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Why and How Cities Need to Learn Better

Christine Fallert Kessides's picture

During the recent 7th World Urban Forum (WUF) in Medellin, the talk was not just about the hundreds of millions of people coming to cities—but also the tens of thousands of city managers and local governments who will need to manage cities more effectively to unleash the promise of urbanization.  The WBI urban team, together with the Institute of Housing and Urban Studies and UN-Habitat’s Capacity Development unit, convened over 40 partners for a day of reflection on this challenge. 

Such a gathering had happened twice before— in preparation of Habitat II in Istanbul (1996), again in the run-up to the third WUF in Vancouver (2006)—and now on the cusp of the next milestone (Habitat III  in 2016).   It is helpful to consider where we have been and where are we now on this critical (and somewhat slippery) subject, given the 20 years’ worth of perspective in this area.

The participants—representing a wide range of institutions including NGOs, universities, think tanks, IFIs, and private agencies—reaffirmed certain principles of capacity development endorsed 10 to 20 years ago and summarized in the points below:

  1. It’s not just about training (knowledge transfer), but more about the development of human resources (individuals) plus effective organizations plus enabling institutions.
  2. Capacity development (CD) programs and activities need to be integrated into CD strategies embedded in city development plans and strategies.
  3. Design of interventions must be based on solid needs assessments, so capacity development responds to real demand.
  4. Strong political backing is needed to ensure that knowledge is implemented.
  5. Supply capacity should also be strengthened in domestic knowledge and learning institutions.
These principles remain valid—however, the world has changed a lot in the past 20 years, and even over the last decade.  Middle income countries are now themselves major knowledge providers—witness the strong trend of South-South knowledge exchange.  “Wicked” development issues have proliferated (climate change, inequality, urban unemployment, crime/violence, disaster risk management).  External contexts are diverse, with countries experiencing both urban growth and urban decline at the same time. There is a new level of connectedness through internet and social networks.  And with all these changes, there is a growing recognition that urban practitioners need to learn how to learn, and sometimes “un-learn” what is no longer relevant in new circumstances.

Who Needs to Learn, and Who Has Relevant Knowledge? 

Urban capacity development will still focus mostly on local governments and professionals, such as  city planners, but there is a sense that space needs to be made  for more collaborative learning and shared knowledge production.  Participants spoke of “institutionalizing mutual learning” (by bringing communities and local governments to act together), and “recognizing the practical value of different sources of on-the-ground knowledge and wisdom.”  “Co-production of knowledge” implies joint research and data collection among teams from academia, communities, practitioners and the commercial market, leading to wider understanding of problems—e.g., combining slum dwellers’ efforts of self-enumeration (documenting resident households and their living conditions) with  more formal data collection initiatives, to influence how governments and service providers see informal settlements.  Both tacit knowledge (what individuals know from experience) and codified knowledge (widely recognized and structured content) are needed.  

One idea that was embraced quite strongly by the group was the value of networks of learners—including formal (associations of local governments and of planning professionals) and informal (such as virtual communities of practice).  Both types can use social media and a variety of methods to offer timely and very practical knowledge-sharing and learning activities for members.

What Has To be Learned (What Are the Problems Seeking Solutions)? 

What is a key problem, and what are possible solutions, may look quite different to different stakeholders—confirming the importance of widening the circle of learning.  Is city accessibility a question of better roads, or is it about integrating and connecting neighborhoods, people and businesses?  Are the urban poor best served by building them a house, or by breaking down walls? Once the desired impact is agreed on, knowledge and learning can be used to help drive change.  “Action learning” is a classic concept, but more recent success is in maximizing peer-to-peer dialogue—observing what other practitioners have done and how they handled familiar issues.  Learning can be linked not only to case studies but also to real-world problems.  This is critical for educating both current and newly minted practitioners.  And it is equally critical for institutions like the World Bank Group, to tie in learning with operations—truly making the analytical, financial, and knowledge and learning resources complementary.

How to Learn—New Modalities.  

In part, learning is evolving because new communities of learners are being included in the discussion around cities.  Increasingly, capacity development interventions may integrate new technologies, multimedia, and new learning formats; feature games, which tend to help people retain learning particularly well; involve the application of practical tools, such as self-assessment instruments; and include crowd-sourced knowledge for thorny questions. However, if capacity development doesn’t address the incentives for and institutional barriers to changing behavior, innovative methods alone won’t be meaningful. Global knowledge can be pulled and packaged off the internet everywhere now—but the key is to contextualize and localize it for learners who need to act on it together.

Applying knowledge and learning to development problems is essentially about the challenge of managing change.  This requires using the full range of emotional intelligence, political acuity, and ability to frame consensus, to work across disciplines and across domains—building coalitions and exercising leadership through them.  Managing change is not just a matter of agreeing on a goal or vision (a difficult first step), or identifying technical options, but mobilizing broad-based support to get there—which means not merely focusing on content or pedagogical methods, but embedding knowledge and learning in a sustained process of implementation.

This is a profound challenge for professional education programs such as urban planning schools, which need to rethink curricula to be adaptive and flexible enough to develop practitioners who can handle uncertainty and continuous change.  Politicians, news media and well as technocrats all need to learn these skills, and apply them collectively.  And what it takes to initiate change in initial contexts (as pilots) may not be the same as what it takes to reach scale.

How Do We Know Capacity Development Matters? 

It bears repeating: when designing capacity development interventions, it is critical to define the problem clearly from the outset.  WBI’s Capacity Development Results Framework helps outline the logic of change: how and where could knowledge, learning, collaborative actions and innovations intervene in affecting individual behavior, organizational or policy actions, and the institutional environment.  Getting the evidence often takes a while.  This is all the more reason why capacity development belongs on the frontline of development activities – integrally connected to operations and policy dialogues—and not tucked away in a virtual ivory tower.   Participants at the Medellin workshop agreed that this message needs to be carried forward in planning for Habitat III, making knowledge and learning a pillar of the global agenda for urban change.

Photo Credit: Gerardo Pesantez via World Bank's Photo Collection, available here

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Submitted by Abha Joshi Ghani on

Very relevant reflections on capacity building Christine. Capacity building needs to find a strong place in our own narrative on development and definitely going forward into Habiat 3

Nice Christine, the piece summarises the outcome well. Let's hope also that we can keep the discussion going with our fellow partners from the sessions!

Submitted by Fredo Pandian Basino on

Thanks on this Ms. Christine. An excellent guide in designing capacity building programs for urban development practitioners i.e local governments, particularly, in the context of developing countries like the Philippines.

Submitted by Dennis Maphanga on

I have applied to study Master Program of Eco-Cities at Cardiff University in United Kingdom over 2014/2015 academic year. I think there has to be a Student Assistance Program which intends to assist students that are studying Cities related qualification. This will help to provide a pool of City Planners and City Researchers.

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