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Davos Sees Challenges, ‘Smart Cities’ Seize Opportunities: Finding Sustainable Solutions Via Public-Private Dialogue

Christopher Colford's picture



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.”

Next step for the Data Revolution: financing emerging priorities

Grant Cameron's picture

Last August, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked an Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG) to make concrete recommendations on bringing about a Data Revolution in sustainable development.  In response, the IEAG delivered its report, and among other items, recommends, “a new funding stream to support the Data Revolution for sustainable development should be endorsed at the Third International Conference on Financing for Development,” in Addis Ababa in July 2015.

Three Issues Papers for Consultation

To support this request and to stimulate conversation, the World Bank Group has drafted issues papers that focus on three priority areas:

  1. Data innovation
  2. Public-private partnerships for data
  3. Data literacy and promotion of data use

The papers aim to flesh out the specific development needs, as well as financing characteristics needed to support each area. A fuller understanding of these characteristics will determine what kind of financing mechanism(s) or instrument(s) could be developed to support the Data Revolution.

The big economic view, Brazil, the utility of economists, slow trade, and consumption floors

LTD Editors's picture
Following a disappointing 2014, developing countries should see an uptick in growth this year, according to the latest Global Economic Prospects report. But low oil prices and a stronger US economy will not be enough to counter renewed bouts of financial market volatility and worries about diverging monetary policies across major central banks. On top of that, measures are needed to recover fiscal space in developing countries.

What can the cost of Big Macs tell us about the relative attractiveness of sending remittances?

Christian Eigen-Zucchi's picture
Why do migrants send international remittances? They do so mainly because in caring about the well-being of their family and friends, they wish to convey purchasing power for a basket of goods and services. This is the same as individuals choosing among different goods and services to buy and consume (for themselves and for others), only that it crosses international borders.

Who needs cars? Smart mobility can make cities sustainable

Pierre Guislain's picture
 

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.

Will cheap oil lead to cheap food?

Juergen Voegele's picture

The halving of world oil prices over the last six months raises questions about the implications for food prices and the welfare of poor people.
 
Do lower oil prices mean lower food prices? To a certain extent. But for low-energy cropping systems common in most developing countries, and in areas where food is not transported far, the impact will be dampened. For large oil exporters, however, food prices may increase. In general, lower oil prices should lower the cost of moving food from producers to consumers and reduce on-farm fuel and fertilizer costs. But a countervailing factor is that cheap oil may also induce people to drive more, and as fuel ethanol mandates link biofuel use to overall fuel use, ethanol use and the volume of maize used to produce it would also go up. In countries where oil is a large share of exports, real exchange rates may depreciate, which will disproportionately increase the price of traded goods like grains relative to other prices.
 
Is the downturn in agriculture commodity prices necessarily bad for farmers who produce food? A major downturn in commodity prices would not be great for farm incomes, and high crop yields would be needed to help dampen the effect on farm profits.  Lower fertilizer and transport costs may help mitigate any negative impacts.
 
How long will oil prices remain low? While there is no certainty in forecasts, current estimates suggest fuel prices will remain low for 2015, increasingly slightly in 2016. There are three main drivers of the oil price decline which are structural: Significant increases in US shale oil production, receding concerns of oil supply disruptions in the Middle East, and a change in OPEC policy to maintain rather than cut production.

Working With The Grain: An Important New Book on Rethinking Approaches to Governance

Duncan Green's picture

Even though it’s relatively short (223 pages), Working With the Grain (WWTG) took me two months to finish, but I’m glad I did. It adds to a growing and significant body of literature on ‘doing development differently’/’thinking and working politically’ – Matt Andrews, Adrian Leftwich, David Booth, Diana Cammack, Sue Unsworth etc. (Like Matt and Adrian, WWTG author Brian Levy is a white South African – what attracts that particular group to rethinking governance would make an interesting study in itself.)

Brian summarizes the common elements of this emerging school of thought as:

"An insistence that the appropriate point of departure for engagement is with the way things actually are on the ground — not some normative vision of how they should be;

A focus on working to solve very specific development problems – moving away from a pre-occupation with longer-term reforms of broader systems and processes, where results are long in coming and hard to discern [...]

Recognition that no blueprint can adequately capture the complex reality of a specific setting, and thus that implementation must inevitably involve a process of iterative adaptation." (pg. 207)

What makes this book special is Brian’s CV – two decades at the World Bank, which experience he raids to provide great case studies throughout. It feels like he’s now gone back into academia (he teaches at Johns Hopkins and the University of Cape Town) partly to make sense of what he’s learned from 20 years of success and (more often) failure (he characterizes the orthodox governance approach as ‘a breathtaking combination of naivete and amnesia’). Unlike most such tomes, I found it clearer on the ‘so whats’, than the general diagnostic, which tends to get bogged down in endless 3 point lists and typologies (hence the two months).


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