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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.”

Fostering Private Sector Development in Fragile States: A Piece of Cake?

Steve Utterwulghe's picture
Private sector development (PSD) plays a crucial role in post-conflict economic development and poverty alleviation. Fragile states, however, face major challenges, such as difficult access to finance, power and markets; poor infrastructure; high levels of corruption; and a lack of transparency in the regulatory environment. 

The private sector has demonstrated its resilience in the face of conflict and fragility, operating at the informal level and delivering services that are traditionally the mandate of public institutions. However, in post-conflict situations, PSD can have predatory aspects, thriving on the institutional and regulatory vacuum that prevails. The private sector will need to create 90 percent of jobs worldwide to meet the international community’s antipoverty goals, so pro-poor and pro-growth strategies need to focus on strengthening the positive aspects of PSD, even while tackling its negative aspects.

Coordinated reform efforts are key to develop the East African Community

Nina Paustian's picture


Business reforms can spur economic dynamism in the East African Community

East Africa is famous for its breathtaking landscapes and its unique concentration of wild animals. Could it also become as famous for its dynamic economic development?

In 2009 I came to Tanzania to work on tax harmonization in the East African Community (EAC). The Common Market Protocol was about to be signed and one of the biggest goals was to tap into the economic potential of the region by facilitating (cross-border) trade and improving the business climate. A year later, the five Partner States of the East African Community ratified the Common Market Protocol in order to realize “accelerated economic growth and development through the attainment of the free movement of goods, persons, labor, the rights of establishment and residence and the free movement of services and capital”. The overarching goal of the East African Community is to achieve sustainable economic growth in order to increase employment and reduce poverty.

In Latin America & the Caribbean, Market Efficiency Rules!

In Spanish

Broadly taken, Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) weathered the turmoil of the global economic crisis fairly well. After the region’s GDP growth slowed notably in 2008, and fell to negative levels in 2009, growth returned to relatively robust, positive rates by 2010. What’s more, this bounce-back in GDP aligned closely with trends in the private sector.  

Value added, as a percentage of GDP, in both manufacturing and services, returned quickly from negative levels in 2009 to positive growth by 2010; over the same period, government consumption remained comparatively flat.

In other words, if you want to understand LAC’s recent pattern of economic growth, look at the private sector.

Data from the World Bank Group’s Enterprise Surveys put together a wealth of information, gathered directly from private sector firms’ experiences, to create a picture of the business environment around the world.  For our recent work in LAC, the project surveyed nearly 15,000 business owners and top managers in 31 countries, including interviews conducted by re-visiting thousands of businesses in 15 countries, where the surveys were also conducted in 2006.

Despite progress, corruption remains a huge problem for Russian firms

Mohammad Amin's picture

In a previous post written jointly with Arvind Jain, Arvind and I highlighted some recent findings concerning businesses in Azerbaijan. Below, I extend the discussion to another country, Russia. What follows is a brief summary of our main findings, with more details available in the country note, found hereThe note is based on newly collected firm-level data on various aspects of the business climate and experiences of a statistically representative sample of firms Enterprise Surveys. The data also contain information on various measures of performance and the structures of the firms. The main findings are as follows.

Has economic analysis improved regulatory decisions?

Mohammad Amin's picture

For all of us working towards providing a better business and regulatory environment, it is important to know whether economic analysis has improved the quality of regulatory decisions. A proper analysis of the costs and benefits associated with regulations (government rules that govern private activity) is critical in determining which regulations to administer and in what capacity.

Do credit bureaus improve credit availability and if so, for whom?

Mohammad Amin's picture

The conventional wisdom is that the exchanging of information on an individual or firm will go a long way in determining credit worthiness, thereby improving credit availability. When a bank evaluates a request for credit, it can either collect information on the applicant first-hand, or it can source this information from other lenders that have already transacted with the applicant. Information exchange between lenders can occur voluntarily via “private credit bureaus” or it can be enforced by regulation via “public credit registries.”

The “L” Word: Is lobbying actually a sign of progress in developing countries?

Mohammad Amin's picture

Conventional wisdom holds that bribery is the preferred means of influencing government policy in less developed countries, while lobbying is more common in developed countries. Perhaps due to this perceived compartmentalization of lobbying and bribery, very little is known about the relationship between lobbying and bribery, the extent and effectiveness of lobbying vs. bribery in less developed countries, and how this relationship changes as countries move up the development ladder.

Does efficient corruption pay?

Mohammad Amin's picture

Buying and selling a product or service involves a number of costs, including time spent searching for the best prices, negotiating for good discounts, researching product quality and writing contracts where applicable. Broadly, these are called the transaction costs of economic exchange, and part of the reason firms exist is to keep transaction costs at a minimum.

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