Business can be a powerful broker in shaping urbanization solutions

Habitat III must result in a collaborative multi-stakeholder model that can be translated by national governments and their partners into local action programmes.

Maxim L./Shutterstock

Apartments buckle, subways morph into fast-flowing rivers, and cars flutter past like paper hats in the breeze: If you were in New York on 29 October 2012, you would have felt the terrifying force of Superstorm Sandy.

Two years later, you may have witnessed another rare phenomenon: City authorities, politicians and other stakeholders sitting around the table with big business to find ways to prevent the human impacts of such a disaster from happening again.

As a result, work is scheduled to start next year on the Dryline. This 10-mile flood-defence buffer will wrap Manhattan in natural banks and floodwalls — a solution devised by the collective brains of a global engineering firm, residents, business owners, and city and state agencies.

The firm in question, Arcadis, is now helping 11 other global cities tackle pressing challenges in the environment, transport and urban planning. It’s a fantastic, collaborative approach, brokered by an international company acting as a responsible global citizen, involving a full spectrum of stakeholders and sharing best practices across the world.

[See: Habitat III can galvanize city-business collaboration on sustainable urban infrastructure]

So why doesn’t this type of collaboration happen more often?

Pockets of political will do seem to exist. In Istanbul in 1996, for instance, the United Nations’ Habitat II conference highlighted the “power of participation” as a key factor in creating sustainable human settlements.

Today, this sentiment is again gathering pace in the run-up to October’s Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador. The World Urban Campaign (WUC) is incorporating a model of multi-stakeholder engagement into the conference by inviting into the fold a panoply of groups, including professionals, local authorities, research bodies, academia, parliamentarians, trade unions, youth groups and the media.

Last year, the WUC underlined its commitment to multi-stakeholder collaboration by launching the General Assembly of Partners. Welcoming with open arms virtually any stakeholder across the world, this non-governmental “mobilization force” is joining up sustainable urban thinking among a range of groups — women, young and indigenous people, NGOs, local authorities, workers and trade unions, businesses and industry, scientific and technological communities, and farmers.

[See: Habitat III stakeholders offer vision of broad partnership for sustainable urbanization]

So, international policies are starting to shape up. But why aren’t we seeing more multi-stakeholder collaboration on the ground at the level of local implementation?

Broadening partnerships

I’ve been lucky enough to live in several global cities, including Paris, Shanghai, Seoul, Beijing, San Francisco, Washington and now London. In each of these cities, urban challenges — from pollution to overburdened transport networks — are tackled in myriad ways, and relationships between government and business differ markedly at the city and national levels.

“International policies are starting to shape up. But why aren’t we seeing more multi-stakeholder collaboration on the ground at the level of local implementation?”

I’ve also seen how traditional public-private partnerships work well for large-scale infrastructure projects, with governments providing the funding and then procuring the services of the private sector for implementation.

[See: New solutions to close the gap on municipal finance]

But in the face of huge urban growth, with pressure mounting on the infrastructure and social fabric of cities, something needs to change. Simple “binary” partnerships between city and business are not enough. We need the collective input of a broad cross-section of people — from citizens to specialist-interest groups — to properly understand complex urbanization challenges and evolve sophisticated solutions.

And business can play an active role in this, helping to pool the efforts of all stakeholders to develop solutions that can help major cities succeed. My organization, Global Cities Business Alliance (GCBA), is working hard to encourage the take-up of this new model of multi-stakeholder engagement as a way to solve urban challenges. We hope to see these principles endorsed in the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year strategy that will come out of Habitat III.

We founded GCBA in 2015 with a group of leading international businesses to share good practices in urbanization solutions. These companies have first-hand knowledge of what works and what doesn’t work in cities across the world, so it makes sense to communicate these insights more widely.

[See: The New Urban Agenda will pay for itself]

For example, in the past year we’ve conducted research and held interviews in 25 global cities to find out how public and private sectors currently are working together and to look toward how these interactions might improve.

We found that businesses are helping to solve urban challenges in two distinct ways. First, through early strategic dialogue — injecting important technological know-how from day one. And second, once the project is underway, business is functioning as an operational partner during the delivery phase.

The full findings are being made public this week at the Global Cities Symposium in London. The full report is available here.

During the course of this research, we found a spectrum of city-led and business-led models at work. In Buenos Aires, for instance, we discovered the city-led Investor Attention Center (CAI). Founded by city officials, this initiative aims to help companies make the business case for investment, connect them with other businesses and support them throughout their growth cycle.

[See: How Canada does public-private partnerships]

And in Bangkok we found a good business-led example. In the Thai capital, chambers of commerce are providing a forum for companies to discuss common challenges and communicate issues to government in a single voice. These chambers also are acting as foreign-direct-investment agencies, helping overseas investors operate in Thailand.

Vision and know-how

GCBA is not the only actor calling for more-active multi-stakeholder collaboration to address urban issues. We’ve partnered in particular with two other organizations actively supporting this model: the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.

“A huge leap forward would be to see a collaborative multi-stakeholder model writ large in the New Urban Agenda and then translated by national governments and their partners into local action programmes.”

Their joint 2015 report, Innovative City-Business Collaboration, highlights the fact that joined-up thinking must shape a city’s sustainability vision from the outset.

It is vital that the Habitat III process considers the role that business can play in establishing effective local partnerships with the vision and know-how to tackle complex urban challenges. Doing so will lead to the development of many more innovative solutions in the vein of Manhattan’s remarkable Dryline.

[See: Breaking municipal finance down to its basics]

A huge leap forward would be to see this collaborative multi-stakeholder model writ large in the New Urban Agenda and then translated by national governments and their partners into local action programmes. After all, this document will form the bedrock of urbanization policies for decades to come, helping to steer the collective efforts of companies, civil society, nation states, city and regional leaders, international development funders and the United Nations.

Now is the time to put in place guidelines to ensure strong collaboration between all of these groups.

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Gary Sharkey

Gary Sharkey is programme director at Global Cities Business Alliance in London.