Habitat III paves the way to a new city model for the 21st century


Recently I attended the United Nations Habitat III event in Quito, Ecuador and I’ve been reflecting on what I learnt in attending this prestigious event and the many interesting meetings and panels I joined.

The context for this event was the challenge of agreeing an implementation plan of the New Urban Agenda (NUA) that recognised the challenges the world faces in an increasingly urbanised future. Cities are a vital challenge for the future of the planet given that whilst they only occupy around 2% of the Earth’s surface, they house around half of humanity and are responsible for 70% of our greenhouse gas emissions.  If this is not bad enough check the experts’ prediction for 2050 and the picture is more alarming.

The challenges of smart cities fall within the bounds of these discussions and as a technologist, it was going to be a fascinating view into a more political environment as representatives of governments and bodies (such as the Future Cities Catapult team that I was part of) came together to discuss and agree the challenges and potential actions we ought to be focusing on in the future.

What was helpful is that there was almost unanimous agreement on the problems and challenges we face as we move forwards. So, in terms of cataloguing the problems we need to solve in our urban environments, Habitat III successfully managed that. Many of the problems cities face around the globe are similar, which should also be helpful in creating frameworks to move forward from. (or at least you would think that)

Which brings me to my chief concerns from attending Habitat III – there didn’t seem to be enough focus and urgency on creating roadmaps forward that solve the challenges.

Perhaps, that’s not the role of pan/supra-national forums? Maybe what happens next is that all of the countries and organisations take the New Urban Agenda back home with them and start considering what kind of solutions would work best in their countries and cities? I hope this is the case because cities themselves didn’t appear strongly represented at Habitat III and this is part of a global challenge – that of the devolution of power and responsibilities to cities. Some of the world’s more powerful cities now dominate their national economies. This is a critical challenge for national governments in those positions. With large cities driving your GDP how should you govern, fund and support these major municipalities in a way that makes sense across your nation? (According to the IEUA: Lima 43% of Peru GDP – Manila 33% of Philippines GDP – Johannesburg 50% of South Africa GDP – London 22% of UK GDP – New York City 9% of USA GDP)

A lot of the challenges though are in front of us right now. Pollution, congestion, quality of life, inequality, budgetary pressures, financing, public versus private investment etc, etc. My concern is that we can’t wait another 20 years for Habitat IV until we solve these challenges and in fairness, I don’t feel that Habitat III was suggesting we do that.

For me, the above suggests that what we need to do moving forwards from Habitat III is agree that the New Urban Agenda summarises well where we’re at around the globe and the challenges we face.

I believe that there are paths to solutions that will work and can be transformational and that’s the positive part of the Habitat III experience. It provides a point to look at solutions from and it shows that technology is an inevitable part of the future. We may not have always configured technology for maximum impact to date and many challenges remain around funding, trust, governance, ownership and getting it to more fully support the wider communities, but we have enough evidence that it’s a key tool.

One of the first steps is bridging the gaps between urbanists and technologists and I think a key path to this is via data. Data in my view will be fundamental to delivering the goals of the new Urban Agenda and it will also help us overcome many of the challenges of what may be some significant changes in some parts of our urban environments. Data will help us not just keep doing the same things but will enable us to consider new paths forwards based on evidence and this is vital.

However, there is also a lot of work to do to solve many of the challenges to progress which include, financing, complexity, political will, the capacity to do this (at national and city level), how to involve the private sector (or not), governance and others.

Habitat III has been a very worthwhile event for me that has helped bring together many thoughts on the way forward and I’ll be sharing these in future blog posts.

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