What Role for Academia in the New Urban Agenda?

Recap: Knowledge and Capacity after Quito: Mapping Out Academia’s Commitment to the New Urban Agenda and Sustainable Urbanization

Habitat III, Quito, Ecuador

15-20 October 2016

  • Which should be the role of research and academia in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda?
  • What value would a Multi Stakeholder Knowledge Platform for Sustainable Urbanization add to existing knowledge production and sharing efforts at the national, regional, and global scales?
  • How would a Knowledge Platform operate, and what range of financial and human resources would it require?
  • What forms of capacity development initiatives does the New Urban Agenda engender/ require to address urban and rural human settlements in equitable sustainable manner?
  • How can capacity development initiatives be scaled up and/ or rolled out in the most vulnerable regions of the world?

These questions guided the conversation at the Research and Academia stakeholders roundtable, one of the few sessions at the Habitat III conference in Quito to directly address the role of universities in driving sustainable urban development.


The Research and Academia roundtable focused on two central issue: 1) how to improve the mechanisms through which the academic research community identifies and knowledge on urbanization and how to use and translate that knowledge for policy makers; and 2) how to link this knowledge to capacity-building initiatives, scaling them up to tackle the challenges identified in the New Urban Agenda. The intended objective of the Academia and Research group, Enrique Silva from the Harvard Graduate School of Design pointed out, is to move towards developing a multi-stakeholder knowledge platform – but in order to reach that goal, key questions need to be addressed: what capacities are needed? How do we add value? How might that platform operate?

Genie Birch from the University of Pennsylvania laid out the problem. Policy makers and diplomats are not trained in the substantive areas of urbanization. In other areas of negotiation in the realm of international relations and multi-lateral agreements, negotiators can turn to experts (to the International Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, for example). However, there is comparable panel or forum on urbanization to inform action and implementation of urban sustainability agendas. This is a problem when, Birch argues, space and place need to be central in the New Urban Agenda. While there are many groups involved in the discussion, it is necessary to formulate some form of centralized networking framework to coordinated and mobilize urban research, knowledge, and expertise. To this end, paragraph 128 of the New Urban Agenda was held up as the key directive for university and academic engagement. The imperative outlined here is the provision of evidence-based policy informed by academically rigorous analysis of urban challenges. From a base of synthesizing and translating research for those implementing the New Urban Agenda, a multi-stakeholder knowledge platform can raise awareness of urbanization issues in public policy and, ultimately, turn that awareness into tools for monitoring and supporting a policy landscape capable of driving sustainable urban development.

Paragraph 128 from the New Urban Agenda

Tackling this problematic, argued Anna-Helene Prier-Richard from Future Earth, requires focusing on two central aspects. First, the production of knowledge cannot happen on in the ‘ivory tower’ of the academy; it needs to be built with different stakeholders to inform policy agendas. As such, the goal is to scale up the approach outlined by Birch and fill the gaps we are seeing in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. Second, there is a need to concentrate on the synthesis of urban knowledge. Here, the idea is to work with everyone because there is knowledge in different places that needs to be gathered together. In order to mobilize such a broad remit, there is a need, Prier-Richard continued, to provide data and methods that provide the knowledge we want to produce. The IPCC was noted as a model for evidence-based policy that urbanists could aspire to – although, despite its 20 years of practice, the IPCC model highlights the necessity of enabling mechanisms to make sure the outcomes of these panels are used by policy makers. A major challenge in this context, Prier-Richard concluded, was ensuring expert panels have an institutional presence at the local level. The importance of place-based contexts has tended to be overlooked in existing assessment structures, but can help speed up the process if we can implement it – a significant challenge given the rapid pace of urbanization.

The panelists get set for the Research and Academic Roundtable

The political and policy sphere is characterized by forces pulling in different direction. Creating institutional interfaces is difficult, but vital, claimed University College London’s Michele Acuto. It is necessary, therefore, to take a concerted look at the pressing pace of institutional reform – and what is critical is the knowledge available to guide both this process, and the underlining imperatives of sustainable urban development. Habitat III, for Acuto, marked to moment to build trust in, and a guiding role for, academia. Urban knowledge is available in universities and the urban research community, but in different forms and different places. The coordination and synthesis of global urban expertise is essential to better connect current initiatives rather than diverting our attention to the creation of new programs. But overall, the efficacy evidence-based policy is contingent upon the development of trust-worthy policy. Universities have a key role to play to this end.

Some of this work is taking hold on the ground in Haiti, according to Rose-May Guignard of CIAT. Universities are helping local governments to build processes for sustainable urbanism at the local level. However, moving up to the national level, the issues become more strategic, often around urban extension. Sustainable urban development requires that we don’t just look at the numbers, but consider urban form and institutional timelines. Local governments want speed and rapid research turnaround whereas academic timelines are slower and shaped by different cultures and goals. Local governments are looking for responsive access to the right numbers from basic scientific view. In order for the academia to begin to effectively inform urban policy agendas, links between local governments and universities, Guignard argued, must be aligned to action/political/government timelines: the university is going to have to give on this question. From a practitioner perspective, academic institutions must shift their research and teaching practices to realize a win-win situation for both researchers and policy makers. For Guignard, the New Urban Agenda is moving urban planning beyond the economic concerns that shaped the practice in the 1990s. The current realities of urbanization mean planners and policy makers need to be prepared for the complexities of growth, implementation, and financing.

As in Haiti, Lorena Vivanco (Universidad de Cuenca) argued the information means power in local decision making in Ecuador. Information must therefore be democratized, both in terms of data collection and dissemination in order to realize more accurate and effective decisions. Given the importance of the local scale to democratically informed knowledge production, the question then arises are to where changes at the national scale are necessary to shape practices at the coalface. This, Vivanco noted, is a political, technical, and administrative issue. Most important for her is the need to develop tools to translate information for decision makers and citizens; tools that help democratization and accountability for decision makers because information needs to be readable by everyone.

Alexander Jachnow , Head of Urban Strategies and Planning at HIS Erasmus University (Rotterdam) offered a more cutting take on the challenges facing the Academia and Research group. We know we have to perform for urban development in the 21st century, but we are not doing a good job, he argued. There is an increasing lack of capacity, especially in the Global South. Consequently, we have to think what type of knowledge is necessary to support capacity development, not just capacity building. This is a key distinction.

Knowledge is not directly capacity. Knowing is not applying – Jachnow

We therefore require better ways to link these two concepts. Jachnow cautioned against a reliance on universal knowledge in this context, and instead argued for more research to be co-produced with communities in place. Destabilizing the position of the expert researcher will enable the research community to realize the we can learn more from communities than we can teach them. Although research has been reduced to the production of technical knowledge and approaches in the New Urban Agenda, Jachnow posited that academics have the responsibility to actively engage. The New Urban Agenda itself is a missed opportunity to position academic researcher as active participants in knowledge production, rather than simply technical knowledge providers for politicians. As urban development is a social science, not a technical one, it takes urbanism out of the silos of architecture and finance. As urbanism is not a science, it has different models and modes of knowledge production and application. We then need to be careful regarding a global platform of knowledge to make sure it does not produce dogmatic, non-contextualized approaches to sustainable urban policy and practice. To this end, we need to support the Global South to build up better universities and better curricula. Mainstream research, Jachnow concluded, supports what we already think we know, not what we might need to know that we don’t already. Our role, and the role of universities is to tackle the thornier but vital questions mainstream research does not engage.

In concluding the roundtable session, Claudio Assio Jr. stated the UN is thinking about scaling up its sustainability programs, and wants universities to provide skills and knowledge for local authorities. He called for the gap between academic training and requirements of practice to be closed. New competencies need to be developed that are not in the academic curriculum. Universities, for Assio, should therefore be multidisciplinary and demand driven. Old institutions limit our ability to think outside the box and inhibit the production and flow of quick knowledge. He called for UN-Habitat need to build a bridge with universities to train urban planners and managers through UNI network to create a dialogue “because knowledge make a difference”. In contrast to Jachnow, Assio wants talk about numbers, not what we think or believe: “numbers mark the realities of cities”.



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