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Why we need to cross borders, disciplines, and other boundaries to create solutions
By Dr. Janice Perlman, Founder, The Mega-Cities Project
This blog is part of a series Global Communities: Accelerating Innovation in the Internet of Cities which discusses how cities can learn, adopt and transfer innovations between each other in order to solve local issues of global significance.
If we stand tall it is because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors. – Yoruba Proverb
We Cannot Wait Another Generation
It is widely accepted today that cities are a positive force in global development and that the future of the planet depends on the future of its cities. But experience shows that there is often a 20-25 year time lag between new ideas and their incorporation into public policy. For example, in many countries it has taken decades for policy makers to stop looking at slum neighborhoods as problems, and instead see them as solutions developed by families seeking a better life for themselves and contributing to economic growth through the cities’ informal economy. Only then have appropriate policy responses followed, where policy makers focus on providing land-tenure instead of bulldozers. But not every city is at this same juncture, and many individuals and institutions throughout these cities are hungry to learn how they can advance their own solutions.
With the mounting challenges facing cities today – climate change, violence, job creation, democracy building, and inequality – we cannot afford to wait generations for new policies to be developed. Now more than ever, we need to turn our attention to how we can speed up this process and facilitate greater participation by all city residents and institutions.
Let’s be clear. Cities do not learn, only people learn. City governments can budget for and structure learning activities, build networks, and organize exposure trips, but ultimately learning and capacity building cannot just be a city hall endeavor, it must be a citywide and multi-stakeholder endeavor. Cities have short institutional memories and uncertain continuity. They also suffer from the “not-created-here” syndrome. To build continuity, cities need independent NGOs, research centers, academic consortia and other institutions with life spans beyond the electoral cycle or quarterly earnings statements.
Generation 1.0: The Mega Cities Project
I founded the Mega Cities Project in 1987 to “shorten the time lag between urban innovations and their implementation and diffusion”. To do this, we created a global network among 21 mega cities anchored by project coordinators and multiple-sector committees in each city. Together, we operated through a “dual strategy for deliberate social change” that drew knowledge and know-how from empirical research and community wisdom.
We used a rigorous five-part methodology to search for innovative solutions that were socially just, ecologically sustainable, politically participatory and economically viable. We also sought to gain a deeper understanding of the process of innovation and the consequences for deliberate social changes in cities. We looked at: 1) Where do innovative ideas come from? 2) What are the conditions for successful implementation? and 3) How does innovation transfer work?
We found that the most fertile ground for urban innovation was – and still is – at the local level and at the nexus of poverty, environment, and inclusion. It is at such intersections where people must cross disciplines, sectors and silos to experiment, learn, and collaborate.
Over our 25-year history of action research it has become clear:
1) There can be no urban environmental solution without alleviating poverty. The urban poor tend to occupy the most ecologically fragile areas of our cities, such as steep hillsides, low-lying swamplands, or areas adjacent to hazardous industries. In addition, their lack of resources often prohibits them from having adequate water, sewage, or solid waste management systems. Without alternative locations and income for basic needs, their survival will be pitted against environmental needs.
2) There can be no lasting solutions to poverty or environmental degradation without building on bottom-up, community-based innovations. Since creativity was not distributed along lines of race, class, or gender, experts and policymakers are not always the best source of system-transforming innovations. The most creative and resource-efficient solutions to urban problems tend to emerge at the grassroots level, closest to the problems being solved. And, without local participation in implementation, even the best ideas are doomed to fail.
3) There can be no impact of scale without “sharing what works” across communities and cities and scaling up into public policy. While small may be beautiful, it's still small – and the problems are enormous. In order to have meaningful impact, micro-initiatives need to be replicated through peer-to-peer learning or incorporated into public policy frameworks.
4) There can be no urban transformation without changing the old incentive systems and "rules of the game." Since every sector of urban society holds a de facto veto on the others, local innovations can never achieve scale without cross-sector partnerships involving government, business, NGOs, academia, media, and grassroots groups. We need to create a climate conducive to experimentation, mutual learning, and collaboration.
Generation 2.0: Mega Cities x Mega Change (MC2)
Members of the Mega Cities Project founding network are now coming together to support the creation of the next generation of a global network that will foster urban change, the diffusion of urban innovations, and the development of new urban leaders. At the EcoCity conference in Montreal in 2011, it was named Mega-Cities/Mega-Change or MC2 (i.e. pure energy). MC2 engages the emerging young leaders in every sector and draws upon evolving information and communications technologies that enable us to reimagine elements of our network, from peer-to-peer learning to crowd-sourced funding of local projects.
Our original Coordinators and participants in our research-action teams have become leaders in their countries, regions and internationally. Today they are respected “elders” holding senior positions and have agreed to become mentors for those who share their passion. This fulfills a second mission: “to shorten the lag time between the next generation of urban leaders and their ability to make a difference.” MC2 is the fusion of the accumulated wisdom, credibility and trust of our founding network with the creativity, passion and technological sophistication of the next generation of urban change-makers.