Science has a key part to play in planning the future of cities

This role must be recognized at Habitat III and formalized in the New Urban Agenda.

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Cities are where the issue of sustainable development will be won or lost, and scientists will need to play a key role in deciding on the details of that outcome.

It was only in 1992, at a global conference widely known as the Earth Summit, that the United Nations broadly recognized that civil society needs to be part of the conversation on sustainable development. Previously, multilateral discussions had been dominated by national governments.

Thereafter, nine groupings of stakeholders — known in U. N. parlance as “major groups” — were formed. Twenty years later, the participation of these groups was formalized in all parts of the preparatory process for a follow-up conference to the Earth Summit, known as Rio+20. It was there that the idea of sustainable development began to take full shape, including around a framework for its implementation: the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were finalized this past year.

During the course of this opening-up, the Rio+20 conference not only solidified the role of science but sought to operationalize its place in the sustainable development process. This formal role for scientists marked a key difference with the SDGs’ predecessor framework, the Millennium Development Goals, which expired last year.

[See: Are we ready to implement the SDGs?]

Since then, the relevance of science to global decision-making has increased substantially, in part driven by this newly inclusive aspect of global discussions. Over the past year alone, science has played a central role in providing the knowledge that underpins key U. N. global accords including the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction.

This year’s new U. N. framework on sustainable urbanization, which will be agreed to at the Habitat III conference in October, is no different. Indeed, in deciding upon and implementing this new strategy — what’s being called the New Urban Agenda — the case for science could be even more important. Co-production of knowledge in order to harness urban complexity, health and well-being in collaboration with science is an integral part of this process.

[See: UN-Habitat’s vision of sustainable urbanization is good — but not enough]

U. N. member states make regular, explicit calls for evidence-based policy recommendations. And in this, the scientific community does something that no other stakeholder group can do: It insists on the importance of a holistic, “systems” approach to these frameworks, functioning as a watchdog for the importance of a coherent evidence base on the substance of draft multilateral agreements.

Systems approach

Cities have always been complicated networks. But in today’s era of connectivity, these systems have become even more complex. Further, we are quickly coming to understand the interactions between the various parts of these systems — and their deep implications for all who live in cities, across ecological, cultural, social and economic scales.

“Co-production of knowledge in order to harness urban complexity, health and well-being in collaboration with science is an integral part of the Habitat III process.”

For instance, what forces impact on obesity in an urban area? On one level, it is exercise and diet. But it is also about the ways in which we build our roads, transport systems, food systems, green spaces and more. Increasingly, then, we need to be able to look at urban development using a systems approach — just the skills set at which science excels.

[See: Inextricably interlinked: The urban SDG and the new development agenda]

But the key here is not simply about collecting data. It is also about figuring out the appropriate use of that data in order to positively impact on policy-making. The nuances are important because they have a major impact on how policy is developed and implemented.

Science has changed the narrative on urban environments. Cities as ecosystems we inhabit have gone from being considered unmanageable outgrowths to centres of opportunities. It is likely that the SDGs will be the single most comprehensive data-collection system of the early 21st century, and the New Urban Agenda will almost certainly call for something similar at the urban scale. As such, these frameworks must be well-defined and methodologically sound — and they must ensure that it is feasible for all nation states to collect data at sub-national levels.

[See: Can geospatial technology lead to a development ‘data revolution’?]

The opportunity here is multi-dimensional data acquisition, capturing aspects of sustainability and development in multiple domains. For example, the movement of urban populations includes information that is relevant for a broad spectrum of issues, including health, disease transmission, transport, energy, environmental pollution and land use.

The complex interactions between interventions and development indicators are vast. Clean water and sanitation can reduce infant mortality. Improving transport infrastructure can decrease inequality. Effective zoning and land-use policies can increase welfare. Researchers are providing the narrative for each of these.

Opportunities to mobilize a large community of scientists to address the challenges of sustainable development are currently being provided by at least two initiatives: Future Earth, a global research platform, and the Urban Health and Wellbeing programme organized by ICSU, United Nations University and the InterAcademy Medical Panel.

Competing interests run rampant across all international agreements, and science is a guiding evidence base for most interests. Science and technology play a critical role in sustainable development, and science can inform the formulation of evidence-based targets and indicators at global, regional and local levels.

[See: Proposed mechanisms would coordinate post-Habitat III action on urbanization]

On the day after Habitat III, the process toward implementation will begin, and the mechanism to to deliver will need to be in place. Whatever is at the top of the list of issues to tackle, only science can provide the guiding framework to do so. From the outset, then, the New Urban Agenda will need to include a clear vision on the partnerships and collaborations required to fulfill this new strategy on sustainable urbanization — and that vision will need to include a stronger framing for science.

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Charles Ebikeme

Charles Ebikeme is a science officer with the International Council for Science in Paris.