Sustainable Urbanisation: A Knowledge-Centric Approach

This post is written by Alvin K. Leong, Fellow, Pace Global Center for Environmental Legal Studies. It was first published on 17 May 2016 and was updated on 14 July 2016. 

Habitat III, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, is taking place in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016. The essential purpose of the Conference is to focus on the implementation of a “New Urban Agenda” – an agenda for sustainable development of cities and human settlements for the next 20 years.

Notably, Habitat III is the first United Nations global summit after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Thus, the Conference represents a striking opportunity to cement the role of sustainable urbanisation in achieving the SDGs, not only SDG 11 but all other SDGs interlinked with cities and human settlements.

Cities and human settlements are extraordinarily complex phenomena, and generating evidence–based and pragmatic knowledge and guidance is both necessary and necessarily a multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary process. The inventory of issues and priorities seem almost endless: inclusive cities and human rights, culture and heritage, national urban policies, multilevel governance, finance and fiscal systems, planning and design, public space (including green and blue), urban-rural linkages, integrated and balanced territorial planning and development, economic development, the informal sector, ecosystems, climate change, resilience and disaster risk management, infrastructure and services, housing, informal settlements, energy, transport and mobility, public health, etc.

Given the multidimensional, systemic complexities of cities and human settlements, a knowledge-centric approach, relentlessly focused on knowledge creation and sharing, is crucially needed. Such a knowledge-centric approach should be (among other things): (i) multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary, drawing from science, social science, design (including the emerging field of geodesign), law, public administration, and other disciplines, (ii) not just evidence-based and analytical but also contextual, including respecting cultural, community, traditional and indigenous knowledge, (iii) collaborative and interactive, including (a) policy interface mechanisms that encourage active policy dialogue between knowledge communities and governments, such as the science-policy interface (SPI), and (b) networks to stimulate collaboration among researchers and practitioners, and (iv) open, participatory and transparent, and free from conflicts of interest.

The international community should enhance the ambition on knowledge creation and sharing in the New Urban Agenda and beyond, to consolidate links with existing knowledge and capacity-building platforms and networks, foster the open and collaborative sharing and contextualizing of knowledge, expertise and experience, and promote sound data collection methodologies (including the emerging fields of geospatial and Earth observation data). Cities could also be invited to serve as “Knowledge Hubs” to enable the systematic city-to-city sharing and exchanging of urban development solutions and experiences. In sum, knowledge-centric approaches on the local, subnational, national, regional and global levels, have the potential to reshape the paradigm of knowledge creation and sharing for the sustainable development of cities and human settlements.

The path of sustainable development is massively complex but, in a sense, it is relatively straightforward. Because a supermajority of people will be urban inhabitants in this century, in order to achieve sustainable development, the world needs to achieve sustainable urbanisation. To achieve this, insightful and contextualized knowledge and expertise needs to be generated and translated into policy, which ultimately needs to be translated into action. Thus, a knowledge-centric approach, at the inception and foundation of the New Urban Agenda, can be pivotal to the entire sustainable development project.

While the author is a member of the Research and Academia Partner Constituent Group (PCG) of the GAP, the opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the agreement or endorsement of the Research and Academia PCG or GAP.

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