INSIGHTS | POLICY FORUM
from natural disasters (8). Philanthropy has
been one of the most fundamental forces in
the informed cities paradigm, e.g., Deutsche
Bank support for the LSE (London School of
Economics) Urban Age program, or the Laura
and John Arnold Foundation peer network
of urban “chief data officers” in the United
States. Global engineering consultancy Arup
has been behind assessments produced by
C40 Cities and Rockefeller Foundation 100
Resilient Cities, and J.P. Morgan or Jones
Lang LaSalle have been steering the “global
Without effective reform in the UN system,
and consequent support of national governments, there is little hope for truly global action that goes beyond private interests and
networked efforts by cities, which are necessarily selective in the way they connect across
borders. UN-Habitat, the UN’s main “urban”
agency, is plagued by budgetary concerns,
and other better-equipped UN agencies such
as the World Health Organization (WHO)
cannot shoulder a multisectorial cities effort
while also representing specific agendas like
that in WHO’s Shanghai 2016 Consensus on
Many diplomats and national interests in
an international setting are resistant to reforms on urban science advice. Despite some
initial momentum, the New Urban Agenda
and the UN General Assembly have shelved
both the idea of an intergovernmental panel
on urban change akin to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the idea of
a new interagency body, “UN-Urban,” to coordinate multilateral efforts on cities beyond
specific agencies’ interests. In the secretary
general’s UN reform agenda, both proposals
remain on the table but face opposition.
Initiatives that combine local knowledge
and technological advances, and coalesce
private sector, local government, and civil society actors, offer perhaps the best promises.
For example, the “Know Your City” program,
led by Slum Dwellers International in collaboration with the Santa Fe Institute, Cities
Alliance, and the Gates Foundation, has produced perhaps the largest census, geographic
information system, and infrastructure data
for over 7712 slums and 224 cities globally
(9). Such efforts, though promising, still
struggle for more than opportunist action in
a crowded multilateral system.
SCIENCE IN CITIES: A GLOBAL PLAN
A reform of scientific advice to cities must
happen jointly at local, national, and multi-
lateral levels. This entails a globally oriented
plan to encourage topical and geographical
rebalancing of urban science, more evidence-
based policy centered on scholarly analysis,
and formalized science-policy mechanisms.
Local collaborations should feed science di-
rectly into city executives. Although still a
rarity, and without clear examples of success,
the idea of a chief scientific adviser has had
some limited foray into local government.
University–city partnerships are also criti-
cal. In South Africa, the Gauteng City-Region
Observatory was established in 2008 as a
partnership between the Universities of Jo-
hannesburg and the Witwatersrand and the
Gauteng Provincial Government and has de-
veloped one of the best platforms to encour-
age scientifically driven urban management
but also local capacity building. Urban ob-
servatories and chief scientists are no longer
unaffordable or a luxury worth dispensing of
in urban governance.
A concerted effort by the private and
philanthropic sector toward provision of
balanced and unbiased advice to cities is
overdue. Private funding shaping informa-
tion in cities today highlights challenges of
“philanthrocapitalism” (10), criticized for the
inevitable earmarking of private agendas and
skewing of public priorities. Evidence-based
policy of the scientific kind must rest on some
degree of replicability and accountability of
the data produced and its producers, which
many global private actors shy away from. A
code of practice akin to the Good Humanitar-
ian Donorship program in the disaster relief
sector, which has since 2003 fostered discus-
sion against earmarking when it comes to
development aid, could be a start.
More serious national foresight and monitoring efforts by central governments are
imperative. Empowering science advice, and
understanding it, is increasingly a global
business, essential for all levels of policy-making—and cities should not be forgotten
(11). The emergence of “national urban poli-
cies” (35 and counting) is encouraging, but
the “cities” agenda is often so transversal to
infrastructure, economics, culture, foreign
policy, and other concerns that cities are too
often everyone’s business and thus no one’s
business, lacking clear recognition or a min-
istry. The U.S. President’s Council of Advisors
on Science and Technology called in 2016 for
a cross-agency coordination system on cities.
One such model is Chile’s National Council for
Urban Development contributing scientifi-
cally based expertise to the country’s national
urban policy. At the central government level,
assessment exercises to understand the future
of cities, as with the long-lived futures exper-
tise in Singapore’s national urban planning,
have demonstrated that states can support
their urban environments effectively in the
creation of better data-driven policy. National
and local processes can feed off each other,
rather than remaining parallel tracks. In the
United Kingdom, Newcastle City Futures was
established in 2014 by Newcastle University
as a collaborative foresight platform building
on the UK Government Office for Science’s
Foresight Future of Cities program. More of
these are needed and can be built with sup-
port from regional bodies (e.g., the European
Union and Association of Southeast Asian
Nations) as much as multilateral funders.
The multilateral world is still failing urban
science and cities. A UN-Urban and an “
urban change” scientific panel would articulate
a “cities contribution” to UN efforts across
sectors, mobilizing the urban science community that stood behind its establishment
of an “Urban SDG” (SDG11) and the Habitat
III process. Strengthening UN-Habitat, rather
than betting on UN-Urban, could also play
this role. Yet this would require a stronger
and formalized partnership with academia.
Here UN-oriented action is key to shift the
scale of urban science. Despite numerous
“city rankings” and case studies, and some
mounting interest in comparative research,
there is too little truly “global” urban science
capable of conveying shared patterns, trends,
and needs (12).
Starting from the UN level, in whichever
of these formats, could inspire more formal
multilevel policy efforts that can nudge national politics more explicitly toward cities,
encouraging a cross-cutting reform of the
ways information is collected and deployed
in city politics. This could, for instance, start
from tracking at city-level progress on the
11th SDG (on sustainable cities), as already
tested in the United States by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, or by
mirroring the efforts of the Global Burden
of Disease program, to track urbanization
on key SDG areas such as health, gender,
and clean energy.
Cities are stepping up to global challenges,
and their leadership is vital to address both
local and international concerns. Mobilizing
effective urban science advice for city leadership is no academic qualm. The price for
failure on this front is high, as cities are increasingly at the forefront of social inequality,
disasters, and economic downturns. Informing them appropriately and accountably is a
moral, scientific, and political duty.
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