In October 2016, at the World Urban Forum 8 in Quito, Ecuador, UN Habitatlaunched its third planning cycle with Habitat III, now known as the New Urban Agenda. The agenda defines the work of the global urban community until 2036, by which time humanity will be well on its way to an estimated 2050 population of 10 billion — two-thirds of which will be urban dwellers. The New Urban Agenda established an ambitious and aspirational plan for how the world will manage the intensified process of what French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, writing in 1970 termed, “planetary urbanization.”
Habitat III was part of a larger process within the community of experts and practitioners working on the great problems of the 21st century: climate change, energy transition, food and water insecurity, demographic shifts (growth, aging and urbanization), pandemics, ecological degradation, economic stress and political instability, among others. Prior to Habitat III, their ambitions constituted what is known as the post-2015 development agenda. The year 2015 was significant because it marked the renewal and reinforcement of several key development agendas. The first was United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Relief’s re-worked disaster risk reduction platform, the 2015 Sendai Framework, followed by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015, the Paris Climate Agreement in December 2015 and, ultimately, Habitat III in October 2016.
Replicating Power Structures
Many see the New Urban Agenda as the key to humanity’s ability to weather a perfect storm of global crises. As the roadmap for surviving the 21st century, it carries an immense burden, and those working to make its vision for inclusive and sustainable urbanism a reality must contemplate a wide array of wicked problems. At Quito, however, it became clear to many observers that the New Urban Agenda was a mile wide in ambition, but not even an inch deep with concrete plans for implementation. Session after session deferred the tedium of substantive action by insisting that the work ahead was to figure out how to implement the fine words of the document. That work would be undertaken in Kuala Lumpur, at the World Urban Forum 9 in February 2018.
The task of the forum was to figure out how to implement the New Urban Agenda. The forum focused on the SDGs, especially Goal 11, which aims to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.” It was an appropriate focus for a gathering of the world’s city-engaged human development experts and practitioners, providing a place to compare notes, promote best practices and network. This, however, is not the full story.
The plausible, if skeptical, take is that World Urban Forum 9 was about reproducing a development agenda deeply entrenched in the Washington Consensus values of market liberalization and institutional commodification. The presence of experts who ostensibly control the knowledge behind the agenda added a whiff of legitimacy. The program featured a dizzying array of workshops that had the common narrative of “hearing from the audience” and fostering “participatory development.” However, the content and many of the messages appeared to be driven by funder or grant mandates. Left wanting, in many cases, were those who came to learn something practical: how to provide water in informal settlements, how to prepare for climate change or how to improve waste disposal.
Many sessions had a neo-colonial atmosphere as representatives from the privileged global minority — heads of agencies, NGOs, research institutes, graduate programs, corporations and financial institutions — chaired sessions and monopolized talk time. It was a scene profoundly reminiscent of the global development process of the past half-century.
A new development at World Urban Forum 9 was the emergence of smart citiesas a meta narrative for the New Urban Agenda’s implementation. The forum featured a proliferation of sessions about smart city technologies, plenary speakers dropped the term as the gold standard in sustainable and inclusive urban planning, and many exhibition booths featured strident declarations about the intersection of green, smart and inclusive — all underpinned by the vast potential of technology. Considering that Habitat III’s New Urban Agenda scarcely mentions smart cities, the term’s ubiquity at World Urban Forum 9 merits some contemplation.
Smart cities have abruptly appeared on the agenda for a combination of reasons. First, the world’s urban pontificators — a faddish lot — need a flashy concept to embody the implementation solution for the New Urban Agenda. Second, in its ambiguity the smart cities concept has become a canvas onto which many agendas are splattered. This versatility makes smart cities more a convenient placeholder for a normative vision of 21st-century urbanism than a substantive solution that can be implemented. Third, and perhaps most importantly, smart cities are where the big money is flowing. Cisco Systems, Microsoft and Google, among many other corporate players, are all committing to smart cities, and they stand to capture a growing piece of the speculative capital that sloshes around the global markets.