My takeaways from the World Urban Forum #10

Simina Lazar

By Simina Lazar, on February 17th, 2020

> Read Simina Lazar's articles

It’s 5 AM on a Saturday and I cannot sleep.

It is partly because of the time difference, partly because my head is buzzing from the last week in Abu Dhabi, at the 10th edition of the World Urban Forum. More than 13000 participants and 500 sessions, countless encounters and business cards exchanged, this is what they do to you!

So I’m delivering here some of my hot-off-the-press questions and thoughts after one week’s full immersion into the world of international urban development.

Money, money, money

The UN Habitat’s mission is becoming more concrete and ambitious, with five flagship programmes launched in Abu Dhabi for the 10 years to come. They represent the institution’s top priorities for action – from Inclusive neighbourhoods and People-centered smart cities to Climate resilience for the poor, together with Migrant inclusive cities and communities and Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Cities. Each of them has specific indicators attached to it and a clear roadmap ahead. They imply complex actions, innovation, citizen engagement and above all, yes you are right, money!

“For whichever project we went to do, we were generally able to attract the finance,” Mauricio Rodas, the former Mayor of Quito, said in one of the round table discussions. Nonetheless, small and medium-sized cities all over the world still struggle, with African cities still having mostly development-aid money directed to them. And we need much more than that if we want cities to implement the large-scale, often more risky, innovation-led type of projects they urgently need. The cases of Kampala and Lagos come to my mind, two ASToN cities that will need to look into new ways of mobilising capital if they want their mobility or energy autonomy issues be solved at city level.

The message I gathered from the Forum on this point is clear – “cities need to start behaving like a banker, seeing their projects in terms of portfolios, mixing the high-risk projects with the low-risk ones to attract financing,” as Alice Charles, Lead Cities, Infrastructure & Urban Services at the World Economic Forum said.

But the question that I have for you is this one: how many of the cities you know would be able to easily find their way through blended finance, impact investment financing or philanthropy? And how many would be capable of doing it while maintaining ownership and being attractive for investors at the same time?

My father’s house

While the topic of the Forum was innovation and culture, it felt to me like housing was the Cinderella of the party. Why? The UN’s Population Division was estimating in 2018 that 3 million people worldwide are moving to cities every week. As you all know, the numbers are even more striking for Africa, with its urban population due to double by 2050. Lagos alone estimates that 85 people are moving into the city every hour.

Needless to say that all these people require housing, and adequate housing ideally, as the basis for any kind of human development or well-being. Many of the projects and ideas presented at the WUF were innovative in their way, like Planet Smart City, a real estate company that use smart technologies to provide affordable housing in South America and Europe.

What I did miss at the Forum are innovative & affordable housing ideas that fight urban sprawl at the same time. Because yes, you are right, new housing, even if it’s smart, means urban sprawl. So how can we use all the data & tech that is available out there to improve rather than demolish? And can we also make sure that the dwellers are involved in the process from day one? Which gets me to my next point.

My land is your land

I work on digital transitions so, as you can imagine, many of the sessions I attended were speaking about frontier technology, AI or robotics and of course, data. All these are of course very important if we want to be smarter about the decisions we make for our cities and how we implement our ideas.

They also made me realise that tech without participation is not innovation.

The smart city project that most cities dream to have is a top-down, built-from-scratch new city, programmed to be obsolete even before it’s built. We urgently need to look beyond such concepts if we want not just smarter cities, but smart people and communities.

One of the most refreshing and compelling presentations I heard during the Forum comes from Lomé and a project called HubCités, led by Sename Koffi. Their ambition is to realise the transformative power of the city from the bottom up, empowering the poorer populations living on the Ghana/Togo border. They do that through a mix of traditional architecture, youth camp experiences and “LowHighTech” made in Africa. And they have already managed to produce the first 3D printer made in Africa from 100% recycled material!

Another initiative that puts people first is Francesca Bria’s Coalition for Digital Rights. Based on her former work as Chief Technology Officer for Barcelona, Bria wants to put participatory democracy, digital rights and data sovereignty on the agenda of cities. Out of the nearly 40 cities that signed the declaration, none of them are African, and no wonder. For too long, they considered this topic “a first-world kind of problem” and a too complex one probably.

But the winds are changing.  What we are hearing from the cities that are part of ASToN is a need for action. Concerning the smart projects they are implementing data is being gathered. And this raises questions such as: who owns the data? Where should we save it? And who has the right to use it?

And the last point before I go back to bed…

… is less of a takeaway and more like a love declaration (it’s the season, right?).

For nearly ten years now, I’ve been working with cities in Europe. The European urban events are all too familiar for me, having co-designed some myself. I am aware of the importance of face-to-face encounters, of seeing with your own eyes, of hearing the stories with your own ears. All this to say that I was a bit suspicious on my way to WUF – too big, too many people, too institutional.

And oh boy, did it feel good to be wrong!

For five days we were in a sort of temporary town, buzzing with people and ideas. I was astonished by how concrete and detailed presentations were, how horizontal and welcoming it felt to be there. My notebook is full with all the initiatives I would like to know more about and my pockets full of business cards of people I want to stay in contact with. I know, it is not very high-tech of me, but hey, I’m not perfect. So dear WUF, now that you know one of my faults, I can tell you this: I’d really want us to stay in touch!


ASToN flagship programme is financed by the French Development Agency (AFD), managed by the French National Urban Renovation Agency (ANRU) and uses URBACT knowledge and tools.

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