Secondary capital cities are capitals that are not the primary economi centers of their respective countries. This interdisciplinary research project examines the political economy of capital cities and it focuses on an analysis of capital city innovation systems and their political positioning strategies.

Lay summary

Global and world city theories as well as new approaches to metropolitanization challenge the traditional role and centrality of capital cities. More specifically, capital cities that are not the dominant economic centers of their nations – so-called secondary capital cities – tend to be overlooked in the fields of economic geography and political science and there is a lack of research and resulting theory describing their political economy. Yet, capital cities play an important role in shaping the political, economic, social and cultural identity of a nation. As the seat of power and decision making, capital cities represent a nation's identity not only through their symbolic architecture but also through their economies and through the ways in which they position themselves in national networks. Yet, the decline of the nation state, the rise of transnational institutions, the ascendance of global or world cities, and the increasing concentration of the knowledge economy in a few dominant metropolitan areas has challenged the traditional role and centrality of capital cities. Secondary capital cities are struggling with these trends in particular, because they lack the economic functions of more established commercial cities or multi-functional capitals such as London, Paris or Tokyo.

Economic geography and political science research, however, has marginalized capital cities. As a consequence, there is no cohesive theory about secondary capital cities. This project will add to our understanding of the political economy of secondary capital cities in federalist nations. From a more theoretical point of view, understanding the role of capital cities lies at the core of contemporary theories of urbanization and globalization. The significance of global and world cities has long been observed by social scientists, but the role of capital cities has largely been neglected. Particularly in a time when contemporary globalization has had a great impact on the way urban economies relate and interact, and when economic crises have revealed the significance of political regulation and intervention, it is important to examine the capital city as the seat of power and decision making.

We are interested in explaining secondary capital cities for two reasons: a) capital cities can be conceptualized as “information cities”, “information brokers” or “transactional cities”. These concepts describe how the overall shift of the economy towards knowledge, information and services may have transformed the capital city economy. However, we do not know in what ways the private sector (e.g. knowledge intensive business service firms or so-called KIBS) interacts with the public sector in the capital city economy and how that creates a complex regional innovation system. b) Capital cities have traditionally depended on the nation state and as domesticated host city of the national government, these capital cities have been mired in a comfortable dependence on the very state they were hosting. Yet, secondary capital cities are increasingly subject to urban competition like any other metropolitan area and therefore their political leaders are active in repositioning the capital city in urban networks.

This comparative research project examines the changing economic and political roles of secondary capital cities. We propose to examine the economic dynamics within the capital city and to analyze the ways in which these capital cities position themselves in global and national urban systems. We utilize an interdisciplinary perspective that is informed by theories of economic geography and political science because processes of economic restructuring and political positioning are inextricably interrelated and need to be examined together.

Our research consists of a comparison of four secondary capital cities in Western countries, which differ in terms of their economic strength and dynamic. The comparative case study design will examine the ways in which the role of capital cities has changed over time in response to the historical transformation of the nation state, increasing trends towards a knowledge-based economy and the ways in which these secondary capital cities position themselves in national urban networks. The proposed research will involve two dissertation projects, which will analyze 1) the transformation of the capital city economy into a regional innovation system and 2) the national positioning of these capital cities. The proposed study builds on an existing research focus on capital cities by the project applicants. This established collaboration will allow us to utilize an interdisciplinary and comparative perspective throughout the theoretical and empirical work. The relevance of this project is twofold: First, a general theory of the political economy of capital cities is missing and will be developed. Second, the research will contribute to a body of basic knowledge about economic development and positioning strategies of capital cities that can serve as a theoretical foundation in urban studies and will contribute to contemporary discussions in public policy.