‘Flourishing Cities’: partnering for resilience

How can effective, appropriate cross-sector partnering help in ‘future proofing’ the developing world cities of the future?

cairo picture

Cairo and Alexandria – Image source: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on Flickr

‘Flourishing Cities’ is the theme this week of our annual Challenges of Government conference at the Blavatnik School of Government here in Oxford.

From an Africa perspective (as this blog is), the conference programme speaks to the scale of urban development and human security challenges in fast-growing cities. Far from Oxford’s pleasant setting, these challenges come across very vividly in the heaving expanse of cities from the Cape Flats in South Africa to Cairo.

(The Nile city was the setting of a related post a year ago now on the ‘turnaround challenge’ for business in mega-cities (here)).

Yet by focusing among other things on the progress of one troubled Colombian city, the conference agenda also speaks to the largely untapped potential for scaling-up dialogue and partnership between policymakers, business, civic groups (and often donors).

The evident and largely latent scope for greater cooperation and collaboration holds considerable promise for unlocking developmental bottlenecks in ways that make commercial sense for business and investors, too.

At some level, there are strong shared interests across sectors in moving beyond guarantees of minimal security so as to enable human flourishing and the attainment of basic aspirations. It goes almost without saying that business and governments share an interest and indeed an imperative in promoting more inclusive and sustainable growth and poverty-reduction; more and better education, job-creation, and productivity; greater shared prosperity and reduced inequality (of income, healthcare, security and so on); greater social cohesion and reduced radicalisation; and so on.

At this level, the case for partnering is not hard to make. Much harder is to give effect to such ideas, and to ensure that there are principles to guide the pragmatism involved in greater cooperation across sectors in meeting the development agenda.

Moreover, there is a growing shift to focus on city-level issues, from investors to development agencies. Schemes and initiatives proliferate: Rockefeller’s ‘100 Resilient Cities’, Columbia University’s ‘Millennium Cities’ initiative; IBM’s ‘Smart Cities’ initiative, and the list goes on. Again, the case for focusing on urban development and resilience challenges is easy to make, even if partnering is hard: finding the right incentives for sustained cooperation, the right relationship parameters, deciding who counts as ‘business’ or ‘the private sector’ in selecting partners, negotiating relationships with national- and provincial-level governments.

As the previous post on ‘innovation’ noted (here), there can be a tendency in using the term ‘partnership’ to gloss over not just how hard and entrenched development challenges can be, but also how hard, piecemeal, or political partnering can be (even if ‘development’ was easy!).

What we are working on at Blavatnik, among other things, is getting to the heart of the fundamental concepts around why partnering works or does not work, is appropriate or inappropriate, is embraced or resisted.

These challenges apply generically: one myth in the recent turn to city-level programmes, conferences, investment strategies (etc.) is that by descending to the supposedly more agile and adaptive city level of analysis or administration, one can by-pass some of the enduring problems of cross-sector collaboration and get more done.

This is an appealing idea — but not necessarily a sound one.


Dr. Jolyon Ford is a research associate of the Global Economic Governance Programme. This post originally appeared on his blog Private Sector – Public World.

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