Keynote speech by Kobie Brand, ICLEI Deputy Secretary General at the Guangzhou Award Seminar

Page hero image

High-Quality Development and Urban Innovation

Thursday, 14 September 2023

Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Partners, Colleagues, and Friends, it is my great pleasure to be here today within the context of the Technical Committee of the 6th Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation.

Indeed, we are in the middle of an urban revolution: Every day, more than 250 thousand people are born in, or move to, urban areas – that’s a new Nairobi every 16 days, a São Paulo every 48 days, and another Guangzhou every 2 months!

These numbers are daunting – with a pressing need to support these larger populations – but they also represent an enormous opportunity for us to do things better. They call for more creativity, agility and innovation in how we support urban development. 

Already, initiatives such as the estimable Guangzhou Award, highlight moments when individuals, communities and cities have come together to actively try something new, or seek to embrace brave alternatives. 

I’m sure we all agree: the normative, traditional, or comfortable modes of urban development and governance are far from course-correcting towards a more sustainable future we all need so urgently! We urgently need bold alternatives, and we need to challenge our own lock-in to business-as-usual. We need to deliberately enable and encourage urban innovation, to realise cities that are filled with nature, with children’s laughter, with healthy food, happy people, beautiful buildings and public spaces, artistic expression and a sense of joy and possibility for all our residents.

To embrace urban innovation as a worldview to realise our future cities, I have four propositions I would like to share:

1. Cities are already hubs for innovation – and we must embrace this

Cities are concentrators of people, materials, impact and ideas. Covering only 2% of the world’s landmass, cities account for 70% of material consumption, are responsible for 75% of global COemissions, and are where we produce 80% of global GDP.

Cities are both the concentrators of so many challenges and yet are the concentrators of our most valuable asset, which is the human imagination. Bringing so many people together in these spaces offers infinite opportunity for innovation. 

Innovation is not a specific technology, process, nor a set of rules or circumstances. Innovation is a worldview and a practice which emerges from a set of interactions between us, often quite by chance and spontaneous – and with our built and natural environments around us.

Every day, thousands upon thousands of urban residents are practising a form of innovation, typically driven by increasing shocks and stresses, or a lack of resources. Given global changes and shocks, our cities have become ever more complex, prone to shock, and uncertain for city officials to engage. 

Adopting a worldview of innovation, requires us, as urban practitioners, to embrace a form of urban development that may be unfamiliar or even uncomfortable, but that champions plurality and seeks, not to pave over what we don’t fully understand, but to indeed embrace and invest in it. Here, I’m speaking of natural systems which provide unaccountable services, of informal economies which service the majority of urban residents, of forms of community self-organisation to respond to shocks or support families in misfortune.  

The way we will make innovation happen is by embracing, yes, real data and evidence about how our cities work, but also uncertainty and discomfort as the new norm, and by using these as a provocation to constantly seek the new, the different, the potential. 

2. Innovation requires us to reframe challenges as assets

We need to embrace the challenges and the complexities of cities as central to how we innovate. What would happen if we changed our mindset, to view the city’s greatest challenge as its greatest asset? What happens, when unemployed people, illegally dumped waste, traffic jams, informal food vendors, or a polluted river, are rethought by residents and city governments working closely together, as the city’s greatest asset?

If we keep talking about problems, that’s all we will see… yet the more we speak about solutions and possibilities, the more apparent they will be.

Inverting how we understand and interpret our cities, can invite imagination and creativity into how we plan, resource and build them, in very generative manners. 

3. Infrastructure is the key catalyst for urban transformation 

By 2050, the UN predicts 7 billion people will live in urban areas. To house, feed, energise, move and service them we will need 48 billion tonnes more material – mostly for urbanising Africa and Asia. This is more than double of what already exists in today’s cities. We will need to be creative about how cities can adequately service their people and ensure access to resources and services. Here, finding how infrastructure can serve multiple purposes, is key.

Effective separation and treatment of waste can provide organic fertilisers, new materials for industry, remove waste from city streets, reduce flooding and offer community employment.

For example, sustainable urban drainage systems, such as sponge cities, reduce runoff of soils, offer urban cooling, and support infiltration and retention of water. And providing  sustainable energy solutions can often usher in round-the-clock urban economies and livelihood generation which also address gender and equity needs. 

We need to be targeted with our infrastructure investments, understanding that the choices we make now will echo across the century. The things that we lock ourselves into now (like hard infrastructure) will set the tone for our next urban generations – those  who deserve that we make better choices, even if harder ones,  today. 

The infrastructure we build now will contribute to another layer of urban geology that future generations can look back at – and hopefully say that this was the moment we began living in a new, more sustainable way for people and planet alike. 

To do this, we need to be fierce and uncompromising about how we allocate our scarce resources and how we demand new Global compacts that distribute the world’s wealth more equitably. 

4. Innovation is fundamentally dependent on collaborative initiatives

Finally, although it too has potentially become a buzzword, collaboration remains the most innovative act – and the bravest act – that we can take together. In the past 30 years of ICLEI’s work in subnational and environmental advocacy, we have seen a groundswell in programmes and organisations committed and working to address the climate and biodiversity crises, to end poverty and centre urban development as a positive force, and to place local governance on the global agenda. We need to keep this momentum going, and support cities to share their successes and lessons with their peers.  

Innovation emerges through the exchange of ideas, experiences, through debate and questioning, and as said, sometimes through accidental interactions – and we must make space for these interactions. In this space, cities have a critical role to play – especially mega-cities such as Guangzhou. They are ideally positioned to inspire peer cities by sharing their approaches, or offering solidarity in shared challenges. 

I am so inspired by the submissions to the Guangzhou Award for Urban Innovation which encourages innovation in public policy, projects, business models, and practices, as well as peer-to-peer exchange, and which is designed to provide evidence of the local implementation of the SDGs in local and subnational governments. I can’t wait to share the ideas of the shortlist further with our border network of ICLEI members and colleagues to inspire, excite, motivate and galvanise further ideas and actions in many more cities and regions around the world.

Congratulations to all those hundreds of cities and territories that have entered this round of the Guangzhou Awards sharing with us your rich, diverse and inspiring urban innovation programs! And thank you – and very well done – to all my fellow Technical Committee members for a wonderful, fruitful week together and of course a very big applause to the entire Guangzhou Awards team under the leadership and guidance of Nicholas You, the beautiful City of Guangzhou and it’s leadership and as well as our friends and UCLG and Metropolis!  Thank you for your very warm hospitality!

Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you.