Urban innovation and governance – emerging trends and priorities of 21st century cities

By Nicholas You

Nicholas You serves as the chairman of the UN World Urban Campaign Steering Committee, the Assurance Group for Urban Infrastructure of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the Urban Strategy Council of GDF Suez. He regularly advises governments, cities and leading technology companies on sustainable urban development policies and low-carbon strategies worldwide.

May 27, 2013 | Smart Cities | 1 comment

In late 2012 I had the honour to serve as co-Chair of the Technical Committee that reviewed some 250 initiatives that had been submitted for the first Guangzhou Award for Urban Innovation and, subsequently, to represent the Technical Committee on the Jury. This two step process involved the initial selection of 45 deserving city initiatives from the 250, and from the 45, a shortlist 15 outstanding initiatives for further consideration by an independent jury. The Jury then selected five award winning innovations.

This task provided a unique snapshot of what cities around the world are focusing on as a matter of priority. Twenty-seven of the 45 deserving city initiatives, or 60% of the total, are addressing issues of governance as their top priority. Of the remaining 18 city initiatives, governance appears as a major underlying theme in 9 of them. This proportion is even more pronounced for the 15 short-listed initiatives. Twelve of the 15 short-listed initiatives, representing 80% of the total, are clearly governance focused and governance related.

While my intention is not to engage in a debate on good governance, what has clearly emerged from the submissions for the first Guangzhou Award for Urban Innovation is a discernable trend of cities from different socio-cultural, economic and political contexts to engage their citizens and stakeholders in devising ways and means of improving living conditions and sustainability for all. I have selected a small but hopefully representative sample of the 45 initiatives to illustrate how innovation and governance go hand-in-hand.

Social inclusion

An over-riding issue in most of the initiatives is social inclusion. Cities as diverse as Guangzhou, Kadikoy, Seoul, Vienna and Warsaw are devising innovative approaches to engaging and empowering long-standing citizens and new migrants, women and the urban poor in improving their living conditions. What appears to be making a difference is that the improvements are based on people’s priorities rather than priorities determined by public authorities.

Like most major metropolises, a part of Guangzhou’s population is in need of subsidised housing. Guangzhou’s approach to affordable housing consists of the several innovations. While most Chinese cities auction off development rights to developers with the proviso to supply a given number of affordable housing units, this does not always work and is difficult to enforce. Guangzhou sets aside land each year for affordable housing so as to render real estate operations more transparent for developers and beneficiaries of subsidised housing alike. Instead of asking developers to cross-subsidise affordable housing units, Guangzhou allocates 13% of revenues derived from land-leases and development rights to subsidising affordable housing. This makes the entire process more transparent and accountable. Last but not least, instead of providing low-cost housing which often cuts corners on norms and standards, Guangzhou decided to apply green building design principles for the construction of subsidized housing, thus further reducing maintenance and running costs for the beneficiaries. In summary, Guangzhou’s affordable housing policy reinforces transparency and accountability while finding new ways of solving the long-standing problem of affordable housing.

In the case of Kadikoy, the municipality is partnering with a private Turkish foundation to enable its 16,000 residents of a historic but run down neighbourhood to revitalise their own living environment. Besides undertaking conventional measures to improve quality of life such as traffic taming and building repairs, the initiative focuses on creating green social spaces to enhance social interaction and pride and ownership of place and, ultimately, to be spared the fate of gentrification and the destruction of the social fabric.

Seoul, one of Asia’s biggest metropolises of 10.5 million inhabitants, has a reputation of innovation in urban planning and management and has recently implemented a very transparent procurement system. But it is in the social field, aimed particularly at helping young people experiencing severe problems that some highly original practices have been initiated. One of them addresses the issue of teenage prostitution which has grown steadily over the last 15 years, due in large part to around 200,000 young people running away from home each year.  Many young girl runaways are at grave risk of falling into prostitution, even if they do not define themselves as such. When they are found, sending them back to homes that are often dysfunctional and prone to domestic violence or to temporary shelters has proven to be ineffective.  A new philosophy of social intervention has led to the establishment of the ‘Self-Empowerment School for teen prostitutes’, run by a multi-disciplinary team. The first school opened in 2009 followed swiftly by a second. Their success has led to co-funding by central government.

To welcome the steady flow of migration from other counties to Vienna the “Start Wien” programme stands out in terms of its innovativeness, relevance and potential for replication. The programme offers all new migrants a ‘One-Stop-Shop’ service involving all of the relevant departments and social services; individually tailored orientation meetings; language services and more advanced information and coaching services. It reaches the target group immediately after arrival, looks at the needs of each individual, provides clear information, and provides a single entry point to access an array of social services.

Maximising the benefits of the digital age

Another major pre-occupation of many cities is to maximise the benefits of the digital age. Cities like Sabadell in Spain, Bremen in Germany and Kaohsiung in Taiwan are realigning their administrative services and information and communications platforms to render services more user-friendly. This “smart city” approach produces many advantages including improved resiliency in public services, more transparent and accountable administration and, not least, lower energy consumption through more efficient use of resources such as water, energy and better transport, traffic and waste management. The underlying theme across these and other city innovations is the engagement of the end-user of public services so that the design of these smart city systems correspond to real needs and people’s priorities.

A different approach to the “smart city” is making citizens “smarter”. This is notably the case in Medellin where the Mayor has formulated a vision to transform Medellin into the city with the highest level of education in Colombia and for all of its 2.7 million inhabitants. The initiative brings the tools of communication, information and e-learning to all the neighbourhoods, schools, libraries and other social facilities within the city, including those in the outskirts and in low-income settlements.

In Bristol, the local government replaces on average 1,200 computers a year. Instead of discarding these computers it works together with a local partner to refurbish them and distribute them to deprived families that so that they can fully benefit from the on-line services, job and training opportunities, and be able to network with others. The average family typically can save more than £500 per year in bills and discounted offers that are only available on-line.

The Agência de Communicação Solidária of Belo Horizonte is a networking facility for over 30 community-based organisations. It combines the functions of an incubator, a training facility, a strategic planning advisory service and a communications hub. Its main impact is the empowerment of low-income and disadvantaged segments of society through networking, sharing, access to information and knowledge and means of expression. Media partners have enabled these communities to portray their own lives and living conditions to the general public. Starting in 2011, ACS and its constituent community groups have embarked on a campaign against youth violence and through the establishment of Belo Horizonte Youth Forum. Besides mobilising and sensitising youth to issues pertaining to violence, the Forum also promotes policy dialogue between youth and community groups and local government.

Making cities more resilient

Recent events have shown how vulnerable cities are to earthquakes, floods, tropical storms and cloud bursts. Making cities more resilient to natural and man-made disasters require very similar approaches to making cities more sustainable: they both depend on more rational land-use; better designed infrastructure; more decentralised systems for service delivery, including water, sanitation and energy; and better informed and prepared citizens. But many cities will argue that adaptation and mitigation measures are costly enterprises that taxpayers are not prepared to shoulder. Many of the initiatives submitted to the 2012 Guangzhou Award for Urban Innovation in this category show how integrated approaches can help create jobs and value for the inhabitants of the city.

Cities like Curitiba, Harbin and Singapore are linking urban planning and development with an ecological approach to flood mitigation and prevention and river management. Instead of trying to contain rivers and drain stormwater using traditional big-pipe methods, both cities are allowing water to take a more natural but guided course through parks, gardens and restored or newly created wetlands. Using bio-engineering technology and knowledge of local flora, these integrated approaches have the added benefit of restoring and preserving bio-diversity and enhancing carbon sequestration. In the case of Singapore, the approach is also being used as part of an urban rehabilitation effort with water parks and wetlands providing new and added value to older urban districts.

Despite its location in the arid Sahelian area, Dakar experiences the occasional flood due to heavy rainfall. The last flood affected more than 10,000 families. Being a coastal city, Dakar is also prone to erosion and salt water infiltration. Paving streets and public spaces with impermeable materials can be a disaster in the making. For this reason Dakar adopted an integrated approach to an economic and environmental issue. The initiative uses paving stones and small scale contractors to pave roads, squares and other public spaces. The approach represents a 10 to 30 percent reduction in cost in comparison to conventional paving methods. It also creates two to four times more jobs with the same investment.  Employment and training of low-skilled labour as well as supporting local manufacturing of paving stones are combined to improve local economic development and employment opportunities. At the same time, the road and associated surfaces are paved with a semi-pervious material that reduces storm water runoff, facilitates replacement of surface water, and replenishes the aquifer to help prevent salt water intrusion which is critical to maintaining and improving water quality in places like Dakar.

Some concluding observations

I have presented very succinctly a small portion of the deserving initiatives submitted for the Guangzhou Award for Urban Innovation. The wealth of knowledge, expertise and experience that has been collected for this first edition of the Guangzhou Award fully lives up to the Award’s objectives – that of highlighting exemplary models of innovative policies and practices; motivating cities and local authorities to further promote innovation; and improving city governance. The next steps should be to avail all of the qualifying submissions to a wide audience through an interactive database and website and encourage professional, governmental and non-governmental, civic and academic bodies to analyse them for lessons learned and wide dissemination.


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1 Comment

  1. Dear Nicholas,
    Indeed this is an insightful piece you have given us. I am currently working on a PhD in Urban Governance and your presentation is really helpful. However, I have a question regarding the extent to which governments can pursue these policies without leaving the poor behind. I am in Johannesburg where the level and quality of service delivery to the poor is still lower and inadequate. Currently several townships have experienced service delivery protests with people complaining of poor and inadequate service delivery.
    How do you see innovation of the kind you describe above fitting in African cities such as Johannesburg where inequalities are so high between different groups particularly race. True, Johannesburg is technologically head and will not struggle to adopt all these forms of innovation, but how can they do so without leaving the already suffering poor further behind?
    Thank you,


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