When, in mid-2012, the Scottish village of Dull partnered with the US town of Boring, a small media frenzy ensued that gave the two locations more coverage than they ever could have hoped for on their own. But, marketing stunts aside, do sister city partnerships – formal agreements between municipalities designed to foster collaboration – deliver tangible results? Or has the concept – which gained popularity in the 1940s as a way to rebuild crossborder relations following the Second World War – outlived its usability?

“Sister city agreements can range from being relatively general and ceremonial to quite specific in terms of the types of activities that the cities want to promote,” says Mary D Kane, president and CEO of Sister Cities International (SCI), a Washington, DC-based non-profit organisation that focuses on fostering intra-city collaboration.

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Keeping it in the family

According to Ms Kane, sister city agreements are increasingly leaning towards economic co-operation. “As municipal officials have come to realise that they must look internationally for economic opportunities, they have begun to look at sister city agreements as a useful tool for spurring such activities," she says.

Among the examples of places where such alliances have brought tangible results is Lakeland, a city in Florida. In 2011, the city's co-operation with Chongming County in Shanghai helped Floridian civil engineering firm Econ win a $1bn deal – its largest to date – with a Chongming-based waterpark. Toronto is cited by SCI as another example of a location that has reaped the benefits of its twin city agreements. According to the International Alliance Program, the entity in charge of maintaining links with Toronto's nine international partners, sister city agreements have generated 860 jobs and brought in an estimated $57m annually since 1998.

With a total of 17 sister city agreements, the Texan city of Houston is one of the biggest subscribers to the sister city concept. According to Leslie Santamaria, protocol manager at Houston's city hall, sister city partnerships deliver more than just memoranda of understanding and co-operation. 

She cites the example of iGlobal, an IT vendor that moved to Houston Technology Centre in 2012. The company is based in Chiba, a Japanese city that has been twinned with Houston for more than four decades. “As a city focused on business and entrepreneurship, the Houston welcomes and encourages the business development aspect of sister city partnerships,” says Ms Santamaria.

Buffalo fails to charge

It is not everywhere, however, that sister city partnerships translate into economic gains. “In the past five years we have hosted a few of our sister cities," says Paul S Pfeiffer, the director of investor and public relations at Buffalo Niagara Enterprise (BNE), an economic development corporation. "They have been enjoyable, the cultural exchanges have been enriching for all parties engaged, but they have not translated into significant economic opportunities,” he adds.

Buffalo has nine sister city agreements with municipalities in France, Italy, Japan, Poland and Russia, with its most recent partnership signed in 2011 with Yeongcheon in South Korea. But, according to Mr Pfeiffer, BNE does not put any special emphasis on increasing economic activity through these partnerships.

“We observe the best practices in economic development and sister city agreements are not something [through which], in our experience, we have generated tremendous amounts of [economic] opportunities. Our efforts are much more targeted on individual companies,” he says.

Phoenix well grounded

Sometimes, it is not necessarily that sister city partnerships are not making economic gains, but that the development agencies promoting them struggle to measure the benefits. "We have very robust sister city agreements, some of which we have had for more than three decades. However, it is difficult to quantify the direct foreign investment that has resulted," says Hank Marshall, the City of Phoenix's economic development executive officer.

Phoenix Sister Cities, a department within Phoenix's city hall and the recipient of 2013 SCI annual award for innovation in economic development, still faces considerable challenges, despite its impressive record.

"Our sister city programme often provides the introduction to business relationships, but following up [on these] is problematic. Success with this may be possible with an increase of support and involvement by the private sector. Unfortunately, within the private sector, Phoenix Sister Cities is a best-kept secret. Our challenge is to overcome that reality," says Paula West, the City of Phoenix's international relations division director.

Perfect match?

Phoenix is not the only city that is turning to the private sector for help directing and improving its sister city partnership programme. The Dutch city of Eindhoven has worked with its business community to try to identify the locations that it is most interested in investing in, so that sister city partnerships might potentially be forged to assist in subsequent investment decision. 

“We reached out to members of the private sector and asked them to shortlist the places with which they have been interacting the most. Building upon existing links, the list helped us to decide where our international involvement will be most efficient,” says Edgar Van Leest, strategy manager at Brainport Eindhoven, the city's development agency.

It turned out that of the 17 places highlighted by the business and academic community, only one, Nanjing in China, already held a sister city partnership with Eindhoven. But, officials were committed to changing this. So, recognising its potential through the results of the survey, in June of 2013, Eindhoven signed a letter of intent with the Ontarian city of Waterloo.

Given that both cities have thriving hi-tech communities and start-up scenes, the odds are that their co-operation will go beyond the letter of intent. As with any pairing exercise, the success of a sister-city partnership relies on the compatibility of the two cities.