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As the world’s policymakers and business leaders converge in Davos, Switzerland for tomorrow’s opening of the World Economic Forum, there’s certainly no shortage of global threats for them to worry about during the WEF’s annual marathon of policy seminars and economic debates. A world of anxiety enshrouds this week’s conference theme of the “New Global Context,” judging by the WEF’s latest Global Risks Report: Its analysis of 28 urgent threats and 13 ominous long-term trends offers a comprehensive catalogue of extreme dangers to social stability and even human survival.
As if the Davos data isn’t worrisome enough, several just-issued scientific studies – which document worsening trends in climate change, humanity’s imminent collision with the limits of the planet’s resilience and the intensifying damage being wrought by voracious consumption-driven growth – trace a relentlessly gloomy trajectory.
Relieving some of the substantive tension, there’s also often a puckish undercurrent within each year’s Davos news coverage. Poking holes in the self-importance of Davos’ CEOs and celebrities – with varying degrees of lighthearted humor or reproachful reproof – has become a cottage industry, springing up every January to chide the mountaintop follies of “the great and the good.” Skeptics often scoff that the lofty pronouncements of Davos Deepthink have become almost a caricature of elite self-importance, and there’ll surely be plenty of the customary sniping at the insularity of Davos Man and at the insouciance of the globalized jet set as its over-refined One Percent folkways become ever more detached from the struggles of the stagnating middle class and desperate working poor.
Despite such Davos-season misgivings, it’s worth recalling the value of such frequent, fact-based knowledge-exchange events and inclusive dialogues among business leaders and thought leaders. Some of the Davos Set may revel in after-hours excess – its Lucullan cocktail-party scene is legendary – yet the substantive centerpiece of such meetings remains a valuable venue for expert-level policy debates, allowing scholars to inject their ideas straight into the bloodstream of corporate strategy-setting. The global policy debate arguably needs more, not fewer, thought-provoking symposia where decision-makers can be swayed by the latest thinking of the world’s academic and social-sector experts. Judging by the fragmented response to the chronic economic downturn by the global policymaking class, every multilateral institution ought to host continuing consultations to help shape a coherent policy agenda.
Focusing on just one area where in-depth know-how can serve the needs of decision-makers: The World Bank Group has long been tailoring world-class knowledge to deliver local solutions to client countries about one of the trends singled out in this year's WEF list of long-term concerns – the worldwide shift from “predominantly rural to urban living.” The biggest mass migration in human history has now concentrated more than 50 percent of the world’s population in cities, leading this year’s Global Risks Report to assert that the risk of failed urban planning is among the top global concerns.
“Without doubt, urbanization has increased social well-being,” commented one WEF trend-watcher. “But when cities develop too rapidly, their vulnerability increases: pandemics; breakdowns of or attacks on power, water or transport systems; and the effects of climate change are all major threats.”
Yet consider, also, the potential opportunities within the process of managing that trend toward ever-more-intense urban concentration. What if the prospect of chaotic urbanization were able to inspire greater city-management creativity – so that urban ingenuity makes successful urbanization a means to surmount other looming dangers?
For an example of the can-do determination and trademark optimism of the development community – with the world’s urbanization trend as its focus – consider the upbeat tone that pervaded a conference last week at the World Bank’s Preston Auditorium, analyzing “Smart Cities for Shared Prosperity.” With more than 850 participants in-person, and with viewers in 92 countries watching via livestream, the conference – co-sponsored by the World Resources Institute (WRI), Embarq, and the Transport and Information & Communications Technology (TICT) Global Practice of the World Bank Group – energized the world’s leading practitioners and scholars across the wide range of transportation-related, urban-focused, environment-conscious priorities.
(Thinking of the Preston gathering’s Davos-season timing and full-spectrum scope: It sometimes strikes me that – given the continuous procession of presidents, professors, poets and pundits at the Preston podium – there could be a tagline beneath Preston's entryway, suggesting that the Bank Group swirl of ideas feels like “Davos Every Day.”)
Amid its focus on building “smart cities” and strengthening urban sustainability, the annual Transforming Transportation conference took the “smart cities” concept beyond its customary focus on analyzing Big Data and deploying the latest technology-enabled metrics. By investing in “smart” urban design – and, above all, by putting people rather than automobiles at the center of city life – the scholars insisted that society can reclaim its urban destiny from the car-centric, carbon-intensive pattern that now chokes the livability of all too many cities.
The fast-forward series of “smart cities” speeches and seminars reinforced the agenda summarized by TICT Senior Director Pierre Guislain and WRI official Ani Dasgupta – formerly of the Bank Group and now the global director of WRI’s Ross Center on Sustainable Cities – in an Op-Ed commentary for Thomson Reuters: “We can either continue to build car-oriented cities that lock in unsustainable patterns, or we can scale up existing models for creating more inclusive, accessible and connected cities. Pursuing smarter urban mobility options can help growing cities leapfrog car-centric development and adopt strategies that boost inclusive economic growth and improve [the] quality of life.”
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Last year marked an important tipping point: for the first time, half of the global population lives in cities. Cities currently add 1.4 million people each week and this population growth comes with new buildings, roads and transport systems.
In fact, 75 percent of the infrastructure that will be in place by 2050 does not exist today. With cities poised to invest now in infrastructure that will last for decades, huge opportunities lie ahead. But without major shifts now in how we manage established as well as rapidly growing cities, we risk losing out on the potential of urbanization to create more inclusive and prosperous societies.
2015 offers a big chance for the international community to help put cities on a more sustainable path. We at the World Bank and the World Resources Institute (WRI) believe that we must seize this opportunity, because cities and urban mobility are key to a sustainable future.
Business-as-usual urbanization patterns come at a hefty price. Cities already produce 70 percent of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions and traffic crashes claim 1.2 million lives per year, with developing cities carrying the greatest burden.
Traffic congestion cost Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo a combined $43 billion in 2013 alone, equivalent to 8 percent of each city’s GDP. In Beijing, the costs of congestion and air pollution are estimated at 7-15 percent of GDP. Urban sprawl costs the United States alone $400 billion per year.
This is not the future we want for our cities.
Every year, more than 1.2 million people die in traffic crashes worldwide, equivalent to nearly eight Boeing 747 plane crashes every day. As developing economies grow and private car ownership becomes more mainstream, the number of associated crashes and fatalities will continue to rise.
The challenge of traffic safety often flies under the radar in cities, where the social and economic challenges of accommodating growing populations take precedent. Without meaningful change, however, the World Health Organization (WHO) projects that traffic crashes could become the fifth leading cause of premature death worldwide by 2030. This takes a particular toll on cities, which are already home nearly half of global traffic fatalities. City leaders must prioritize traffic safety measures to ensure that their citizens have safe, healthy and economically prosperous cities to call home.
With Urban Growth Comes Traffic Safety Challenges
While there are a number of factors that contribute to traffic crashes, two of the primary challenges are rising motorization trends in cities worldwide and the issue of road equity: the most vulnerable road users, including pedestrians and cyclists, are most impacted by traffic crashes. On top of that, these users, typically lower-income, don’t always have the power or capacity to create the necessary changes.
The number of privately owned cars on the road hit the one billion mark for the first time in 2010. If we continue business-as-usual, that number will reach an estimated 2.5 billion cars by 2050. All of these new cars will lead to an increase in traffic congestion in cities worldwide, increasing the probability of traffic crashes and resulting fatalities.
Growing up, I always dreaded to enter my grandmother’s kitchen in the village. She used firewood to cook: There was such a dark, thick smoke in the room that I couldn’t breathe or keep my eyes open. I really don’t know how my grandmother could spend hours and hours in there, every day, for so many years. And unfortunately, my grandmother is not an isolated case. More than 90 percent of Kenya’s population uses firewood, charcoal or kerosene for their daily cooking needs.
I always dreamed that clean sources of energy would make Kenyans more independent and less exposed to the serious health risks posed by fossil fuels. In rural areas, most women like my grandmother rely on firewood; its consumption not only depletes our forests but also emits hazardous smoke that causes indoor pollution and eventually respiratory illness. In areas where firewood is scarce, women have to use cow dung as fuel, an option possibly even worse in terms of pollution. Urban areas are affected too: The poor rely mostly on charcoal, another biomass that has the same negative effects and health risks of firewood.
Cleaner fuel options have already been developed but are often too expensive or too difficult to transport across the country to be adopted by a large part of the population, especially by the 40 percent of people at the base of the pyramid.
So what can be done? How can we make clean fuels more affordable and accessible?
I first heard about bottled biogas when I visited a "green" slaughterhouse in Kiserian, Kenya. I was really impressed: My dream of a cleaner, more affordable and easily accessible fuel was right there before my eyes.
The Keekonyoike Slaughterhouse found an innovative way to produce affordable biogas and package it for distribution all around the country. Using a special bio-digester, this business can turn blood and waste from a community-based Maasai slaughterhouse into biogas for cooking. To facilitate transport, the firm stores the fuel in recycled cylinders and used tires, reducing even further the environmental impact of the operation. Just to give me a better idea of the "green" potential of his business, the manager told me that this first biogas plant is expected to cut methane emissions by more than 360,000 kilograms per year (the equivalent of almost 2,000 passenger vehicles).
Indeed, "bottled" biogas (biogas compressed into a cylinder) has huge potential in Kenya: Farmers can directly produce it, recycling the waste from their farms; can use it for their cooking needs; and, thanks to the bottling process, can sell the excess on the local market, generating income while saving the environment.
Keekonyokie is a company that began operations in 1982. It runs an abattoir that slaughters about 100 cows per day to meet the meat demand in Nairobi and its environs. In 2008, with the support from GTZ, the company constructed two 20-foot-deep biogas digesters that would help manage the abattoir waste, which was becoming a menace and a health hazard. Within a short time, the biogas being produced from the digesters was more than the company could absorb. The company managers started thinking of compressing and bottling the excess biogas, but they needed support to test the technical and commercial viability of their idea.
When infoDev’s Kenya Climate Innovation Center (KCIC) opened its doors in October 2012, Keekonyokie was one of the first companies to be admitted.
Transparent, competitive bidding is a sound way for the public sector to buy goods and services. It is also standard procedure for Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs). Besides reducing opportunities for corruption, this approach generally attempts to achieve the best value for money and is perceived as fair by all stakeholders. When the sums involved are big, for example, in large infrastructure projects, transparency in government procurement becomes even more critical. Unsurprisingly, competitive bidding is considered best practice in most countries, not only in the public sector but also for corporations and institutions such as the World Bank Group.
This system works well when a government knows exactly what goods and services are procured for infrastructure development that best serve the public interest. But in many developing countries, governments may not have the requisite capacity and resources to define the scope of the project, or to prepare the tender documentation. Such situations often lead to inadequate infrastructure development. Sometimes the private sector uses such opportunities to proactively submit proposals for infrastructure projects on their own without waiting for a government initiated tender.
When the private sector submits such types of proposals, they are called Unsolicited Proposals, or USPs. USPs are an exception to the typical government-initiated approach and allow a private company to initiate the process. A private-sector entity (“USP proponent”) reaches out to the government with a project proposal to develop an infrastructure project. Typically, such a project may not have been identified within the government budget or policies, and the project’s purpose and need may not have been defined. In some instances, a USP may be nothing more than a mere idea or concept when it is presented to the government.
The January 2010 Haiti earthquake killed many thousands and caused damage and losses estimated at US$7.8 billion, more than US$3 billion of which was in the housing sector alone.
What might surprise those who have heard only anecdotal accounts of the shortcomings of the Haiti response is that some exemplary practices that emerged from that event have already been redeployed in other disaster responses.
For the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. Over 90 percent of urban growth is occurring in the developing world, adding an estimated 70 million new residents to urban areas each year. Demand for services in urban areas is therefore increasing exponentially, and the capacity of local governments to manage this demand is challenged.
Moreover, even though private sector has been successful in leveraging technology to improve service delivery and efficiency, governments have failed to fully embrace the benefits that these innovations bring. There is a growing need for governments to be able to deliver more services in a more efficient and effective way with limited resources. Cities need to innovate and create new tools and approaches.
In many developing cities, transport infrastructure – whether it be roads, metro systems or BRT - is not growing fast enough, and cannot keep up with the ever-increasing demand for urban mobility. Indeed, constructing urban transport infrastructure is both expensive and challenging. First, many cities do not yet have the capacity to mobilize the large amount of funds needed to finance infrastructure projects. Second, planning and implementing urban transport infrastructure projects is tough, especially in dense urban areas where land acquisition and resettlement issues can be extremely complex. As a result, delays in project implementation are the norm in many places.
Therefore, solving urgent urban transport problems in these cities requires us to think outside the box. Fortunately, the rapid development of ICT-enabled approaches provides a great opportunity to optimize and enhance the efficiency of existing and new urban transport systems, at a cost much lower than building new infrastructure from the ground up.