Ten Take-Aways from the World Cities Summit 2016

2016-07-12 17.04.02

By Renard Teipelke

It is for sure not comprehensive to distill ten take-aways from the World Cities Summit, which takes place every two years, brings together more than 1,000 delegates, and is co-hosted together with the International Water Week and the Clean Enviro Summit, in addition to the City Solutions Expo, which is visited by 8,000 people. But we have to start somewhere, and this is my proposition of some relevant messages from the summit synthesized along four major themes:

Planning

  1. If you want to implement large schemes, you will have to move beyond singular aspects of financial efficiency or narrow cost-benefit perspectives. However, if you cannot afford a ‘Bilbao Guggenheim‘, try to do urban acupuncture by improving the hotspots of your city to trigger catalytic changes. As a government you have to earn trust and authority not through promises, but through actions.
  2. For proper planning you need the humanist, scientific, and artistic inputs. Even in a technology-focused setting, such as in Singapore, design leads technology. And there is much potential in bringing in historians and artists to co-create spaces based on their existing characters and stories. For the natural environment, it is insufficient to extend urban greenery if you do not engage the citizens to have them develop a feeling of stewardship.
  3. It seems as if nowadays it is not sufficient anymore to do good in urban development – you also have to seek an international award to see your work recognized and confirmed. However, beyond these competitions, you may want to judge a city not by its “internationally acclaimed” downtown tourist areas, but by the outer areas where the city’s residents actually live.
  4. Health and Work are two key aspects of urban life, but they play a surprisingly niche role when urban development is discussed, despite the fact that they are possibly the number one topics during urban development specialists’ coffee breaks.

Finance

  1. As long as urban infrastructure services, such as water supply, are considered free goods for which no fees/tariffs are charged, their lack of cost recovery will not attract private sector investment. Accordingly, there is no lack of infrastructure funding sources, but a lack of assured revenue streams. Establishing a revenue system for infrastructure will, however, only work if there is clarity of the revenue’s purpose and a social contract with the people for the revenue’s use.
  2. Cities should have their long-term visions, integrated plans, and ready pipelines of feasible projects, from which investors can choose. However, in the current situation we have to be realistic that market access for financing is not (yet) very feasible for most cities. Most likely, project preparation has to be shouldered by the public sector or multi-lateral development banks. Although still small in its quantity and spread, crowdfunding is a promising option for future infrastructure development, particularly for the identification and pre-feasibility study phase (see 1, 2, 3). Looking at risk-sharing aspects, institutional investors do not seek the construction risk or the foreign exchange risk, so these need to be boxed by the public sector or other entities.

Culture

  1. Singapore and Singaporeans suffer from ‘the defects of their virtue’. The government needs to understand where to withdraw. You have to give people opportunities for them to advance their skills. Thus, it is good to have a crowded arts calendar and to make access to events free of charge to residents. Essentially, arts and culture are not physical buildings but content, which requires regular refreshing and renewing. Culture should be part of planning early on. In a similar way, art should not be a separate thing, but be infused into other aspects, such as education.
  2. Many cities do not yet consciously carry out cultural diplomacy, even though by doing so they could give other countries a stake in the wellbeing of their place.

Innovation and Knowledge

  1. Linear prediction may be not very useful; besides, development can also go backwards. There are already the necessary innovation technologies, some of which are even disruptive. What is missing, however, are the policies and economies to unlock this innovation, while buffer against related distortions.
  2. We should talk about solutions instead of challenges. Likewise, let’s stop framing all challenges as the flipside of opportunities. Call it a problem, if it is one. Be blunt about things that need fixing. Your city may lack the resources and the infrastructure, but it does not lack the people – find and use their strengths. You need to have good stories if you want people to engage. And if you aim for innovation and change, you have to create a sense of urgency and necessity. Governments are an unlikely source of innovation, so you better look somewhere else.
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