Edited for brevity by Arianna Friedman and Svetla Baeva. See full article on the UNDP Kazakhstan website. 99% of the global population is exposed to […]
When thinking about the future, we often ask who gets to speak for it. But instead, we decided to ask ourselves a different question: who gets to listen? If UNDP is to become an even more agile and anticipatory organisation, listening is the first step towards opening a dialogue about possible futures. We approached this exercise as listening practice, with a two-fold goal: 1) spark enthusiasm about exploring possible futures, and 2) contribute to a shifting understanding of the future: from a distant horizon to an extension of today.
With this in mind, we embarked on a journey to gather insights from a wide range of stakeholders involved in shaping the future of urban development in Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries. Curious about how professionals from the Europe and Central Asia region and international experts talk about the future, we started our Urban Futures Talks series with the following goals:
· to identify needs and gaps in terms of urban development in the EaP region;
· to stimulate individuals’ future-oriented thinking and spark enthusiasm around engaging in future conversations;
· to identify conflicting/complementary views about the urban futures in the region.
After identifying relevant urban experts with the help of our colleagues from UNDP country offices, we prepared a set of future-oriented questions set in 2050. We looked at what makes people hopeful and fearful about urban life in the region, we asked about key trends that could either hinder or accelerate urban development in the upcoming 30 years, and we searched for the hidden sides of development, trying to unveil overlooked trends and patterns.
While UNDP Europe and Central Asia has several initiatives related to urban transformation, our initial exploratory research is meant to support the Mayors for Economic Growth (M4EG) facility. M4EG is a joint EU & UNDP initiative, seeking to address complex development issues in secondary cities in EaP countries.
Over the course of several months, we talked with 27 experts varying in: age (from 23 to 60+), gender (men and women), professions (private and public sector, academia, CSO) and nationality (Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and international experts). We extrapolated a wide variety of insights, which included key concerns about: ageing population, rural-urban divide, national security, outmigration, the lack of green spaces and affordable housing, digitalization, and poor urban planning. Au contraire, experts also expressed hope about mobility alternatives, emerging tech businesses, urban activism and the youth mindset, city branding and decentralization.
The following selection of recurring issues should be regarded as a glimpse into the conversations that we had, not as their representation.
Shrinkage is the defining attribute of secondary cities in the post-Soviet space. Yet the phenomenon is neither new nor peculiar to this region. Despite having a common past where massive urbanization was driven by a particular industry that dictated the spatial distribution of the population, following the dissolution of the USSR, the situation of urban configurations has been context-driven, depending on several factors such as political willingness, education opportunities and more.
During the interviews, architects, activists, scholars, and civil servants acknowledged that shrinking cities is a prevalent urbanization challenge for EaP countries. When asked about the year 2050, a Georgian architect wondered if “secondary cities would even still exist and if so, how would they look like?”
The urban downturn in the region is partly the consequence of demographic decline (outmigration/immigration and falling fertility rates), combined with the story of monotowns who have lost their key economic function and could not reinvent themselves. While shrinking cities are already a reality, the phenomenon is expected to grow. The experts we interviewed expressed concerns about the implications for the physical infrastructure of the cities and their social fabric. Economic factors were still the leading cause of the shrinkage, but economic downturn never comes alone. A series of self-reinforcing and interrelated effects such as the loss of skilled workers, decreased capacity of the city’s administration, worsening quality of public services and a negative image of the city, have made the present situation of secondary cities seem hopeless.
Shrinking cities cannot be understood outside the larger context of growing urbanization affecting the region. If secondary cities struggle to find their ‘lost identity’, big urban centers continue to grow, and attract and retain talent. Highly qualified people leave smaller cities or the country for better opportunities abroad, while villages continue to shrink, exposing painful realities – a growing ageing population left without a proper care infrastructure.
What was surprising though was to hear a lot about planning for the decline instead of trying to overturn the trend. We imagined that we would hear about shrinking cities as an opportunity for growth or a threat to the quality of life. Instead, our interviewees did not perceive this phenomenon as a problem that needed fixing or even less so as a chance for growth. Rather, they described it as a new reality to be acknowledged and accepted.
In terms of solutions, we heard about complementary, even contradictory strategies – repurposing vs rightsizing existing infrastructure, developing a new city identity vs working around the existing one, and focusing on attracting those who left vs focusing on attracting newcomers.
Regardless of the policies to be pursued, what emerged was the need to view shrinkage at a different scale – not as an isolated urban challenge but as a regional one. If we consider the development of a region holistically (both rural and urban areas), what implications does this have for the shrinking of certain cities? What type of ‘shrinking governance’ would a territorial rebalancing imply? What kind of networks of knowledge, institutions and policies are needed to create a support system beyond individual shrinking cities? We don’t have the answers to these questions, but the pandemic has shown us that alternatives exist. Some people were willing to go back and work remotely, others reconsidered where they would want to live or raise their kids, and all of us realized that no structure, system or advancement could be taken for granted.
Urban environments are often associated with science positivism and tech utopianism. In this context, we were curious to learn about what technology could bring to the 2050 cities.
Technology and digitalization inevitably came into the discussion on the future of cities in the region. Urban development cannot overlook the importance of technology, its application, and its consequences. Now more than ever, emerging technologies impact businesses and politics, policymaking and individual lives.
Although the interviewed experts talked about technology and digitalization from vastly different perspectives, they did not necessarily link it to the urban context. They acknowledged its potential for growing economies and boosting businesses – with a special emphasis on the role of ICT on urban development. Technology has also been particularly helpful during the pandemic; thanks to low-touch economy initiatives, people managed to rethink their businesses and work from home, and education at all levels continued despite restrictions. All these merits of technology further revealed how the digital divide can affect different social groups, exposing some of the pervasive inequalities of the 21st century. Technology allows information to flow, research to spread and people to connect and exchange ideas, so it is undeniably a drive for innovation, as some of our experts (both locals and internationals) rightfully observed. In particular, younger interviewees stressed tech’s potential to diversify economies, bridge the gender divide, and counter other kinds of social injustice.
But tech’s utility and constructive potential can also be limited for a series of reasons, and for others, it can also be damaging and represent a threat. Cybersecurity is a fundamental issue at both public and private levels. For example, in relation to data privacy, what do businesses do with collected data? What are the ethics behind it? While in the EU, the GDPR ensures some protection and accountability for users, the digital world is much more unregulated in the EaP countries. These concerns affect a wide range of issues from children’s rights and safety to data privacy and freedom of expression online.
“Technology and digitalization are taken for granted to be green, but are they?” rightfully wondered a couple of interviewees. On the one hand, digital technologies can offer innovative solutions to complex environmental problems. Apps, blockchain, and AI technologies could, for example, help to address food waste and boost recycling, which might positively impact urban lives. Yet technologies come with their own environmental cost. To solve this issue; it would be essential to strengthen the global governance on data and technology. In fact, according to a 2019 study by The Shift Project, a French think tank, the world’s collective digital carbon footprint accounted for nearly 3.7% of all greenhouse emissions, which is comparable to aviation industry emissions. What is more, digital technology’s energy consumption increased by almost 70% between 2013 and 2020. So, while digital technologies contribute to designing solutions for more sustainable consumption and production, environmental and knowledge management, their carbon footprint should not be underestimated. Technology and digitalization are double-edged swords and to be used in our favour, they need to be harnessed appropriately.
Often what is omitted from an interview can paint a powerful picture. While inequality and social justice can be addressed through the use of technology, little was mentioned about its inherent biases and what is needed for efficient and equitable use of tech. In fact, today, technologies are strongly shaped by an able straight white man’s perspective. So many are the studies proving technology’s detrimental biases, which often negatively affect women, people of colour and other marginalised communities. More inclusive tech education and a bigger collection of disaggregated data (by gender and race for example, although this too carries its own ethical conundrums) is, therefore, a must in order to understand how tech affects different communities or to understand their needs. It is essential to analyze all the good and bad sides of technology in order to apply it ethically and efficiently address urban challenges. Furthermore, the provocation remains how to use urban tech more for social good and less for profit. If the cities of the future want to be sustainable, they need first and foremost to be just and green, and going digital should only enable not hinder that prospective.
While some of our interviewees talked about climate change and the consequent environmental transformations as an opportunity for people to pursue further education, major innovation to take place and behavior to change, the concern is certainly not center stage. One of our experts noted the low interest and will to change among older generations, which was also reflected in the interviews with older practitioners.
Changes in temperatures and the environment in all countries in the EaP region are underway, but how much are urban planning and policy-making taking these significant changes into account? While there are extensive scientific research and evidence concerning the risk, and some efforts are being made internationally: from commitment to SDGs to the Paris Agreement, lots more need to be done. From an urban perspective, social, public and personal decisions generated as consequences of climate change are expected. Environmentally conscious people may, for instance, privilege low-emission and zero-emission transport or quit eating meat and dairy. But what will their government push for? Will the EaP cities be ready for a shift in urban mobility? Will public transport receive the funding, or will people have to recur to personal bicycles and scooters? Mobility will also be affected by the jobs people do. If you could work from home, there could be a reduction in the need for mobility in general and a consequent reduction in emissions. A lot of our experts, in fact, mentioned mobility, from public to private transport, as an issue concerning climate change and the environment.
Some comments and insights we were expecting to hear weren’t brought up. No one addressed the link between migration and environmental crisis. While the EaP countries have perhaps not been impacted as much by it yet, the situation is likely to change in the future, and along with humanitarian issues, consequent security and international relations dynamics might be expected to change.
Furthermore, the relationship between the economy, in a broader sense, and climate change was very much overlooked. Mainly women and young people talked about climate and the environment, and women, in particular, addressed it as a matter of social justice. Unsurprisingly, according to a 2019 study, a higher number of women in parliament correlates with the adoption of climate change policies, resulting in a reduction in emissions. At the local level, women’s participation in natural resource management is linked with better resource management and sounder conservation outcomes. Climate talks will be unsuccessful without women and young people’s voices, and urban development risks failing its beneficiaries if it doesn’t look at environmental issues through the lens of diversity and “the future” as an everlasting order of the day.
The future is inherently uncertain and even more so in unstable times (war in Ukraine, fear of war in Moldova and Georgia, recent war in Armenia). To unlock transformational potential – or at least the capacity to imagine the future – requires a sense of safety and stability. According to one of our interviewees from Ukraine, talking about the future requires being grounded in the present and having essential needs met, hence the difficulty to have these conversations with people from the region who still struggle with existential concerns.
Yet , no other region has experienced such severe depopulation, economic downturn and political instability in peace time. As a result, there is incredible resilience, perseverance and determination that characterize this region which gives hope and a sense of confidence in a better future. Overall, there was a sense of antifragility and faith in the human capacity to innovate despite the odds which confirmed to us that in a complex world, cities are the right locus to begin transformational change.
Engaging in conversations about the future can be a powerful tool, yet there is a need for complementary efforts to achieve a more robust vision of our possible futures. Considering our own biases and assumptions that are relevant only from today’s perspective is the first step to having an honest discussion. Despite numerous limitations, these conversations played an important part in developing our own understanding of what speaks to others, what drives people’s sense of hope and fear, and what type of incentives, knowledge networks and processes are needed to support desired systemic changes.
However, what remains to be improved is supporting a learning culture within and outside the organization to be able to adapt to our fast-changing world, decolonizing capacity building by bringing different forms of knowledge and sources of insights into the process, and finally supporting shared ownership. As we have seen in other regions, lasting change happens only if it is grounded in the local ecosystem and embedded in the conviction of local actors to address it, so we need to get better at incentivizing for systemic transformation and make our offer more demand-driven.
Following these conversations, the questions that still remain are more important than the answers that we have. We still wonder: What does it take to design anticipatory interventions and strategies? What’s the role of conversations about the future in imagining what tomorrow might look like? What capabilities are required to imagine the future and to make policies that are relevant across different possible futures? How to cultivate richer imaginations, deeper understanding of human experience and stimulate bolder endeavours in the extraordinary times we live in? We will keep searching for answers and asking difficult questions, deliberately creating space for these types of conversations to continue to happen.
Edited for brevity by Arianna Friedman and Svetla Baeva. See full article on the UNDP Kazakhstan website. 99% of the global population is exposed to […]
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