Reflections from Habitat III

The week of October 17-20 over 30,000 people from 167 nations gathered in Quito, Ecuador for Habitat III. The conference, which has taken place every 20 years since 1976, is a concerted effort to discuss the current state of and also to shape the future of urban development, as well as a space to write and approve the new Urban Agenda (formerly the Habitat Agenda). It is a time for nations to take a specific look at urban issues, assess progress and consider emerging and future challenges that will impact sustainable urban development.

Habitat III was divided into two parallel events; the official UN deliberation on the Urban Agenda (which was actually negotiated prior to Quito), and the open conference with hundreds of networking events, workshops, roundtables, side events, special sessions and more. The atmosphere of the event was very high energy and full of hope, and it was great to see so many cross-sectoral discussions. For example an event focused on homelessness saw national leaders, government actors, social players and the homeless from over 15 nations working together to share perspectives on an equal stage. This collaborative atmosphere created a strong space for exchange and problem-solving.

I attended on behalf of SOIF to explore how foresight can be used to support ongoing dialogues. The urban agenda (and 20-year timeframe between conferences) naturally demands a long-term perspective to 2036, and this was felt even more due to the focus of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) looking at 2030. However, there was still a significant gap in most of the Habitat III meetings – with some discussions too focused on problem solving for the world today, rather than the world tomorrow, and too little discussion about practical ways to measure success.

Throughout the conference we heard how there needed to be more measurement, more data, creative solutions, and collaborations. But we heard less about actual ways to do this. The conference needed to have more focus on implementation. And foresight needs to be part of this discussion, both to help people design more effective solutions by understanding how the world may change, and by encouraging more open dialogue and participation from across governments, civil society, communities and companies.

In this vein, my highlights were in the spaces in which we heard about how people all over the world were creating change in their urban communities, and on so many different scales. From unions of street workers, to dialogues between mayors and federal government, to The Rockefeller Foundation’s and ARUP’s City Resilience Index that is being implemented in cities from India to Argentina. My hope is that these examples will help inspire more open and participative approaches to the Urban Agenda.