Inside the Guangzhou Award for urban innovation

Guangzhou Award Technical Committee members debate the 209 applications received from cities around the world. (Guangzhou Award photo)

GUANGZHOU, China — Can an award system for distinctive city innovations go beyond capturing headlines for winners? Can it develop into an ongoing system of learning for cities around the world, inspiring new ways for them to deal with tough social, economic and environmental challenges?

That’s the clear goal of the Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation, inaugurated by the city’s mayor in 2012 and cosponsored by the two leading worldwide city membership organizations — United Cities and Local Governments and Metropolis. As Josep Roig, Secretary General of UCLG affirms: “The Guangzhou Award is not only the way to showcase excellence in cities around the world, but should also foster exchanges and learning.”

The program joins an increasingly crowded field of awards, challenges and other means of recognizing good ideas for improving city governance. Other newcomers include the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge (U. S. 2012, Europe 2014), and the Siemens-C40 Cities Climate Leadership Award. (2013, 2014). The World Mayor Award competition (begun in London in 2004) continues to flourish. And all the new competitions join such established initiatives as the U. S. National Civic League’s All-America City Awards, started in 1949, and Harvard University’s Innovations in American Government Awards, begun in in 1985.

In Guangzhou last month, we had an inside view of the inner workings of the most global of these award programs. We had a chance to sit in on, and take part in, the sessions of the so-called “Technical Committee” — that’s the group assigned to sift through more than 200 entries from across the world to come up with a list of 15 finalists.

The 11-member committee of urban practitioners and scholars spent three days reviewing submissions, debating, jousting and comparing points on the merits of each application. We applied multiple filters — for example, not only the novelty and impact of an innovation, but also questions of social inclusion and whether it benefits all classes of society. A question that always loomed large: Can other cities adapt the innovation to their own circumstances?

A view from the East

One thing that distinguishes the Guangzhou award is its global perspective.

Most awards going to city governments are limited by theme or geography, or have Western home addresses. (A notable exception is the city-sponsored Dubai International Award for Best Practices, staffed by UN-Habitat since its inception in 1996.) The Guangzhou Award is not just worldwide in focus, but also follows the global march of urbanization toward the Far East.

There’s little doubt that Guangzhou — a booming metropolis of 15 million, top manufacturing and trade center and anchor of China’s Pearl River Delta — sees a public-relations advantage for itself in hosting and financing a world-leading urban innovation program. But the effort has deeper aspirations: to show how a leading commercial hub can also pioneer on the knowledge front of 21st-century urbanism.

And the awards themselves are just the beginning. The city is promising to send learning missions to the 15 finalist cities in the competition, as well as urging other cities and urban scholars worldwide to take note of lessons to be learned from the winning cities. Major articles, books, and other follow through are envisioned.

Criteria and method

A group of clear criteria were laid out for the Guangzhou Technical Committee to use in our deliberations. The first listed was “innovativeness” — applying knowledge to develop new policies that address major city challenges. Second came “effectiveness” — showing the initiative has or likely will accomplish its objectives. Third was “replicability” — inspiring other cities to adopt similar goals for greater impact and sustainability. And finally “significance” — the importance of the initiative in addressing current-day urban problems.

Another difference noted was between innovations that are evolutionary (improving existing practices) in contrast to those that are revolutionary (totally new processes or program goals). The Guangzhou award acknowledges the differences, but welcomes entries representing both brands of innovation.

Guangzhou adviser Nicholas You facilitated discussions among Technical Committee members. (Guangzhou Award photo)

The technical committee, under the direction of veteran urbanist Nicholas You, was given a very precise process to follow in reaching its decisions. First, we broke into three groups, each reading and discussing a portion of the 209 submitted entries, sorted into major world geographic groups. We checked all of them for quality; incomplete or weak submissions were eliminated, producing a list of 77 initiatives from 71 cities. (An entry from Guangzhou itself had been considered in 2012, but there were no Guangzhou entries in 2014. The current thinking appears to be that if the city competes directly, it can possibly displace another city’s entry — in Chinese culture, the host should be modest.)

Next the committee was re-divided into two groups for the purpose of identifying, from the 77, what we considered 45 especially outstanding entries. The choices were not all unanimous; differences had to be ironed out in debate and voting until a common list of 45 was agreed on. Then in our final session, with especially spirited debate — and a bit of horse-trading based on geographic diversity or theme — the committee whittled its list down to the top 15.

In the next step, city delegations from those top 15 cities are invited to a culminating conference in Guangzhou on November 27. It’s seen as a major event, co-sponsored by the city of Guangzhou along with UCLG and Metropolis.

Each of the 15 finalist cities will be invited to present their projects and lessons learned to a large audience including several anonymous jury members — former elected city officials and other urban experts from world cities (excepting Guangzhou itself). The jury will select the five final winners. Each will receive a fairly modest prize of $20,000 U. S. But far more importantly, it will gain broad recognition as one of the top innovator cities of the world.

Themes and the future

The themes of the 15 finalists for 2014 reflect the challenges facing cities worldwide today. Unambiguously topping the list is the urban world’s premier concern: climate change. In cities ranging from Abu Dhabi to Hamburg, Jakarta to Melbourne, Rio de Janeiro to Linköping, Sweden to Gwangju, Korea, leaders are finding ingenious ways to protect the public against sea-level rise, intense storms and warmer temperatures.

Two of the chosen city innovations focused on citizenship and skill building. One was Boston’s participatory budgeting program inviting young people to take part in allocating $1 million in city funds. The other was and the creation of 80 “educational parks” honoring youth and communities in Antioquia, Colombia, following the highly successful precedents established in the area’s capital city, Medellín.

Other topics included “smart city” strategies (Bristol, U. K.); accessing capital markets in Sub-Saharan Africa (Dakar, Senegal); a museum that cherishes the people’s memory of a city (Eskişehir, Turkey), China’s first and largest public bike-sharing program (Hangzhou), and government-citizen roundtables to stimulate innovation and creativity (Buenos Aires, Argentina). (Click here for full descriptions of the 15 finalists.

Guangzhou has great hopes for its award process. “The Guangzhou Award aims to recognize and promote innovation in urban sustainability and resilience for improving the livelihoods of people,” Guangzhou Mayor Chen Jianhua says. “Our hope is that cities from all over the world can share experience and learn from each others’ innovative policies as well as practices to scale up their respective efforts.”

Meeting that goal does require substantial staffing, travel and prize money costs for each biennial competition round. And the process can’t be called quite perfect yet. Major challenges remain in getting out word of the award and its significance to a full range of cities globally. The number of applications has been modest. But the Guangzhou organizers’ feeling seems to be that the appropriate goal for the future should be to seek applications of consistently high quality rather than high numbers of submissions.

Another challenge is geographic diversity in applications. Reflecting experience in other competitions, the Guangzhou process has not, to date, received submissions from Japan, for example. Relatively few proposals have come from the United States (whose cities are chronically slow to recognize innovations abroad or participate in competitions outside the nation’s borders.)

But despite hurdles to overcome, supporters believe that the Guangzhou Award, with its worldwide appeal for entries, its carefully constructed rules for city submissions and judging, and especially its goal of stimulating learning, innovation and improved governance in cities across the continents, will grow, prosper and contribute significantly in this “century of the city.”

Editor’s note: Neal Peirce served as a member of the Guangzhou Award technical committee; Farley Peters participated in the committee sessions. Nicholas You, a strategic adviser to the award, is a Citiscope board member.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that France and Russia had not submitted applications to the Guangzhou Award. They have.


Inside the Guangzhou Award for urban innovation

Guangzhou: From pell-mell growth to champion of urban innovation

The short list: 15 finalists for the 2014 Guangzhou Award 

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Neal Peirce is the founder and editor-in-chief of Citiscope. Full bio
Farley Peters is Citiscope’s deputy editor. Full bio

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