Urban science must inform policymaking — here’s how

This week, a six-month initiative brings together 30 global experts to look into how to create an “urban science-policy interface” for global sustainability.
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As the euphoria from last year’s Habitat III conference on sustainable urbanization dissipates and global attentions turn to other pressing matters, it is urgent that the urban communities — of policy, practice and research — not lose the momentum and messaging that cities are essential to a sustainable future.

However, there are dangerous signs that the groundswell of support for cities in global policymaking may already be stalling. For instance, there is still no consensus on the interface between the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and other multilateral agreements dealing with cities and territorial systems, including the New Urban Agenda that was endorsed at Habitat III.

Likewise, we still do not have an established “science-policy interface” that gives a formal platform for urban scholars to engage formal policy processes like those elsewhere across the United Nations. For instance, the climate community has an Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), biodiversity has its analogue (IPBES), and key interdisciplinary U. N. themes such as water or energy even have their own linchpin inter-agency bodies (UN-Water and UN-Energy).

What these structures allow, in various forms, is a formal role for science and interface with policy creating a channel for scholarly knowledge in multilateral affairs. Cities, on the contrary, lack not only a clear global agency but also any dedicated mechanism with which to engage the United Nations.

[See: Habitat III loses proposed Multi-Stakeholder Panel — for now]

Finally, the proposed monitoring mechanisms for the SDGs — including SDG 11, the landmark goal on cities — and other parts of the global urban policy agenda are inadequate. Academia is now mobilizing to provide authoritative commentary on the urban intricacies of implementing and assessing progress on these global goals.

Fostering urban leadership

At Habitat III, which took place in October in Quito, Ecuador, many conceded that “urban science”, as a catchall reference for all types of inquiry into cities, remained “disparate, marginalized and ill-prepared to interact effectively with global policy”. But that admission came with a call for improved evidence-based policymaking and a commitment to forge a more effective role for urban experts and their scholarship in shaping the future of cities.

“It is urgent that the urban communities — of policy, practice and research — not lose the momentum and messaging that cities are essential to a sustainable future.”

Now is the time to start to deliver on this latter point. Nobody suggests that creating a coherent community of global urban scholars will be easy. Indeed, it will be particularly complicated by the fact that new knowledge will need to be forged collaboratively, engaging multiple regions, disciplines, professions and even ideologies. But it will be critical work nonetheless.

[See: Platform needed to provide scientific input on New Urban Agenda implementation, researchers say]

Of course, the work done for Habitat III and for the establishment of SDG 11 is far from wasted. Indeed, established research communities do exist around specific topics — such as climate change and cities, urban safety, ecosystems and cities — and many of these already interact with each other.

These links in many case predate 2016 and have established track records, but the Habitat III process helped coalesce disparate urban concerns in a framework that fed themes into the New Urban Agenda negotiations. Moreover, some of the more established sub-communities (for instance, on climate or urban safety), further benefited from the Habitat III platforms to advance integration of science and policy in their specific domains.

[See: We’re entering a ‘new era’ for cities and science]

Now, these nascent networks of scholars provide critical foundations for broader efforts around global urban science. But much more needs to be done, including accelerating our efforts to cross-fertilize between academic disciplines, geographic areas, and urban policy sectors. Some such links are already there, but connections are tentative, fragile and at times brittle — so much work is needed to foster urban leadership.

Over the next six months, a new expert panel will explore how urban science can interact more effectively with policy and ultimately have an impact on policy decisions. That process is kicking off this week.

Expert panel

To galvanize the intellectual and political energies that enabled the endorsement of an urban SDG and provided impetus to the New Urban Agenda, Nature Sustainability journal and the City Leadership Lab at University College London (UCL), along with ICSU and the Prince of Wales’ ISU, have joined forces to start a groundbreaking process on the urban science-policy interface for global sustainability.

“Over the next six months, the expert panel will review the state of the art of the interface between urban science and policy, and assess the viability of forging a more cohesive body of urban expertise.”

This initiative builds on and expands expertise developed around the SDGs and Habitat III and includes other leading global urban experts to ensure an interdisciplinary scholarship. The aim of the Nature Sustainability Expert Panel is to advance the development of a more-integrated, cross-disciplinary and policy-engaged research on cities and urbanization. Over the next six months, this commission, of 30 eminent international scholars, will consider how urban science interacts with and influences policy.

[See: Meet the Edmonton official leading next year’s landmark conference on climate and cities]

The tasks of the panel are clear. First, these 30 experts will seek to understand the role of science in forging a more sustainable future for cities. Second, they will work to make legible “science-policy interfaces” among different actors and at multiple scales. The final goal will be to offer tangible recommendations to the United Nations and beyond as to what can be done to bring together the knowledge and expertise from across the global urban science community in an effective interface to influence the sustainable development agenda.

Research from the UCL City Leadership Lab in the lead-up to Habitat III identified important themes for the 30 experts to consider as they seek to advise on how to open up practical and effective avenues to better mobilize the global urban research-policy connection. These themes include:

Communication and cooperation: Multi-level, multi-stakeholder and cross-sectoral approaches are needed. This is increasingly occurring, as illustrated by the proliferation of inter-municipal cooperation platforms such as city networks, but there is still much scope for improvement.

Participation: Even though progress was made to ensure wider participation, some actors reported having been sidelined during the process leading up to the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, including civil society, trade unions and the private sector. Inclusive participation from a wide and diverse range of constituents is essential for identifying and realizing opportunities.

Data quality and curation: There is a lack of comparable data sets, not only across geographies but also methodological and processing capacity asymmetries in the focus of data available. Access to data is often uneven, as numerous non-governmental actors — including universities, the private sector and NGOs — become repositories and drivers in the production of urban data.

Skills: There is a need to build further capacity in terms of understanding how to analyze and use data effectively, understanding the limitations of that data (including the scope of questions that can be addressed), acting beyond policy silos and balancing capabilities in the Global North and South.

[See: Science has a key part to play in planning the future of cities]

Building on these and many other key issues, the expert panel will review the state of the art of the interface between urban science and policy, and assess the viability of forging a more cohesive body of urban expertise. In November it will release a panel report with recommendations for the U. N. system and the academic world, followed by a comment in Nature Sustainability in January, as part of the lead-up to the World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur the following month.

Work is underway already — this week, the panel convenes in person for the first time.

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Michele Acuto

Michele Acuto is director of the UCL City Leadership Lab and professor of urban theory at University College London.

Monica Contestabile

Monica Contestabile is chief editor of Nature Sustainability.

Susan Parnell

Susan Parnell is professor of urban geography and co-founder of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. She is also a visiting professor at LSE Cities.

Karen Seto

Karen Seto is associate dean and professor of geography and urbanization science at Yale University.