UGEC Synthesis Session #2:
Urban governance, technology and innovation in an era of environmental change


Session Abstract

This session took a critical look at our current notion of technology in cities as well as our urban governance structures, and offered insight to ways forward in research and thinking about how we can accelerate sustainable urban transitions. The aim was to synthesize our knowledge of key urban governance in the 21st century, analyze what arrangements are most effective and how we can better coordinate multiple stakeholders in participatory urban governance processes while addressing key spatial and temporal challenges associated with urbanization and global environmental change. In parallel, the session considered what research reveals about technology and innovation in urban areas; smart, eco and zero-carbon city strategies; and evaluation across developed nations, and in particular developing regions. It also explored some of the associated challenges that concern social inclusion or exclusion, merging vision (often influenced by exogenous factors) with reality (local political and socio-economic contexts) and what effects these have at the meso-scale or global scale.

Organizers: UGEC Project


Guiding Questions and Key Messages

What are the key messages that we’ve learned about urban governance research and practice (synergies or disconnects between the two)?

  • Urban governance is the most polycentric of all governance with multiple institutional scales. Urban governance research has a better chance to be successful in the policy context.
  • There is a disconnect in terms of the two streams of research.  On the one hand, there is research on the understanding of the context or conditions that enable urban governance, and on the other, research that focuses on the development of urban policy or decisionmaking. 
  • Urban governance research and practice is a static practice, but cities undergo dynamic change. Whether it is urbanization, climate change, technological evolution or policy, these types of processes are disconnected (some of them are cyclical, e.g., environmental extremes; policy processes).
    • Urban governance frameworks do not start from the point of change. Traditionally or historically rates of change have not been dealt with, which means both environmental change and urban change issues are often not well addressed.
  • Regional level governance structures are rapidly emerging, which have implications for urban development of both existing urban areas and the creation of new multifunctional urban areas. In West Africa, for example, regional level transportation infrastructure is being discussed; in East Africa, devolved oil pipe and transportation infrastructure from South Sudan/Uganda to the Kenyan coast for refinement and use has implications for the region.
  • Good practices and knowledge transfer is important for successful governance. For the policy agenda to reflect a changing climate or available information, the identification of how current practices can be slightly adjusted in different regions is critical, e.g., the NYC Hurricane Sandy experience.
  • Corruption and invisible power relationships exist in the governance of urban systems. This speaks beyond a disconnect to the fundamental power structures of money and the current system of production.
  • Self-learning works better in developing countries vs. guided learning. Participatory learning and citizen involvement is more effective than top-down guided interventions.
  • Politics respond to interests that are often not backed by science.  Professions including engineering, heath, or urban planning are more influential in this regard.
  • Politicians do not have the same long-term concerns as researchers, but scientists often do not understand policy. A better understanding of each other’s assumptions, needs and wants are necessary for co-production.
    • Caution in co-production.  How and when co-production can and should be done, as there are different conceptualizations.
  • Local communities are important, as they are the user of spaces. These communities can provide strong pushback to global processes, leading to change.
  • Intermediary organizations (NGOs) and the role of consultants are important for bridging science-policy gaps. In China, as in many other countries, the government and citizens are very disconnected, with NGOs helping to bridge this gap.
  • A large disconnect exists between citizens and researchers. There is not enough understanding of the commonalities or lessons learned involving the common people in policymaking in different cities and between the Global North and Global South. 
  • Putting mitigation on the policy agenda remains a challenge. Convincing local officials and politicians from developing countries without high emissions (when compared globally) to focus on mitigation efforts, when in effect, it halts development as it is currently understood, continues to be very challenging.
    • There is increasing convergence of mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.
      These motivations are economic, as there are often greater resources available through mitigation vs. adaptation. Some cities are looking at opportunities beyond GHG inventories towards how local people can gain employment and income around mitigation (green economy).
  • The mainstreaming of response in policy and resulting implementation are dependent upon the legitimacy of design. There is evidence of places where local authorities are mainstreaming some form of environmental or or climate change responsiveness, but the implementation requires rethinking city structure, who lives where, and what to do about it. This brings in questions of legitimacy, i.e., as the policies are often developed in multiple ways (authoritarian, bottom-up, co-produced or quasi- political).


Are there indicators that global environmental change is incorporated as an important element of urban governance beyond current responses to climate change?

  • Response to GEC challenges in cities and their interactions remain unclear.  These include measures addressing biodiversity, regional/city areas around land-change, and competition between food production and forestry with urbanization.
    • Indicators could include green businesses and subsidies/incentives for green business; green technology; urban expansion vs. inner city development (e.g., lower footprint), involvement or engagement of civil society groups being engaged, e.g., CBOs or NGO at different levels.
  • Indicators have not been incorporated in mainstream business. An exception to this is the response to disaster circumstances. However, if and when they are incorporated in the monitoring, governance or decision-making mechanisms, how will they play out through the political and institutional processes (e.g., through top-down and enforced, or dialogic processes with co-produced outcomes)? 
  • Indicators are present but there are winners and losers. Climate change creates winners and losers; e.g., frameworks like smart cities are often used with neo-liberal policies that are greened, ambiguous and not always positive.
  • Water cycles are an element of GEC not uncommon to governance. Water and management, access and quality are important policy triggers in many countries. 


What are the opportunities to create multidimensional and interdisciplinary approaches for planning as tool to guide a transition to urban sustainability?

  • Integrated urban planning that utilizes Information and communications technology (ICT). This enables adjacent communities to align their investment plans over a 10-15 period.


Are Smart, Eco, and Zero Carbon Cities defined in the same way in developed and developing   countries and what are their potential contributions in terms of technology/innovation for urban sustainability particularly in light of anticipated global environmental change?

  • Eco-city concepts need to be unpacked. The definition of an eco-city is not straightforward, as it sometimes includes notions of urban greening or incorporation of nature, but whether it includes low-income people or addresses energy use or mitigation is unclear.
  • Innovation first. The intention of smart cities was to begin with a discussion of the problem needing to be solved, where technology was then used as a tool to support the innovation that could solve the problem. Mayors and other decisionmakers are often fixated on the eco-city as an end rather than a means. 
  • Ensure that the technology employed addresses the problem.  A challenge is that researchers do not always know the problem when it comes to making cities sustainable. Policymakers require a solid base for decisionmaking and researchers need to think about easy and robust systems in developing countries where the financial means do not exist.
  • Changing dialogue. The dialogue surrounding eco-cities, smart cities, or low carbon cities has replaced the more holistic urban sustainability approach, which is about equity, justice, etc. - where eco-cities are not.
    • De-emphasis on adaptation. International finance and international agenda setting of eco-cities has de-emphasized adaptation, where in some contexts is important.
    • The green economic agenda is the macroeconomic equivalent of the green city/eco-city, etc.  In the same way one may be critical of the green economic agenda vis a vis sustainable development, the same argument or concerns exist at the level of urban agendas which have shifted.
  • There is money in smart cities. Politicians like smart cities, and as a result gain support from academics because of the money smart cities bring in, undermining other and potentially better approaches.
  • Grassroots examples exist in some cases and may be worth exploring further. US Emerald Cities Collaborative is an example of an organization that was founded to develop green jobs or blue-collar jobs, reduction of waste and empowerment of communities. 


Have these initiatives unintended consequences with respect to social equality, regional balances or more holistic interpretations of urban sustainability? 

  • International knowledge occurs often without an understanding of or engagement with the local context. In China, Bus Rapid Transit development has lacked strong government regulations where locals were displaced and has led to gentrification, however, this issue is ignored due to higher importance placed on land values.
  • Technology can be a powerful tool for empowerment. Certain technology can be used at the local level to give bargaining, decisionmaking power, etc., especially for the poor or disadvantaged (e.g., simple tools, such as the use of GPS technologies for changing forest settlements in India.) 
    • Mapping and equity issues. Risk mapping that engages through social media, online platforms and tools must have a clear purpose. Is it serving the community? How can urbanization and change be relevant to the community at large?
    • Mapping exposes deeper issues. Example of India urban slum mapping proved to have challenges and push back related to the deeper questions of ‘what is a slum’ or informal settlement definitions.
  • Conceptualizing livable urban futures. The distinction between a goal and means is useful; for example, the Global Carbon Project has defined a set of goals (livable, etc.) and lower carbon is a means to achieve those goals. 
    • Incremental vs. fundamental change. There is a debate about what is needed for change and how this is approached.  However, there may not be a clear dichotomy between the two, e.g., scientists can become very powerful when findings are connected to policy or law-making (also raising democratic issues) particularly when developers and financiers do business differently under asystem of law that changes due to scientific findings. 


How can we best move forward in light of some of the challenges? What are the needs for research and/or design to make them ‘smarter’ but also ‘inclusive’ and ‘more sustainable’?

  • Role of science and the intellectual in society. Scholars are defacto involved in politics and governance via expert panels or consultancy work, etc. Scientific work is non-neutral and normative; therefore, transparency of the intentionality of the work, vocabulary used and ethics would help bridge the separation of ‘us’ vs. the rest of society.  
  • Avoiding biased science and more reflexivity.  There is a continued concern about biased science and about doing research to further political interests.  Work with PPPs, NGOs, which all have their agendas, can result in ‘capture’ as consultancy and scholarship is not often compatible.  More reflexivity with respect to participation, looking at how academics view scholarship and independence in these processes will not solve the issue, but can result in more transparency. 
    • Finding the niches to be effective. This community is not about being organizers or politicians, but has a different role to be explored carefully and well.
  • Making explicit the epistemological underpinning of research. Governance can be used as an analytical tool (to observe and understand) or it can be used to push a normative agenda.  A future challenge is to be more explicit about pushing an agenda if that is the case.
    • Underlying epistemologies exist not just between disciplines but also within.
  • Research of urban governance. It is important for future research to include how urban governance works and how urban governance structures move towards sustainability.
  • Power as a topic for research. Private companies have the financial influence. Microeconomics and the use of limited resources need to be researched.
  • Methods and approaches to co-design. This would explore how to bring different interests into the discussion. 
    • Creating a forum and space for different stakeholders. Those with interest must be there from the beginning to engage in shared or iterative learning; knowledge can also be socially transformative.
  • Continue to push in the small-scale efforts.
  • Getting the science ‘right’ will not change policy. This is not a correct mental model, but needed is a better understanding of how learning and change can occur to bridge the science-policy disconnect. 
  • Identify where there is real learning and change in behavior (individual behavior or collective).
    • The role of governance and technology or smart cities in urban transitions and increasing vulnerability or resilience. Governance and technology is more often used to maintain the status quo, e.g., build better dykes; the NYC Hurricane Sandy response was to rebuild and did not question the fundamental system of economics and private property.
  • Mapping. Knowledge is power and can be used as a mobilization platform, e.g., Google Earth, for people to map themselves or aiding in assessment and associated payment of ecosystem services.
    • Question of mapping and who is mapping. Who is ‘we’? There should be capacity building of the local people (e.g., in the effort to map Africa) who can use the information, help create the information, etc.
    • Advances in the global observation community. This community is developing mapping tools that are high resolution (10 m) to show built-up area and also elevation change, etc., must be a community that will push this forward into policymaking arenas.
  • Using tools including social media that catches attention and interest. Use of maps offering color and dimension aids decision-makers. Urban researchers are behind in using social media (in general, having more frequent interactions and dialogue with policymakers on our work would help the disconnect).
  • The role of the consultant and knowledge brokers. These are key stakeholders with potential to inform the policymakers that make decisions; identifying and creating more of these organizations would be useful.
  • Future students. This is the way forward and offers great potential for societal change.  
  • Aligning the time scale, interest and agendas of different actors. Tools for engagement and more connected research and practice include: Being realistic about the expectations researchers have from decisionmakers and vice versa; empathy in terms of the roles and challenges of different actors and institutions; knowing the drivers of engagement for each stakeholder; and, asking better questions from the ‘other’s’ perspective.
    • Develop a set of ten principles to work from that would help bridge the science-policy gap.
  • Understanding transformational governance. How can this be experimented with and what are the opportunities?  Where is the experimentation occuring and where can we rapidly translate those understandings or practices to other contexts? For example, the UNU worked with ICELI to develop planning for biodiversity (guidelines).
    • Academic system and policies. Is our system able to fit this diversity of more or less radical approaches to really discuss transformation and laying open the normative claims in writing?
    • Trust building for transformation. This requires time and a deep knowledge and commitment of place (not just with the elected officials, but middle managers), in order to be committed to the goal and the normative values behind it, and provide knowledge in the right kinds of contexts. 
    • Moving back towards or reclaiming ‘radicalism’ or critical thinking and theory. This includes more reflexivity surrounding where certain modes of governance can and cannot bring us.
    • Regional level governance and what is emerging. Emerging governments at the regional level are creating, designing, envisaging or planning for urban development, which is most likely building upon existing converging urban systems, to create corridors or regions that are thought to be strategically important with implications for economic development and social transformation.
  • Reconstruction approaches need to be fundamentally changed within disaster management. Despite studies that show communities need to move inland, practitioners must deal with the people who want to stay.
    • Re-conceptualizing appropriate building design standards and understanding they may change over time.
    • Reconciling the ‘them’ vs. ‘us’. What researchers might be defining as resilient or sustainable may not align with what the communities want or believe. What does it mean, particularly for governance, democracy and communities to define their futures?
  • Finding the triggers to initiate change.  Universal concerns such as the well-being of future generations or concrete examples, e.g., of how expenditures (prices of milk, bread, etc.) have increased and the reasons could result in individual change and then collective change.  
    • Burning issues. Extreme events are easy-to-understand triggers, but numbers need to be shared with decisionmakers, going beyond philosophical or qualitative; the negative implications need to be communicated for the politicians to take notice.
  • The urban rich. What can we learn from the urban rich, in addition to the urban poor, whom have been studied?
  • Research funding to bridge the science-policy disconnect. Looking toward greater opportunities for social science research to receive funding supporting knowledge transfers (more often granted to engineers), i.e., transferring lessons learned to the local government in order to co-develop for solutions.
    • Climate change funding streams. Many communities and governments are tapping into new funding streams because the labeling of ‘climate change’ can still maintain the status quo of ordinary development work, which otherwise wouldn’t be funded. To what extent the work is adapted to the changing parameters necessitated by adaption to future climate change scenarios is currently negligible to zero.
    • The influence of research funding institutions and the implications. This raises fundamental questions about agenda setting, e.g., ‘sustainable development’ doesn’t exist as a term in many funding sources, but ‘smart’ and ‘innovation’ do; adaptation actions have often responded to extreme events, where ‘climate change’ is tagged on to other issues.
  • Risk perception sharing between cities. To do so before an event actually occurs, rather than only post-response.
  • The speed of response. The rate at which policy and governance structures are being developed is outpacing well-thought out response strategies requiring research into how these are emerging and developing, and the implications for this research community.  
  • The freedom of time is not global. There is embodied energy in research and the tools created (e.g., GIS mapping or research generally) including physical time, people, effort, etc. There are imbalances in the applications of those tools.


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