Dispatches from the 7th World Urban Forum in Medellín, Colombia

Will business show up at WUF7 in Medellín?

(Yair mesa/ flickr/ CC)

World Urban Forums excel at proclaiming rights and special needs for justice and equity — whether it be for youth, women, slum dwellers, or any populations of poor or disadvantaged city people across the globe. WUFs that I’ve observed, including WUF5 (Rio in 2010) and WUF6 (Naples in 2012), have underscored the equity themes again and again. And for good reason: Inequities are huge barriers to building societies of both rights and economic opportunity, to creating a successful 21st century world.

But where at the WUFs is business — the entrepreneurs, investors, employers of successful world cities? Very few bother to show up. As WUF7 kicks off in Medellín, one of the things I’m most interested to see is whether the business community is any more engaged than it has been in the past.

Based on the program, I’m guessing the answer is no. The session agendas, when business is mentioned at all, tilt toward businesses’ responsibilities, not their opportunities, in a rapidly urbanizing world. Case in point: WUF7’s dialogue session, “Basic Services: Local Businesses for Successful Cities.” Its announcement makes no mention of efficiency, entrepreneurial activity, or jobs. There’s not a single business person on the panel.   It is true that business figures from such firms as IBM, Cemex and Veolia are scheduled to take part in a private sector roundtable.  But again, that roundtable’s agenda is geared entirely to their corporations’ social responsibilities and collaborating with the Habitat agenda, not their on-the-ground operations in the world’s cities.

At WUF6, mention was made of international investment in cities’ infrastructure development — but almost no debate on how to make it happen in a way that attracts investors but also supports local job growth and economic opportunity.

The simple fact is that cities are markets, that business investments are critical to their growth. Even in heavily socialized societies, privately run firms play an important role. The success with which they service customer bases — from the very poor to today’s fast-expanding middle classes in today’s developing world — is critical to the health and growth of cities across the continents.

And there are real issues to debate. For example: the influence of strong multinationals operating in cities — how to welcome their expertise and investments but also reserve an important role for local entrepreneurs.

From food to medicine, paving supplies to housing to broadband services, the role of business is critical to cities’ health and hopes. Cities can regulate a lot. But even more, they need to be entrepreneurial and connect business incentives to their growth objectives, their growth, their resilience in this century.

As one of the few business leaders at WUF6 told me,”We need to share business practices and experiences with disaster-prone cities — such as providing checklists for small businesses to prepare for disasters with data backup and related moves.” Or, he added, financing for development — “Why couldn’t Habitat create a whole system for business investments in public goods?” Without more business players at the WUF, he noted, such innovations are unlikely, adding ruefully as he looked across the WUF venue. “There’s not a single bank or financial services firm here.”

What do you think? Does business play an appropriate role at the WUF? Leave a comment below.