Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with the dedicated urban goal SDG 11 and New Urban Agenda (NUA), represent a landmark acknowledgement by the international community of the critical role of cities and other sub-national entities in achieving sustainability. Both the SDGs and NUA will require the engagement of local governments and citizens to be successful. Mistra Urban Futures has been engaged in these processes since 2014 and in 2015 undertook a highly innovative three-month pilot project to test the then draft targets and indicators of what became SDG 11 on sustainable cities and communities. This pilot proved instrumental in deepening several LIPs’ partnerships with their respective local authorities, in generating awareness in the city administrations of what would be required in terms
The comparative project discussed here commenced in mid-2017 and was a longer sequel to the pilot, designed to follow and support the understanding, engagement and implementation of these two global agendas at the city level. It included seven cities of small to medium size, including all of Mistra Urban Futures’ LIPs (Cape Town, Gothenburg, Kisumu, Malmö and Sheffield), plus Shimla in India and Buenos Aires in Argentina through new partnerships with the social enterprise Nagrika and the New School’s Observatory on Latin America, respectively. The first three also participated in the pilot project, already well aware of the importance of the agendas to their evolving responsibilities, and the new partnerships in Buenos Aires and Shimla enabled the project to leverage additional value and comparative insights from an even more diverse set of cities on four continents. These cities represent a good microcosm of the many cities worldwide that generally receive far less attention than the small group of ‘world cities’ and megacities.
The project was conceptualised and designed centrally, adapting the 2015 pilot and reflecting the universal nature of Agenda 2030 and the NUA. The conceptualisation included a guiding framework and set of research questions reflecting the universal nature of Agenda 2030 and the NUA, the indivisibility of the SDGs and a transdisciplinary co-production approach. The project leaders also provided a suggested timeline and deliverables for the rest of the team. In each city, local researchers were appointed to co-produce research with city officials and other city actors. The local researchers were financed either by Mistra Urban Futures or their local platforms, while the work of the city officials was part of their in-kind counterpart to the local platforms work. The local co-production aspect involves adapting the centrally designed
Individual city analyses and comparative outputs were prepared for each city, involving team members from all cities. Two workshops with representatives from all cities were organised to facilitate cross-city learning. The first cross-city workshop took place in Cape Town in November 2018, in which city officials and researchers from all case study cities participated. The second and final cross-city workshop took place in October 2019 in Sheffield. A virtual city–city peer review process was agreed during the Cape Town meeting. The process started in December 2018 with each city submitting a question, concern or proposal concerning a current aspect of the city’s involvement in Agenda 2030. Two peer-review cities were assigned to prepare individual responses based on their own experience of working with Agenda 2030 and other relevant sustainability initiatives.
The strategy for and experiences of building an internationally initiated project with local co-production
Transdisciplinary co-production of the project has taken shape uniquely in each city. In Gothenburg, the researcher has been integrated into a group of public officials at the City Executive Office (Stadsledningskontoret) assessing how the SDGs relate to the city’s ongoing activities and on preparing an Agenda 2030 communications strategy for city politicians and staff. The group and other city departments adapted the project’s guiding framework to map how relevant the SDGs are to the city’s budget and main strategies, and how the city’s 2018 budget goals and strategies can contribute to the SDGs. The Executive Office mapping exercise resulted in a report that was presented and approved by the elected Executive Board in 2018.
In Cape Town, an agreement was signed between the City and the University of Cape Town to embed a researcher into the city’s Organisational Policy and Planning Department to
In Buenos Aires, the first step was to build a transdisciplinary team with three main actors: academia (the Observatory on Latin America, a New School initiative hosted by the University of Buenos Aires), civil society (the non-governmental organisation [NGO] Centre for Legal and Social Studies [CELS]) and public sector (the General Directorate of Strategic Management and Institutional Quality, SGEyCI, which is the office in charge of the SDGs within the City of Buenos Aires). The work of this transdisciplinary group started with agreeing the timeline, as well as on a common research focus, given the diverse objectives of each institution. As part of the workplan, tasks are divided between the researchers, NGO partners and city officials, and later reviewed in monthly meetings.
In Kisumu, a working team involving researchers and city and county officials was formed. The project gained the attention of Kenya’s national SDG implementation team and, following a meeting between a national delegation and Mistra Urban Futures’ director during the 2018 United Nations (UN) High-Level Political Forum in New York as well as a meeting between the SDG national team and the local researcher, interest was confirmed from national-level officials to become linked to the project. Accordingly, Kisumu then became a Kenyan pilot city for local-level implementation of the SDGs. Subsequently, meetings have taken place between the SDG national team, county and city officials and project researchers
A crucial ingredient in all cities was to find a champion or group of key actors open to the potential benefit of engaging with these agendas (Leck and Roberts, 2015). Nevertheless, determining how to anchor the project so that it survives political cycles and associated potential shifts in priorities and power relations proved challenging. In Kisumu and Shimla, the start of the project was delayed due to elections and changing key staff. Similarly, in Cape Town, organisational restructuring within the City delayed the project’s launch. Once the project was up and running and interest established with the main city partners, the project started moving more speedily. With or without formal agreements, key personnel changes create the need for familiarisation anew and accommodation to possible changing circumstances within one or more institutions. In Malmö, contractual issues delayed the ability of the local researcher to commence work. Co-production of the project was agreed in 2018 between the local researcher and the city’s Sustainability Office, which is in charge of Agenda 2030, but a reorganisational initiative then commenced during 2019. Collectively, these processes affected the co-production arrangements by delaying and then limiting the Sustainability Office’s ability to process and follow up on project-related inputs. In Sheffield, where the municipality had not yet
A general observation is that even where good working relations exist between researchers and city officials, during busy administrative times, such as the run-up to the end of the financial year, elections, and budget or city development plan preparations, city officials are less likely to engage in the project and project deadlines may be delayed. From the perspective of the researchers (who are the authors of this chapter), it was important to adapt to these local dynamics but also maintain the contact, even during these times, and produce relevant documentation so that the municipality concerned continued to see the project as adding value rather than being a burden.
Benefits and challenges of working with a centrally designed project that is then locally co-produced
Designing the project centrally from the research institute has implications for the rest of the project and the local co-production processes. Given that this project was not requested by city officials, it cannot be said that it was co-designed. It was up to each local researcher or research team to find a suitable counterpart at the city administration and establish a working relationship and work plan that is as co-productive as possible. This also means that in cases where no prior working relations with relevant city officials existed, it was necessary to establish these from scratch, which took time. Setting this up was both facilitated and constrained by the centrally designed nature of the project. Given that the global agendas (Agenda 2030 and NUA) are comprehensive and multi-sectoral, they require a city partner with a sufficiently overarching view and access to the local authority. It is therefore not surprising that most teams have involved city officials at strategic and leading offices such
Using Agenda 2030, in particular, with its universal language and applicability, has helped to interest some municipalities in joining the project, particularly those that had already started working on Agenda 2030 or thought the project could help them getting started with the localisation process. Many cities were not yet working with the SDGs and NUA when the project started. In some, the project provided the impetus for cities to start exploring these agendas and how to implement them locally. In other cities, it made setting up the collaboration arrangements more difficult as officials were busy with other, more pressing issues. In Sheffield, for example, with the SDGs still relatively low-profile at the national level, the focus was on establishing a partnership that could support the local authority’s awareness of the SDGs and explore opportunities for engagement. Even in cities where the SDGs have been set as priority by politicians or city officials, such as in Malmö, those charged with working with the SDGs had to carve out their role with limited resources in sceptical or rigid city government environments. These struggles meant that the SDG teams had constantly to be attentive, sensitive and reactive to oppositional responses within the municipal organisation itself and had to focus their engagement to pre-prioritised processes, inadvertently causing inertia when it came to adaptability and quick-footedness in response to secondary or peripheral processes, such as this transdisciplinary research project.
A key ingredient of the project’s comparative element was the team’s monthly conference calls, which enabled the local researchers and team leaders to share experiences on the cities’ activities and also on methodological challenges and opportunities inherent in carrying out co-production with actors with different levels of awareness and engagement in the global agendas. However, this also meant that the international component of the project was carried out mostly by the researchers, apart from the face-to-face, cross-city sharing events and the city-to-city, peer-review process mentioned earlier. Given that the project embraced seven cities, involving the city staff in frequent virtual meetings would have been very difficult and hard to facilitate. A lesson learned is that if the intention is to have an international comparative project with both researchers and city staff involved throughout the whole process, a smaller number of cities is required. In a project with
At the same time, the international comparative aspect, with cities on four continents all working on global sustainability agendas, was seen by local authorities as an important incentive to being part of the project. Several teams of city officials and researchers highlighted that this made them feel part of a larger and strategic endeavour towards sustainable urban development, where they can contribute to global processes through initiatives in their local work. The variety of cities representing different contexts and starting points for global policy can represent a challenge for cross-city learning. Yet, project city teams underscored the benefits of learning from diverse contexts in various countries, cities, governance arrangements, institutional forms, and policy regimes. Learning across cities was facilitated by the centrally designed project, which provided a window to other approaches through a common framework (the project itself, but also Agenda 2030 and the NUA) for comparison and learning, as well as giving additional legitimacy, credibility and strength to the local work and Agenda 2030 itself. In Cape Town, for example, the engagement of the embedded researcher with actors external to the city on SDGs and NUA implementation was ongoing and greatly appreciated as a source of information and engagement. The sharing of lessons across cities facilitated by the project also offered an opportunity for cities to reflect on their own enterprises and strategies. Sharing of lessons took place not only through the face-to-face meetings in Cape Town and Sheffield and the peer-to-peer review but also through the information shared in the monthly research team virtual meetings, which was then passed on from local researchers to their respective city officials. In short, the project created valuable room for learning and self-reflection, for which there was otherwise very little time in city administrations. It also provided opportunities to position local sustainability work
Even so, it was challenging for some municipalities to understand the larger scenario in which the project activities and outcomes were situated. In other words, the project has had far-reaching and long-term outcomes, while local bodies mainly attend to various immediate local challenges. This occurred particularly in cities with limited devolution responsibilities, such as Shimla, where strategic decisions, such as short- to medium-term development plans, are often the responsibility of higher levels of government, in this case the state. In addition, one challenge of working with internationally agreed agendas and a centrally designed project was making the activities context-specific. The SDGs and NUA reflect the collective priorities of countries and urban areas as a whole, while challenges faced by individual cities are often context-specific, which may or may not tie in with the global priorities.
The fact that the project was centrally designed and administered, outside of the municipal organisation itself, was for several cities, such as Malmö and Sheffield, a prerequisite for participation. In several of the cities, there would have been no resources available for assuming a leading role in such an endeavour. In Cape Town, for example, having an embedded researcher who is paid by Mistra Urban Futures was seen as providing an additional resource for the city to work on Agenda 2030. The international comparison component of the project also mobilised knowledge and resources that would not have been achievable if the project had been a single-city, locally designed project. In Sheffield, for example, the team was able to contrast research findings about low local awareness of the SDGs with examples of how SDG awareness, engagement and localisation have been supported and enabled by national governments in partner cities/countries. Asking the same questions in each country and city enabled the team to realise just how poor the UK government’s response to the SDGs has been, and to use cross-national evidence to highlight
The centrally designed project also allowed the cities some exposure to perspectives that might not have surfaced had the project been designed by the municipality itself. One vital example was the project’s focus on indicators as a core element of analysis. Several of the cities, for example Gothenburg, Malmö and Sheffield, had not initially identified indicators as a focus of their work. The flexibility of the project permitted cities to start the research–practitioner joint work in the areas of common interest. In the cases where the local authority’s interest did not match with the project’s originally proposed outcomes, it was the researchers’ role to complement the joint work to achieve those outcomes. However, in some cases, where data were not available for key indicators such as those under the urban SDG, this was not possible. Even where data were available, but a city had little interest in using the SDGs indicators, local teams recognised that the part of the project focused on indicators ran the risk of becoming an exercise in measuring for measuring’s sake rather than exploring more broadly the benefits and drawbacks of the SDGs as a framework for local sustainability planning. Attempting to accommodate these challenges, the project team tried to take a less
Even for cities where the interests of researchers and city officials coincided, institutional capacity could pose challenges in producing the expected outputs for the project, and even beyond the project, having the necessary capacity to meet the localised goals of these global agendas and to monitor progress towards those goals. In Kisumu, for example, data collection for monitoring and evaluation was considered a priority from the inception of the project and the UN-recommended indicators as a good starting point for identifying key data to monitor the three dimensions of sustainability. However, the local team found significant data gaps and a time-lag in updating some of the indicators. It also found a lack of statistical capacity at the city and county levels to compute some of the indicators. An additional challenge relating to indicators, and that applies to all countries, is that not all UN-recommended indicators yet have a defined methodology and thus countries have had to develop their own interpretations of indicators and methodologies while waiting for the globally suggested methods.
Another additional challenge arising from the central project design was that some research questions made assumptions about the existing level of engagement with the SDGs and NUA that did not necessarily reflect reality or local priorities. The NUA exemplified this in almost all cities. The project was designed soon after the NUA’s adoption in Quito in October 2016. There was an expectation by the UN that this agenda would resonate in cities and be implemented in parallel to Agenda 2030. However, none of our case study cities had engaged with the NUA by the end of 2019, making the framing of the project about both global agendas and the research questions related to the NUA almost redundant, except that this represents a significant finding in its own right.
A minor potential exception is Buenos Aires, which subscribes to the NUA in a declarative way. Yet, the city
Benefits and challenges of the local co-production process
The researcher–city official knowledge co-production partnerships that were established in each of the project cities had many benefits and distinct results, but they were not devoid of challenges. First, for many city official partners, the concept of knowledge co-production was new, and the project was their first experience of engaging in such an endeavour, as in the case of Shimla. In cities such as Cape Town, where there was already an established knowledge transfer programme between the City and University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities (see Chapter Four), establishing the co-production partnership was easier and the project contributed to building additional trust and working partnerships that were quickly seen as mutually beneficial. In Kisumu and Gothenburg, cities that also had established collaborations between Mistra Urban Futures’ researchers and city administrations, one challenge was the limited local political momentum and budget allocation. Similarly, in a city like Sheffield, where there has been low awareness of the SDGs and no staff or budget allocated to working on Agenda 2030, much of the co-production process was taken up with simply getting a pilot project off the ground.
In several cities, the research team gained access to internal city meetings to discuss the SDGs. This occurred in Gothenburg, where the researcher joined the monthly SDG team meetings at the City Executive Office. This type of access to internal meetings helped maintain frequent contact
Knowledge co-production and, more generally, undertaking collaborations between different institutions can be challenging. On the one hand, the different institutional arrangements between the partners, reflected in the way the city administrations operate vis-à-vis research institutes and NGOs, can slow the pace of work and require recurrent discussions about the expectations of the collaboration, and the different roles and timeframes. On the other hand, the diverse institutional settings and capacities of the partners involved can also be complementary, which gives the opportunity, particularly for the researchers, to find issues or tasks related to the project that are also seen as beneficial for the local government.
Given the novelty of Agenda 2030 for several of the municipalities at the inception of the project, the local co-production process also included building awareness and capacity within local government, not only of the Agenda itself but also in some cities of goal-based planning. In cities with limited engagement with Agenda 2030, the co-production process gave local authorities additional capacity to think through and start working on the Agenda, while sharing experiences with other cities. Even cities with the reputation of being forerunners in the pursuit of urban sustainability and Agenda 2030, such as Malmö, gained the twin benefits of being considered a
One challenge in most cities was data collection. In the larger cities, such as Buenos Aires, the city administration has several offices involved in the evaluation and monitoring of the SDGs. The positive side is that the city has the capacity to generate its own information, and it has a centralised office, SGEyCI, in charge of the SDG localisation. These characteristics allowed the research team access to official information and to the main department related to the implementation of the Agenda 2030. However, it was challenging to access some specific data produced by other departments. In smaller cities, the challenge was the limited availability of disaggregated city-level data that are reliable and collected regularly.
Another aspect on which all researchers reflected was their positionality, particularly in the cities with limited engagement with these agendas. The co-production process included having to raise awareness of the SDGs and how they might be useful in persuading local partners to undertake the project with the researchers; there is a risk that researchers end up coming across like advocates or SDG consultants rather than critical scientists. In Sheffield, for example, the membership of the research
Engagement and contribution to Realising Just Cities and Rethinking Sustainable Cities
As Perry and Atherton (2017) note, it is important to ensure that transdisciplinary co-production processes contribute towards the realisation of more socially inclusive, economically viable and ecologically sound cities. We could argue that this project contributed by enabling cities to reflect on how the planning processes contribute to the latter objectives and to set up monitoring frameworks to measure progress towards those objectives. The extent to which planning processes actually change thanks to the co-production process in the context of Agenda 2030 developed in this project remains to be seen. One aspect where we can point to some limitations is that of social inclusiveness, not necessarily in terms of the social policies of each study city, but rather on the inclusiveness of different actors in the process of localising global agendas to the city level. While the project contributed in several cities to promoting cross-sectoral dialogues to discuss Agenda 2030, those dialogues were mostly limited to city departments, with little engagement of other actors outside the city administration, such as civil society and the private sector. One clear exception was Buenos Aires, where several actors were engaged both in awareness raising and in writing a report on how different actors understand and can use Agenda 2030. That broad engagement process had started even prior to this project,
Both the NUA and Agenda 2030 call for participatory processes. In the case of the SDGs, SDG 11.3 explicitly calls for participatory planning. The NUA has not yet found echo in our case study cities and, as previously mentioned, in most cities SDG localisation has been focused on the city administration, but it is too early to tell whether SDGs will drive more participatory and inclusive processes. Our project focused by design on how the city administrations were localising the SDGs and the NUA, so, in most cases, the project has not directly contributed to more participatory or inclusive processes.
To contribute to inclusive planning processes, these types of projects might need to include a civil society and/or private sector co-production partner. This would increase some of the local challenges mentioned here, make the process slower and the international comparison and exchange more challenging. At the same time, including additional co-production partners could potentially contribute more directly to inclusiveness, which is one aspect of just cities as embodied in Mistra Urban Futures’ Realising Just Cities framework (Chapters Two and Eight). Even so, increasing the number of co-production partners could empower those partners and have positive effects on the partners and those actors they influence or with whom they work with; it does not guarantee that the process would lead to city-wide social inclusion.
The experience of this project, therefore, shows that co-production processes around broad agendas that aim for sustainability, inclusion and justice can contribute to the ability of city officials to reflect on and question the status quo, assess their municipality’s baseline, identify gaps and set up goals. These are arguably the first steps for rethinking sustainable cities (Simon, 2016). One challenge is how to extend the co-production from the research team and a limited set of city officials to changing the way that a municipality operates in general. To that extent, it is important not to make assumptions about
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