Habitat III can galvanize city-business collaboration on sustainable urban infrastructure

Innovative business can be a key solver of complex urban challenges, and many corporate leaders are keen to engage in strategic partnerships to drive urban sustainability.


The world’s cities are home to an ever-growing number of residents. They are a source of inspiration for many of us, representing life, well-being, culture and innovation. Yet their ongoing expansion puts enormous pressure on urban infrastructure and local natural resources. By 2030, 60 percent of the global population will live in urban areas, making cities a critical component of the sustainability agenda.

Building sustainable cities will address many of the world’s environmental and social challenges. For example, by focusing our attention on reducing energy consumption and curbing emissions in the world’s cities, we can affect a portion of 70 percent of global emissions and 75 percent of total energy demand, making enormous progress in the fight against climate change. Yet the scale of the needed investments in infrastructure is enormous, with estimates suggesting that USD 4-6 trillion per year will be needed up to 2030, most of it in cities.

[See: Sustainable cities: Key to future development and governance]

Cities and businesses have a lot to gain from each other. As a key solutions provider, business can ensure access to cutting-edge technology and the development of expertise in designing, building, operating and maintaining major infrastructure. Cities, in turn, are taking a leading role in tackling sustainability issues from climate change to resilience, resource efficiency to equitable growth. They also present new markets for sustainable products and services by business.

From 2010 to 2014, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) led a groundbreaking project called the Urban Infrastructure Initiative (UII). This brought together 14 of our leading member companies and 10 cities to explore the value of early strategic collaboration between business and urban areas, with the aim of tackling the complex challenge of sustainable urban infrastructure.

The outcome of this project suggests that all cities seeking to realize their sustainability objectives can benefit from engaging with business early in the planning and strategy-development processes. For example, in Yixing, China, the city used the UII engagement process as a key platform and fast-tracked a detailed feasibility study on a tram system, working with the National Development and Reform Commission Transport Institute.

In Turku, Finland, the city prepared a master plan for a light-rail network at the beginning of 2013. In October of that year, the city board agreed to create the necessary public-private framework for the production and distribution of biogas as transport fuel. Both the Yixing and Turku solutions came out of the UII dialogue process.

[See: A towering challenge: Habitat III must promote municipal fiscal health]

Forward-looking businesses and cities recognize these opportunities. They understand that unlocking potential for more sustainable cities must begin with collaboration, built upon both trust and transparency. Business-city partnerships work best when cities engage and share relevant information from different functional departments and when companies act as objective advisers in areas of strategic relevance to their business, with a certain distance from day-to-day commercial activities and public tendering processes.

As we approach 2016 — arguably the “Year of Cities”, with the upcoming Habitat III conference slated to take place in October in Quito, Ecuador — it is time for cities and business to enhance their collaboration, to learn from existing experience and to scale up urban sustainability solutions.

Bolstering collaboration

At Habitat III, the global community aims to adopt a New Urban Agenda. This 20-year strategy will seek to foster sustainable urban development through a new model of cooperation to be adopted around the world. The participation of business will be a critical element for the New Urban Agenda to be implemented.

“As we approach 2016 — arguably the ‘Year of Cities’ — it is time for cities and business to enhance their collaboration, to learn from existing experience and to scale up urban sustainability solutions.”

As chair of the Business and Industry group in the Habitat III Global Assembly of Partners and chair of UN-Habitat’s Urban Private Partners group, WBCSD will help bring the business perspective to this important conference. We will leverage our experience from various projects that, like the UII, are placing city-business collaboration at the centre of tackling challenges of urban sustainability — initiatives such as Energy Efficiency in Buildings, Sustainable Mobility and Zero Emissions Cities.

What these projects have in common is that they bring together a group of companies that collaborate with each other and with cities to develop solutions for implementation by the city or a group of stakeholders within the city. The collaboration happens at the pre-competitive, pre-procurement stage, helping cities and businesses understand and trust each other and develop holistic solutions.

[See: The SDGs will not be achieved without local financing]

Together with the global city network ICLEI, we are developing a study to critically assess effective and efficient city-business collaboration to promote sustainable urban development. This will draw upon existing examples including early strategic engagement, procurement, public-private partnerships, privatization and outsourcing.

A recent report by ICLEI and WBCSD on innovative city-business collaboration identified the following as critical success factors: existence of a common vision and shared objectives, multi-stakeholder involvement, multi-sector expertise, political will and leadership, and a transparent process with well-defined roles and a neutral facilitator.

During New York Climate Week in September, WBCSD and UN-Habitat co-hosted a discussion with companies regarding private-sector engagement at Habitat III. Participants agreed that cities presented significant opportunities for business. The session underlined the importance of active collaboration and early strategic outreach to business in making Habitat III a success and forming partnerships to ensure effective implementation beyond the conference. This requires an open dialogue between cities and business as well as greater visibility for successful city-business collaboration.

[See: The urban community can save Financing for Development]

The good news is that there is a strong appetite for new forms of partnerships and business models to create sustainable cities. As a key milestone on the road to success, Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda can galvanize the global community to identify new ways for the public and private sector to work together and to invest in sustainable urban infrastructure projects at the necessary scale.

As the world’s leading agent of innovation and change, business has the power to bring solutions to complex urban challenges, and a growing number of business leaders are willing to engage in strategic partnerships to drive urban sustainability. The future of our cities, and our planet, depends on it.

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Roland Hunziker

Roland Hunziker is director of the Sustainable Buildings and Cities programme at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, based in Geneva, Switzerland. He leads the Energy Efficiency in Buildings and Zero Emissions Cities projects and manages the council’s relationships with key city networks and stakeholders. Prior to working at the WBCSD, Roland was a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross, coordinating humanitarian field activities in the armed conflicts of Colombia, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire.