Exploration and the city

It was about a year ago when I found the job announcement for the role which I am now happy to fulfill. Admittedly, the idea of Exploration conjured images of broad open vistas — more earthly than celestial, although the idea of being UNDP’s in-house astronaut is cool too. Instead I find myself with the mandate to dive deep into the congested space that provides the backdrop to mundane everyday living, whose potential for exploration we now further discover.

Landing into Metro Manila in the year 2020

Throughout history, urban centers have provided the backdrop for great stories of nations rising, serving as hubs of creativity that propel ideas, innovations, and social movements. At UNDP Philippines, we recognize how urban systems provide the dynamic context where inter-linkages between the sustainable development goals (SDGs) are intensified and most keenly felt. With more than 51.2% of the country’s population — equivalent to 51.73 million people — already living in cities (Philippine Statistics Authority, 2015), the Philippines is among the fastest urbanizing countries in the world, providing us with the opportunity to scale impact. Recent national developments further propel us to explore how we can best support cities in accelerating progress towards the SDGs: 1) an updated national spatial strategy framework presented in the 2017–2022 Philippine Development Plan, which identifies 146 cities nationwide as priority areas for development, 2) a legal ruling that will substantially increase the amount of resources allocated to local governments through the internal revenue allotment, and 3) political shifts from the May 2019 elections that disrupted some long-standing local political dynasties. These inspire us to wonder:

How might we empower visionary leadership through dynamic and participatory governance?

Being at the epicenter of cross-cutting links between sustainable development, urbanization and local governance, cities are suitably placed to contribute to the SDGs given their mandate for service delivery. Amid time and resource constraints, we are keen to understand how cities can balance immediate response to competing priorities on the ground, while maintaining an outlook for emerging risks on the horizon.

Cities present a living laboratory to test models to accelerate sustainable development solutions, which can in turn inform policy and program design. With this in mind, we plan to work with city governments to identify strategic risks, harness agility, while building resilience. Identified risks will be used to inform the design of a “portfolio of options” — a set of interventions designed to manage risks and maximize transformative opportunities on the horizon. Likewise, we are looking at how service design principles can be applied to enhance efficiency and transparency, in order to streamline government transactions for constituents.

A teaser of the DevLive+ app

How might we strengthen knowledge to accelerate local action?

In the face of a city’s complexities, we look to strengthen the evidence base for effective policy and programs to accelerate the SDGs. One example from UNDP’s own project portfolio is the DevLive+ tool — initially developed to map local natural hazards, it is being enhanced to serve as a data platform to support SDG localization. In addition to capturing the interrelated aspects of the SDGs, we also look to incorporate existing mechanisms we have developed for citizen monitoring (DevLive app).

We are also working closely with external partners to determine how we can synchronize methodologies and different data sets driven by different objectives: internal planning, inter-city learning exchanges, and a public facing dashboard to inform decision making as to where a city’s best prospects for investments lie. While the proximity of city administrations to high population densities affords access to baseline data at scale, we are also investigating complementary information at the national level. To bring these together, we are exploring innovations to integrate systems and visualize data into meaningful narratives for city governments and their citizens.

Outdoor exhibit, Alienated Spaces, featured during the People Make Cities art walk

How might we re-imagine our lived urban experiences through “unusual suspects” and approaches?

Beyond physical convergence, cities provide the space where various initiatives can conceptually come together to galvanize local talent for collective action. To spark this thinking in the context of a vibrant emerging metropolis, we had the pleasure of hosting Gabriella Gomez Mont who shared her experience of engaging citizens through participatory platforms that she led at the Laboratorio para la Ciudad in Mexico City. In collaboration with adobo creative Hub, this provided a space for engagement where lines between changemakers and culture-shapers blend — a sweet spot through which we hope to cultivate different angles and approaches to help sculpt the cities we deserve.

This activity is an offshoot of the ALab team’s first month celebration, where we hosted colleagues from different programme and operation teams for a brownbag breakfast with Gabriella. Apart from inspiring cross-disciplinary collaboration, it also allowed us to tighten the reflective loop between our professional mandates and our personal lived urban experiences. Taking this into practice, we also went on a SalikLakbay (our localized solutions mapping adventure) in a bid to experience Old Manila through new eyes, reframe homegrown solutions, and celebrate creativity that thrive amid the urban chaos.

Mario Tercero, Project Manager for UNDP Low Carbon Urban Transport Systems, with Gabriella Gomez Mont

In navigating what effective governance can look like in a VUCA –volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous– world, we may need not look far to uncover the lessons we seek. Instead we are called to consolidate our local government engagements, leverage our experience as well as the strength of our networks. We welcome you to join our journey as we unpack these during this month’s World Urban Forum — stay in touch via acceleratorlab.ph@undp.org.

With special thanks to adobo creative Hub, People Make Cities, Thinking Machines, Liveable Cities Challenge, League of Cities of the Philippines, city partners and UNDP colleagues both within the Philippine Country Office and the Regional Innovation Center for Asia-Pacific.



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