City talks: How to measure the magic?

Urban life 19 February 2018 Martin Christiansen

Metrics matter. But how do we capture and measure vital aspects of good city life such as social inclusion? This article collects impressions from the recent World Urban Forum, the world’s premier conference on cities convened by the UN.

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12 min

With the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goal and its 169 targets to meet, working towards a better world has swung the pendulum from visionary words to tangible measures. 

This is a natural transition and there is a great deal of evidence to back it up. Eduardo Moreno and his team from the UN Habitat have investigated 500 cities and the conclusion was striking; if a city is poor on numbers, the city is equally poor on policy-making. 

To get things right, cities need the proper metrics to measure progress and to improve decision- and policy-making.

This was confirmed by C40, the network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change. Speaking on behalf of nearly 100 cities representing a quarter of the global economy, C40’s Head of Research, Tom Bailey, told delegates how the main problem for city mayors in the C40 network is making the case for climate actions. To do this convincingly, they need numbers – and knowledge – on the wider impacts of those actions. 

This also applies to the International Federation for Housing and Planning (IFHP), the host of a WUF side-event that inspired this article. The IFHP is preparing to craft a new Social Cities Index that aims to re-value the social aspect of the triple bottom-line and this will be initiated in spring 2018 by the London School of Economics, Ramboll and others.   

The intention here is not to advertise the initiatives of C40, IFHP and Ramboll. Rather it is about the interesting tension between seemingly unmeasurable social aspects and the urgent need to equip city leaders with the appropriate business cases and metrics for funding the climate actions that the world so desperately needs. As Pepsi coined it, a choice for a new generation – but this seems to be a voice from a new generation, 20,000 of them gathered in Kuala Lumpur.

However, providing the numbers and win support for economic, environmental and social climate actions and urban development initiatives is not easy.  

To put thing into perspective, one delegate shared a tragicomic fact from the UNDP Innovation Facility. The budget for climate action in the UK is equivalent to just 0.6% of the country’s total ice cream market. Perhaps they just have more ice creams than actual climate issues.

Singapore’s Executive Director, Centre for Liveably City speaking at World Urban Forum panel discussion with among others Tom Bailey of C40 on his right and Kerry McGovern, EAROPH far right.

Blind spots

As with any good debate, not everyone agreed and in this case not all lobbied for more numbers. Kerry McGovern from the Eastern Regional Organization for Planning and Human Settlements (EAROPH) spoke vividly about potential blind spots and the shortcoming of indicators.

Have you ever been to a house where the lights were on and the door unlocked? Those are normally solid indicators that someone is home. But they don’t have to be, McGovern argued. “If we manage what we measure, we then measure what we see. What we don’t see may lead us down a blind alley,” she said.  

This gets back to the headline of this article. One delegate asked McGovern and the panel ‘how do we measure the magic?’. A strikingly simple question without an easy answer.

Magic as in those small things that really make a difference in the big picture. For some, as a local delegate in the audience pointed out, simply clearing a street of garbage and making basic recreational areas can make all the difference in the world to the people living there. 

So how do such interventions translate into something that can be picked up by an index, survey, or a quantifiable benefit down the road? And how do we measure the value of city identity, the culture and genius loci?

One city that has tried and come some way to answering these questions is Singapore. The city’s Executive Director at the Centre for Liveability, Khoo Teng Chye, admitted that social values are undoubtedly the hardest part to quantify; it can be difficult to convince the financial administrators about the value of city greenery for instance. “We have tried this,” he said.

But something seems to work for the city. Despite being one the world’s densest cities, Singapore is repeatedly named one of the world’s most liveable.

This indicates that a holistic perspective, or a systems approach as the Executive Director labelled it, can work.

Inclusion is paramount

One session by the UN used the phrase of ‘leaving no one behind’. Whatever the term, the extent of the challenge relating to all stakeholders was summed up nicely by perspectives from Serbia and Singapore. Due to factors such as youth unemployment and the still pending membership of EU’s inner circle, many young and well-educated Serbians are seeking a more prosperous life elsewhere. As such, they are leaving an entire nation behind.   

In Singapore however, the problem is up-side-down. As Khoo Teng Chey explained, “Social inclusion is key in Singapore because if you are excluded, then you have nowhere else to go; there’s just one city.

With liveability, social inclusion is paramount to good living conditions and a cohesive society – not just in Singapore but also in the Nordics for instance; perhaps not coincidently, as Copenhagen and Singapore have conducted numerous professional exchanges over the past decade.

So, the unsettling tension between the seemingly unmeasurable and the urgent need to measure may be a societal Rubik’s cube for researchers, organisations and consultancies alike. 

But to conclude on a positive note, all delegates seem to agree about an all-inclusive approach. Any urban development or client action must be for the greater good, not just for the good of privileged people. Or as C40’s Tom Bailey puts it:

“We have to focus on the distribution of an impact before we can say anything meaningful about the actual benefit of a climate action.”  

The next World Urban Forum will take place in 2020 hosted by Abi Dhabi.