According to his American creator Joseph Nye, “soft power is attractive power/ seduction whereby you inspire others to want the outcomes that you want, without having to force people to change their behaviour through threats or payments, […] the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion […]. It arises from intangible assets such as an attractive personality, culture, political values and institutions, and policies that are seen as legitimate or having moral authority”.

As far as countries, cities or districts are concerned, soft power intuitively builds on natural re-sources, general atmosphere, charisma, history, ideals and values, and the policies of their leaders.

While the concept is as old as the hills, the American experience has formalised it during recent decades. At the end of the Cold War, weakened by the consequences of the Vietnam War and many disputed foreign policies, the USA felt the need to reinforce their declining hegemony. They saw soft power as a way of maintaining their supremacy. The American dream reached every corner of the planet through their mass culture (the industries of music, movies, sports, retail, brands, food, but also universities, innovation, R&D, myth of the self-made man, etc.…). Nevertheless, since then, American soft power has been seriously harmed (by the Bush administration, wars in Iraq & Afghanistan, damages caused by ultra-liberalism/capitalism, the low quality of life derived from a two-tier society, the sub-prime scandal, etc.).

Soft power is an instrument to be handled with care. It depends on its audience, as well as on the context in which it is diffused. A feminist movie will not echo the same way in Western Europe and in Islamist countries. To reach its maximal strength, soft power must meet its potential communication channels, especially the civil society which will end up being its main ambassador. If perceived as propaganda, it will immediately lose all its power. On the contrary, if adapted to its audience, soft power will be diffused on a large scale, enabled by the amazing, accessible and, most of the time, free communication channels offered by the 21st Century. With these tools, soft power has naturally and rapidly evolved its own peer-to-peer status, giving a voice to communities and to anyone willing to speak. It is no longer a domain exclusive to the powerful, but is open to the whole world. It Soft power is enriched by users’ experiences of a space whether they be regular customers (citizens, work force) or only occasional visitors (travellers, expats).

"The aim of soft power is to convince its audience and lead it to identify with its ideas and values so they can, in turn, be communicated and diffused by (and to) a large and diverse public."

Attraction and persuasion are the two key-stones of the concept. The aim of soft power is to convince its audience and lead it to identify with its ideas and values so they can, in turn, be communicated and diffused by (and to) a large and diverse public. Formalised for politics in the first place, the concept has quickly been adopted by countries to promote their assets. For example, Singapore’s ‘City in a Garden’ and its brand new landmarks encroaching on the sea; Tokyo’s duality, simultaneously showcasing traditions on the one hand, and on the other hand, a vibrant pop-culture that includes food, manga, J-pop, animation, cosplay, and Pokémon Go, and Sydney and its in-credible status as an open world dream.

The strength of the concept lays in its capacity to easily adapt at many scales such as a public or a private body, a nation, a country, a town or a district. Its diffuse power attracts investors, students, firms, visitors, tourists, or new inhabitants, consequently feeding a virtuous cycle that includes prestige, economic and social progress for the concerned.

Endlessly applicable, and on all scales, soft power is a great tool to give a new impetus to, and/ or (re)design, better places. This intangible notion embraces all influencing strategies used by its stakeholders. It is a concept of our time, open to all, and where everyone can play to cause impact.

Urban Soft Power will be tackled during the Belgian Association of Town Centre Management’s Symposium, held in Mons, Belgium, September the 30th, 2016. Place leaders Asia Pacific will be AMCV’s guest of honour and will share its experience with the 500 participants attending the day.