Denver, Planet Earth: The City Goes Global

With a wide range of stories capturing international attention, Denver is casting a wider cultural and economic net than it once did. Nowhere is this more apparent than Biennial of the Americas.
International recognition is complex -- less a formulaic calculation of density, cosmopolitanism, economics and cultural vibrancy, and more about blazing a distinct trail of livability and vitality.

Denver -- while not a population center on the scale of Los Angeles or a financial hub like New York -- is steadily raising a unique profile, one based on collaboration and innovation worthy of international attention.

Denver's move toward wider recognition is epitomized by the 2015 edition of Biennial of the Americas. Following events in 2010 and 2013, this year's gathering of art, civic and business ideas and leaders will highlight the Americas' need for collaborative solutions to pressing, interconnected issues.

A Denver emblem for international confluenceThe 2013 Biennial of the Americas was the second such event in Denver.

The enthusiasm in the voice of Biennial of the Americas' Executive Director Erin Trapp is evident as she talks about this year's events.

"The Biennial is being recognized in the megacities of Latin America," Trapp says. "It makes Denver an international top-of-mind city . . . where previously, they never thought to look beyond New York or Los Angeles."

The 2015 Biennial has already included a summit of business and community leader delegates in Mexico City, as well as an artist residency exchange between American and Mexican artists. It will host its official opening in Denver on July 14 and include symposiums, performance events and art exhibitions.

The use of art and culture as a cornerstone to facilitate conversations of international business is also top of mind with Trapp.

"Culture is a great way to build relationships . . . artists are on the leading edge of social issues and are unafraid to push the conversation forward, " Trapp says. "Denver has a unique way of addressing solutions because we care more about the future than the past and are open to new ideas."

Denver on the international stage

The Biennial provides Denver a biannual platform to converge on international issues, but the city finds itself facilitating advantageous global interactions year-round.

At the strategic midpoint between Tokyo and Frankfurt, Denver is the largest U.S. city offering real-time connections to six continents in one business day. Industries such as aerospace and technology are growing powerhouses and provide worldwide attention for Denver's businesses and export market, which hit a record $8.55 billion in 2013.

Denver Chamber of Commerce CEO Kelly Brough also notes the world-class nature of Denver's workforce. Ranked fourth in the country for most college graduates and eighth for self-employed entrepreneurs, Denver boasts one of the smartest, healthiest workforces in the country -- a unique characteristic that makes Denver's economy and workforce competitive on an international level.

"70 percent of business costs go to workers," says Brough. "They are the most critical resources for the success of a business. Denver has a distinct, competitive advantage."

Denver International Airport, the 15th largest airport in the world, is another hallmark of Denver's growing international presence. With 53 million passengers in 2013 -- 42 percent connecting through Denver and more than 2 million international customers -- DIA showcases the city to international travelers.

The introduction of a direct flight to Japan in 2013, among Colorado's top five trading partners, has also helped to facilitate increased international business and travel.

Unafraid to be a lab for new ideas

Traditional routes that foster increased international economic and trade opportunity is not the only way Denver competes on a global scale.

Novel decisions in innovation, fueled by cross-sector collaboration rarely explored in other countries, allow the city to test new ideas in business, education, art and transportation that provide inspiration for similar sea changes in other cities worldwide.

Jim Deters is an example of just this. The founder of Galvanize, a coordinated platform for tech students, companies and entrepreneurs, Deters has flipped the idea of separating academia and industry on its head by providing all aspects under one roof for a price cheaper than a traditional degree and with a structure that keeps pace with the rapid changes in technology.

Deters' vision is global, what he calls an "urban entrepreneurial renaissance." Though only begun in 2012, Galvanize has already expanded to a Google-sponsored campus in London.

Deters' conviction in his philosophy is concrete. "Any person . . . has the same access to compute power as the most powerful companies in the world. The only limiting factor to creating a business these days is human ingenuity. That's never happened before," he says.

Denver B-cycle Executive Director Nick Bohnenkamp is also responsible for a big vision -- moving forward a fundamental transformation in thinking and behavior about how we commute.

While bike-sharing programs originally began in Europe, Denver B-cycle was the first system of its size in the U.S. and charters almost entirely new territory -- figuring out how to move an urban population that is becoming exponentially denser from place to place while still utilizing the same amount of space.

In this scenario, collaboration on all fronts is key.

Collaboration via diversified public-private funding means financial sustainability and growth. Then Denver's mayor, John Hickenlooper provided seed funding, developers invested in a system that raises property value because it provides an amenity their tenants desire and healthcare sponsors recognized the vast benefits to a community that pedals more.

Denver B-cycle also works closely with the City and County of Denver and RTD, where both entities hold seats on its board of directors.

"Oversight and collaboration on a bike sharing system is needed to fit into the transportation needs of a city," Bohnenkamp says. "There are lots of long-term effects."

Bohnhenkamp's strategy appears to be working. In 2014, B-cycle membership increased by 29 percent to more than 74,000, and miles traveled jumped by 43 percent.

"The numbers show the success of the system for other cities, nationally and internationally, that may want to include a bike sharing system in their transportation infrastructure," Bonhenkamp says.

Local art with international consequencesA close-up look at the tiles used in Matt Scobey's production for the Biennial.

Matt Scobey is one of two Biennial artist ambassadors who spent two and a half months at a residency exchange in Mexico City in preparation for the event. In all, there are more than 60 artists representing nine countries involved with the 2015 Biennial.

Scobey and his work serve as a good metaphor for what Denver does best in the international arena: leverage talents, push traditional boundaries and recognize the importance of collaboration and community.

"My experience allowed me to understand how important dialogue is," says Scobey. "It informs your work and can take you down new directions. It also helps you realize the important role community plays in realizing a piece of artwork."

Scobey's Biennial installation is expected to be viewed by thousands of visitors and will be on display starting July 14 at the McNichols Civic Center.

Read more articles by Camron Bridgford.

Camron Bridgford is a Denver-based freelance writer focused on  the arts, urbanism and economic development.
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