June 30, 2022
“Proof” I did go to WUF 11
This week I attended my first World Urban Forum (WUF), the UN’s biannual jamboree to celebrate cities, work done on cities, and work to do on cities. I confess that, for someone who’s be “doing cities” for the better part of 15 years, I’m a bit embarrassed it took me this long to show up to one of these. I’m glad I did. So, while it’s still hot in my memory and before I go back to the pile of email accummulated, I’ll try to commit to words a few of my impressions. Expect some ideas on cities, some on conferences in the new normal, and some on first-time conferences.
Start with things I’ve learned about cities. I leave Katowice with a copy of the 2022 World Cities Report, freshly released this week. More importantly, I leave with the determination to spend some quality time with the document, and giving some of the proposals in it the time they deserve. Some of the ideas I picked up from the press release are intriguing (e.g., “localising” SDGs), others exciting (e.g., a new social contract channeled through cities), and others I was more familiar with (e.g., 15-minute cities) but it’s fantastic to see they have found their place in a document of this caliber.
I focused most my time on sessions that touch directly my areas of expertise. Although not obvious at first sight, the WUF does bring together quite a few data nerds to discuss the potential and risks of weaving technology and data through the urban fabric. There were three highlights to me.
First, the session on the report on cities and AI.The report itself has not been published yet, but I look forward to reading it when it does come out It was great to see explicit brain power by a group of folks who collectively really understand both cities and AI. Unfortunately, the report itself has not been published yet, but I look forward to reading it when it does come out.
Second, the session on earth observation for SDGs, which showcased a bunch of really interesting projects in this space (pun intended!), including UN’s Earth Observation Toolkit, Prof. Yifang Ban’s Earth Enginge app for SDG 11.3.1, or the South African’s space agency efforts to build a “national GHSL”. My takeaway from this session however was brought by Dennis Mwaniki from UN Habitat who noted that there is a lot of work on SDG 11.3.1 (“ratio of land consumption rate to population growth rate”) and less in others (e.g., those on mobility and public transit), perhaps because it lends itself much more to be addressed with tools which have developed greatly over the last few years such as satellite technology. Food for thought.
The third highlight has to do with GHSL. The Global Human Settlement Layer is the term used to refer to the family of data products on human settlements on Earth that the European Commission (EC) and the Joint Research Centre (JRC) has been pushing on at least since 2016. At this WUF, JRC announced GHSL 2.0 which updates and widely expands the offering of datasets made available. There was special love for the Degree of Urbanisation product, which is now making its way into all sorts of policy arenas. To me however the most significant anouncement was the news that, from next year onwards, GHSL will transition from JRC into the Copernicus programme and will thus become part of the family of data that ESA and EC regularly take care of (think of it as a Sentinel mission for human settlements). As someone who’s been watching the new forms of data lanscape for a few years now and has seen many projects launch a flashy first release and then quickly wane, there is something very refreshing about a team making efforts to not only innovate on how we measure human activity but to ensure such advances have sustainability over time. Bravo!
Besides content, I learnt a lot about the “container”. WUF was my first big conference (+16k people) since COVID. It was live streamed for free for anyone to join remotely. In some ways, the space helped blend the hybrid experience: many sessions were on a (really) large hangar-like space that had been subdivided with very thin walls and no ceilings. Rather than piping sound into speakers for every room (which would make the whole thing quite the cacophony), sound was shared directly on the web stream and on headphones that everyone picked up at the begining of the session and left at the end for charging. Maybe this is standard in UN-land, but it was new to me, and I really liked it. It made the streaming, and live translation when available (main sessions) much more a first-class citizen experience because everyone was essentially augmenting their experience with headphones. It made it possible to have a lot of parallel sessions in essentially the same big space. And it also made bringing remote speakers (e.g., many folks saw their flights cancelled last minute) to a panel or a talk much more natural for similar reasons as above.
And a few thoughts on my own experience as a WUF newbie. The first is that the “UN vibes” that emmanate from all over the conference are just very cool. As an academic, I’m used to one very particular type of conference, and experiencing what a truly global community of policy makers, practitioners, and other academics excited about cities feels like was super nice. At times, I felt like I was in the middle of a Malka Older novel or in one of The Expanse episodes around the futuristic UN.
At the same time, this was a conference a bit out of my comfort zone and definitely beyond my usual networks. As a full professor who’s been regularly going to conferences for over a decade, it was at once refreshing, overwhelming, and humbling to be in one where you almost don’t know anyone. In some ways, coming to WUF made me (more) aware of the challenges for early career folk who attend their first conferences, and I hope I can take some of this feeling into action in events I’m more involved. Finally, it was also a good reminder that the temptation is big to think that, as we become more senior, we enjoy conferences more because we learn to “do conferences” better; but in fact, it is more likely that we find “our crowd” and limit ourselves to it for the most part. Stepping out of this pattern is challenging but important.
In summary, WUF 11 has been been a blast. I’ve learned a lot, met some very cool people, and left with a renewed sense of awe and urgency about working on cities. I’m glad I came and I hope it is not the last time.