With Local 2030, the U.N. seeks to turbocharge its engagement with cities

The initiative's new strategy was unveiled at a two-day event this week at U.N. Headquarters in New York. It promises “a new way of working for the U.N. system”, one official said. (Carey L. Biron)

UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations leadership on Monday unveiled a broad and potentially far-reaching new strategy to bolster the ability of cities to implement their own sustainable development priorities. The initiative also may fundamentally reorient how the U. N. system works at the local level.

The core of the project, officially called the Local 2030 Hub for Sustainability Solutions, is the creation of new global platforms for city-to-city learning on three issues in which robust city action is seen as especially crucial: data, finance and energy. New “hubs” for sharing knowledge on these subjects will seek to strengthen local-level capacity while highlighting innovative local experiences.

The Local 2030 project, which brings together more than two dozen U. N. agencies, aims to distinguish itself from other best-practices platforms in two ways. First, it will push cities to create their own hubs with the aim of attaining needed expertise, funding and visibility. These smaller-scale platforms will be built around gaps that individual cities are seeing in their attempts to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the U. N.’s overarching anti-poverty and sustainability framework extending through 2030. Local hubs already are planned by cities in Burkina Faso, Mexico, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

Second, Local 2030 responds to criticism that the United Nations and its many agencies are not tuned in to the on-the-ground realities of a fast-urbanizing planet. Originating within the U. N.’s top leadership, Local 2030 intends to prompt changes within the U. N.’s own functioning, in order to ensure that all of its agencies are informed by what is happening in local communities around the globe — and are best placed to act on that information. That includes making the United Nations more relevant to the poorest communities, particularly in informal settlements.

[See: Are cities on track to achieve the SDGs by 2030?]

Local 2030 will “develop and incubate new solutions based on the needs of local communities,” said U. N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed, whose office is overseeing the initiative. “It will help identify and solve bottlenecks that local governments face and help funding reach the communities that need it. And it will ensure that data gathered by people and for people truly captures the reality on the ground.”

Mohammed wants Local 2030 to lead to concrete results, close observers say. The project will tackle, for instance, how to support cities in the Global South in becoming creditworthy and, more generally, how they can finance more of their own development. It also will look at how to bolster the ability of local communities to create their own data to inform development — for example, by conducting their own household surveys or undertaking their own risk mapping.

Overall, Mohammed said, the priority is “to work with local communities to translate the SDGs into their own context.”

‘New way of working’

Those are some of the intended on-the-ground impacts. But organizers say Local 2030 also represents a significant, high-level attempt to fundamentally reorganize the way that the United Nations — as a grouping of nation states — functions locally.

The initiative is being unveiled not only as the U. N. system is moving full swing into implementing the SDGs framework, but also amid a major reform push by the new U. N. secretary-general, António Guterres. Since taking over in January, Guterres has said that these reforms are aimed in part at ensuring that the U. N. system can help its members achieve the SDGs over the coming decade and a half. A key element of that vision includes making the system more nimble and decentralized.

[See: What should be new U. N. Secretary-General Guterres’s urban priorities?]

According to Mohammed and others in the executive office, a central part of that shake-up is an attempt to fundamentally change the way that the system works with cities and local authorities. This is about “a new way of working for the U. N. system”, Mohammed said. Local 2030 is a key vehicle for that attempt.

The goal of Local 2030 is “to work with local communities to translate the SDGs into their own context,” said U. N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed, seen here in March. (Mark Garten/UN Photo)

“From the highest levels of the U. N., this is a validation of the fact that we need to explore different ways of delivering development and impact at the local level, and also recognition that if we can’t deliver the SDGs locally, that really undermines the point of the SDGs,” said Paul Clements-Hunt, chief executive of the Blended Capital Co. and moderator of the two-day Local 2030 event here.

“It’s a formalization and a realization that with 13 years to go to 2030, we need to fine-tune and accelerate the model in terms of delivery, and that’s the exciting bit,” he said Monday. “A whole new wave of political energy has been released this morning around this idea.”

Part of the excitement behind Local 2030 is its provenance. The initiative began in 2015 as the Subnational Climate Action Hub, formed on the sidelines of the negotiations that resulted that year in the Paris climate agreement. That process saw a landmark convening of hundreds of mayors at Paris City Hall to urge significant action on climate change — and on the role of cities in any climate solution.

[See: Why should companies be interested in sustainable cities? Here are 3.7 trillion reasons.]

The surprising strength of that mobilization energized many in the cities space, underscoring the political power that mayors and others can wield at the international level. Since then, Local 2030 organizers have been toying with how to take that energy forward — and to expand it to include the broader SDGs framework. The project is now being supported by the government of Sweden and by several major cities networks, including an umbrella group known as the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments.

For some, the mere existence of this week’s Local 2030 event was a political victory, coming during a high-visibility part of the annual review of progress on SDGs implementation, known as the High Level Political Forum (HLPF). To date, the role of cities in implementing those goals has been seen by some as receiving short shrift in the HLPF process.

“From the highest levels of the U. N., this is a validation of the fact that we need to explore different ways of delivering development and impact at the local level.”

Paul Clements-Hunt
The Blended Capital Co.

“Given the limited space that has been given to the local perspective in the formal programme of the HLPF 2017, we think the very meeting of the Local 2030 Hub is the news in itself,” said Emilia Sáiz of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), a global umbrella that is a partner in the new initiative. “It is a strong message: Local perspectives, experiences and partnerships will need to play a strong role in the implementation but also in the … further definition of the agenda.”

[See: Where is the local voice in the SDGs review process?]

Sáiz said the Local 2030 platforms will allow local governments to learn from one another’s experiences and to forge new partnerships around implementing the SDGs. “This is just an initial step,” she said. Organizers say this week’s Local 2030 event could become a regular addition to the HLPF process in coming years.

Data hubs

So how will Local 2030 operationalize its new vision? Supporters say that over the next year, a new ecosystem of Local 2030 hubs will go into operation.

One key area of focus will be data — a deceptively simple catchword for the complex process of understanding current development trends, and what is and is not working in related interventions. There is increasing recognition among U. N. agencies that most of the mechanisms set up to report on development progress — including the national-level reporting that powers the HLPF — are failing to reflect the realities of the world’s most vulnerable communities, particularly in informal settlements. City-level data, too, continues to be largely glossed over in national reporting.

[See: If cities are to ‘leave no one behind’, disaggregated data is invaluable]

These are all major gaps for the SDGs regime, which aims to eliminate poverty by end of the next decade. Now, a constellation of Local 2030 “data hubs” will tackle these problems, seeking to ensure that the people and organizations working at the global level understand what is happening at the local level — and that the local level knows how to create and communicate that data.

“A constellation of Local 2030 ‘data hubs’ will now seek to ensure that those working at the global level understand what is happening at the local level — and that the local level knows how to create and communicate that data.”

Plans are afoot to create a global data hub in Toronto, as well local and regional hubs in a half-dozen cities: Buenos Aires, Cambridge (Canada), Dubai, Haiphong (Vietnam), Johannesburg, Los Angeles, Makati (the Philippines) and Minna (Nigeria).

“How do cities embrace the SDGs? We believe the answer is through data,” said Patricia McCarney, head of the World Council on City Data (WCCD), one of several groups that will take the new hubs forward under the guidance of U. N. data offices. But “data is hard,” she continued. “Having worked in a lot of city halls around the world, data is often found in metal filing cabinets in different offices in city hall. It’s in bad shape.”

WCCD leads a major effort to harmonize city data across the globe so that cities can make direct comparisons between themselves, making learning from one another easier. It’s doing this through several initiatives to create indicators under the auspices of the Geneva-based International Standards Organization (ISO). The first ISO standard for cities could be finalized later this year. On Monday, WCCD released a major report mapping its ISO indicators to the SDGs.

[See: How ISO standards for city data are starting to make an impact]

Out of the ISO experience, McCarney said, the idea for global hubs has been percolating for a few years, envisioning efforts that could showcase leadership, demonstrate results, catalyze new action and enable city-to-city learning. That idea will now come to fruition under Local 2030, with each hub having slightly different priorities.

Many of the cities that will be hosting these platforms already are working with WCCD through the ISO programme. In the case of Nigeria, for instance, the governor of Niger state wants all of the municipalities in his state to be ISO certified, so they can compare notes across cities to better guide infrastructure investment, McCarney said. The Minna hub will be a core part of that effort.

Cambridge, too, has been working on the ISO project as a way to discover best practices by comparing harmonized data with other cities. It also has aligned its local planning around the SDGs. The city sees hosting the new data hub as an opportunity to continue to learn from what other cities are doing and to highlight its own experiences, officials say.

[See: Urban science must inform policymaking — here’s how]

“This hub would help in terms of understanding the impact of what we do, and the data gives you that information,” said Gary Dyke, Cambridge city manager. He pointed to a water-loss problem the city was experiencing in its system. City officials had thought that Cambridge was doing well in this regard, until harmonized data allowed them to look at how Cambridge stacked up with other cities. That comparison allowed them to understand the problem as well as some potential solutions.

“You’re not nearly as good as you think you are until you start looking beyond your own borders,” he said. “The more we grow internally by reaching out beyond our borders, the stronger we get. But the stronger we get, the cooperation with our neighbouring cities is key — and I think that’s what the hub will generate.”

Dyke said the new data hub should be up and running by the beginning of next year.

NOTE: This story has updated to clarify that multiple groups will collaborate in developing the Local 2030 data hubs.

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Carey is news editor for Citiscope.  Full bio

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