope to have a positive contribution to the sustainable and inclusive development of cities around the world.

Can you elaborate on your city’s commitment to international relations and give some examples of the benefits of being a city that is connected to the world?

Izmir’s commitment to international relations comes from Mayor Soyer’s vision. Our Mayor understands that what makes Izmir a prosperous city in history is its openness to the world. Therefore, he recognises the importance of investing in international relations. This is also one of his strengths. In the direction of Mayor Soyer’s vision, we work hard to link Izmir, its people, and its ecosystem to the global value chain and global cooperation networks.

Izmir is in constant interaction with cities and institutions around the world. Thanks to this, knowledge, expertise, and best practices continuously flow to the city.

For example, we work on Izmir’s smart city and green city strategies, in collaboration with international financial institutions. In this respect, together with the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development and AECOM, we developed a green city action plan. This plan draws the road map for the city to tackle the challenges through policy interventions and sustainable infrastructure investments.

We have completed the Izmir Metropolitan Municipality (IMM) Open Data Project with the grant of the International Finance Corporation (IFC). IFC and Manchester Open Data’s team have conducted this project in close collaboration with IMM’s Open Data Task Force. The project took place between April and September 2020. The main outputs of the project are the IMM Open Data Review and Open Data Strategy reports. As a result of this collaboration, we are about to launch an open data portal that will contribute to the democratic governance and economic development of the city.

We are collaborating with the World Bank’s Behavioral Science team as well. By leveraging behavioural science, the project aims to solve COVID related challenges that the Municipality faces. Currently, the World Bank Behavioral Science team is working with the water and transport administrations to take advantage of behavioural science methodology. These initial works will be followed by the ones that promote economic growth, cycling, and democratic participation through the usage of behavioural insights.

Cities around the world, face similar challenges. They don’t need to find a solution by themselves. In the Urban 20 platform, we have collaborated with 11 cities and 15 institutions and produced 5 whitepapers and 129 policy recommendations. This whole process taught us very valuable lessons. We communicated our collective findings with the leaders of the largest 20 economies in the world.

Izmir is one of the pioneer cities in the Mediterranean region in terms of municipality-driven innovative initiatives related to entrepreneurship, finance, open data, and behavioural science. Can you explain the alignment between those initiatives and the vision of Mayor Soyer?

One of the goals of Mayor Soyer is to increase the prosperity within the city and to share this prosperity with every citizen in an equal way.

I want to talk about the process which led to launching the open data project. It demonstrates very well how Mayor Soyer’s vision of building strong international ties opens up new paths for Izmir.

Being a smart city was one of the promises of our Mayor during the electoral campaign. Izmir has developed a strong relationship with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) especially after the election of Mayor Soyer. IFC has become our solution and knowledge partner and organised a special workshop for Izmir during Barcelona Smart City Expo World Congress. Experts from around the world came together to discuss the smart city strategy of Izmir. These are invaluable experiences that enlighten our way forward and keep us from going in the wrong direction.

After the workshop in Barcelona, Mayor Soyer and I went to Washington D.C. to meet with high-level executives of IFC and the World Bank. After we got back to Izmir, we launched the open data project with the support of IFC. Open data has an important part in Izmir’s efforts to become a smart city and it is crucial to have an international knowledge partner helping us succeed. Open data project has become even more valuable when we are facing economic challenges of the pandemic. It will support the city’s economy, promote entrepreneurship, and contribute to creating jobs. In this program, the data of the Municipality will become open to the public. Businesses and entrepreneurs will use this data to create new applications and solutions for the needs of the city.

Mayor Soyer’s visit to Washington D.C. was also an important turning point in getting finance from IFC. We have already signed an agreement to receive USD34 million financing to be used in water infrastructure projects.

This whole story was possible thanks to Izmir being a city that is open and connected to the world.

In your experience, which are the main challenges linked to building soft power through city diplomacy in the current global environment?

Technology and socio-economics are changing at an incredible pace. It will be essential that states and international organisations reformulate the institutions of global governance by recognising the merits of cities. In fact, this institutionalisation is already happening. We are witnessing an evolution of rules, norms, and values that are reshaping the existing system of interactions and behaviours. For example, the number of international city organisations increased to 200 in the last decade. These city networks, ranging from UCLG to C40, innovate on global challenges like climate change, gender equality, health, and security.

What we need now is a legal and formal international structure that supports cities’ endeavour. Such a structure will have to be very well designed because it will change the current opportunity and power balance. It will have to avoid creating losers and aim at maximising the effectiveness of global policymaking.

The world needs new international regulations and treaties that recognise cities as institutionalised global actors. The UN system requires reform immediately, starting from UN-Habitat. The EU, G7, and financial institutions should address the issue decisively, just like G20 does. Like climate change or gender, urbanisation must become a cross-cutting issue in all UN and multilateral organisations. For a better, brighter future we should work to make Cities a major level in international cooperation.

Which trends do you anticipate shaping the work of city diplomats and city branding officials in the years to come?

The works of city diplomats will focus more and more on creating resilient, sustainable, inclusive, and smart cities.

The year 2020 has brought the biggest global health emergency in recent history. As a response to the pandemic, cities have rapidly started to collaborate very closely. International city networks have become a knowledge hub for best practices. We have a lot to learn from each other.

Making our cities resilient and sustainable will gain even more importance. So far, cities have been collaborating very successfully on climate change. There is room for progress and cities have a crucial responsibility since they are creating most of the carbon emissions.

In the coming years, it will become even harder for our cities to manage the rapid pace of growth. Izmir has already reached a population of 4.5 million people. More investments have to be made for a green recovery.

City diplomats will have a crucial role in pushing the global agenda forward to ensure the wellbeing of citizens all around the world.

Thank you, Onur.

Connect with Onur Eryüce on LinkedIn or find out more about Izmir here.


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