What Just Happened?

Thoughts after attending the 10th World Urban Forum

Nigel Smith
February 14, 2020
2-3 minutes

The time has come to head home. It has been an extraordinary week here in Abu Dhabi at the Tenth UN-Habitat World Urban Forum (WUF10). Imagine 20,000 people from around the world, who all think cities are not just important, but critical to the future of humanity and the planet. Imagine having five days to choose from hundreds of speakers, forums, dialogues, training, and networking events. Imagine that each of these events on their own would get a crowd in your city, yet here, they jostle for buzz together. Imagine the theme is Cities of Opportunities – connecting culture and innovation and that this theme has been embraced by people attending and presenting. I have been amazed, surprised, concerned and dejected – and sometimes all at the same presentation!

You see, UN-Habitat has worked out that cities are key to implementing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. By 2050, 70% of the world will live in cities, compared with just over 50% now. If we are going to go forward as a species, the progress will happen in cities. The New Urban Agenda sets out a vision for a sustainable future driven by urban development. Now, cities are complex places to “fix”, so the theme of connecting culture and innovation is a good one as it speaks to deeper motivations. Culturally appropriate innovation is needed, not ‘that thing that worked in that city, let’s do that here and fix our problem.’ As Andre pointed out in his WUF10 opening reflection, more sustainable practice will happen when it is people focussed, unique to its context, and engages the people who need it, or even better, when it is designed and delivered by them too.

It was true that the sessions I attended focussed on these local solutions. Every project was indeed of its place – how could it not be? Yet, for every extraordinary project presentation, there was the nagging feeling that it was a show and tell exercise – that attendees went away with not much more than a good feeling and a bunch of ideas to apply in their own context. I’ll be honest too and say that very few presentations gave evidence that their project made a difference in the lives of people. It would have been good to see UN-Habitat direct presenters to stress the need for project frameworks that lead to success, rather than (especially in the case of consultants) presenting solutions in the form of a technology, building some thing or running this program.

On the positive side, it was heartening to see presenters from developing countries pushing through with projects despite lack of resources, expertise and sometimes government support. These projects nearly always ticked the boxes of delivering environmental benefits, engaging the community and being economically sustainable. The projects presented from Europe or North America were certainly excellent, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much they cost, what urgent need they addressed, and whether or not our colleagues in developing contexts could have done much more for the same money.

Ultimately though, we are all in this together. The international development community is an impressive machine and I was very glad to be a part of it for five days. If success is 90% purpose then I do have a feeling of hope that the global structures and systems we have will continue to work and refine their approach. This approach must become more purposed toward local people and place to ensure sustainability. As we move to Katowice, Poland in 2022 for WUF11, the emphasis from the closing ceremony seemed to indicate a shift from things to people. Małgorzata Jarosińska-Jedynak, a spokesperson from the Katowice organising committee, said it well:

“We must co-operate country to country, city to city and person to person.”

Photo Credit: UN-Habitat

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