Smart Cities, Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda

As we discussed in class, smart cities are cities that have the resources to support elements that attract intellectual adults and young people. A smart city will have plenty of components that attract a knowledgeable population, like innovative technology, academic events that provide access to more knowledge, museums and social events. However, I am more interested in the second half of the discussion, inclusive cities. I think that both Habitat III, including the New Urban Agenda (NUA), the Pineda article and the Asian Development Banks Inclusive Cities article speak to the importance of attracting and supporting everyone that urbanizes, not just the knowledgeable population.

All of the readings mentioned above focus on sustainable urban development and what that means for disadvantaged populations. Habitat III, which is working to achieve SDG Goal 11, is advocating for equal access, use and enjoyment of cities for everyone in this generation and future generations (2). The plan is working to readdress the way that cities “plan finance, develop, govern and manage cities” (3). The NUA is trying to change the way that cities are conceptualized so that inclusive sustainable urban development can be achieved. For example, the NUA has a call to action to help fight discrimination of many of the Major Groups, but they also included PWD (4). The agenda is striving to provide safe, accessible cities to all citizens, not just the young professionals and higher socioeconomic status (SES) residents.

One very important consideration when working towards inclusive sustainable development in cities is spatial considerations for PWD. Pineda’s article, Enabling Justice: Spatializing Disability in the Built Environment emphasizes the need for framing disabilities in respect to the environment that surrounds them (111). In order for cities to be truly inclusive, they must have spatial justice for PWD. In other words, “space is only just if it is to the advantage of the least well off stakeholder” (115). It is imperative that sustainable urban development includes PWD and the space they need to thrive, like audible cross walks, kneeling buses and curb cuts (120). PWD can live full, independent lives if their environment (in this case the city) allows it.

The Asian Development Bank article also provides an example of empowering disadvantaged communities. Through their multi-sector approach to slum rehabilitation in India, the Bank worked to provide services to citizens where they currently lived. For example, the Bank funded many projects that provided community initiated services like access to roads, rain drainage systems and low cost sanitation (29-30). Although slums in India and low income urban areas in cities like Washington DC are in some ways different, they are also quite similar. My biggest concern for developing inclusive cities is to preserve and empower the community that already exists in the city. Gentrification is a huge concern for me as we embark on a goal to involve everyone in cities. The India case study provided a powerful message to me that you can empower a community where they are, instead of relocating them to further the goals of a “smart city.” Each citizen counts in an urban area and making plans that involve the voices of the marginalized is an important step to making smart cities and inclusive cities work cohesively.

Habitat III


Not only is our world population growing at an exponential rate, but patterns also show that the population is concentrating along coasts and in cities. A report by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimates that by 2050, 66% of the world population will be living in urban areas.

As seen throughout history, the process of urbanization is usually associated with positive social and economic transformations. Cities are the heart of economic activity, its inhabitants have greater access to social services, citizens are much more culturally and politically involved and health and literacy tend to be much better. However, these positive outcomes require effective city management with proper policy implementation and the necessary infrastructure to support them. Without some sort of organized control, rapid unplanned urban growth can be dangerous for sustainable development. Issues stemming from uncontrolled and almost hectic growth include things such as pollution, rapid environmental degradation and unsustainable production and consumption patterns. Yet, with proper oversight, organized urban growth is the key to sustainable inclusive development.

In November, Habitat III, the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in Quito will be held for world leaders to come together and agree upon a plan to move forward with urban development in a way that is sustainable and ensures that all parts of society have equal access to all parts of the city (Class Lectue). Habitat III is committed to “strengthening the coordination role of national, sub-national and local government’s” in order to fulfill their vision for urban settlements (Habitat III). Such settlements are meant to be participatory, fulfill social functions, achieve gender equality, promote age responsive planning, adopt and implement disaster risk reduction, eradicate poverty and protect, conserve, restore and promote their ecosystems (Habitat III). While all these goals are incredible, what is left to be seen is how successful the international community will be at producing the desired and intended results. In the past, most issues with global frameworks have always been encountered at the oversight and implementation stage primarily but it appears that increasingly various actors are finding better ways to be productive and work together toward the common goals. So personally, I am more confident that this time around the results of the conference will be much more concrete and effective.

While trying to achieve the established goals, it is important to observe the side effects that some seemingly successful projects might have. For example, when it comes to creating more inclusive cities and reducing poverty, some of the eradication efforts to eliminate the presence of slums in major cities cause more disruption than anything else (ADB). The two common eradication methods are complete demolition and resettlement or upgrading existing slums. Resettlement most often creates more problems for the individuals being uprooted despite the fact that their physical living environment might improve, simply because individuals are taken away from their familiar surroundings and their jobs. By moving them, many people are relocated without jobs and they feel more helpless because they are now living in a completely unfamiliar environment. Upgrading can be more successful, but also depending on the level of improvement of the individual slums, the cost of living in these communities increases to the point that its original inhabitants can no longer afford to the live there and are indirectly forced out of their homes. Therefore, it is crucial that projects be implemented with these negative externalities in mind and that local communities contribute to the betterment of their surroundings so as to avoid a narrow, one-sided approach.

The goals that Habitat III lays out are exciting and it will be interesting to follow how the world responds to them and works towards achieving them.

SDG’s and the HLPF

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) and the High Level Political Form (HLFP) are two structures that are currently working to include persons with disabilities (PWD) into the development framework. However, the reason that PWD have historically been excluded from receiving equal access, participation and human rights stems from a long history of prejudice and stigmatization. Rimmerman details religious and genetic reasons for historically excluding PWD in his book Social Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities. He outlines the rationalization of disabilities through the Bible and Qur’an. The Bible sees PWD as sinners in need of a cure (12). The Qur’an sees PWD not as sinners, but as people with burdens that should be excused from certain tasks because of their disabilities (13). In modern day, we see that both of these interpretations have led to the exclusion and isolation of PWD. Even the Qur’an’s explanation of compassion and exception has led to beliefs that PWD are incapable of leading independent lives.

Rimmerman also outlines the horrific impact that the euthenics movement had on PWD. During the 19th century, the eugenics movement began and with it the further stigmatization of PWD. The movement encouraged only healthy, able-bodied people to reproduce (16). This idea led to forced sterilization of adults and euthanasia of “defective babies” (18-19). It was not until the late 20th century that PWD were afforded any civil rights in America (20) or treated as capable, independent people. Unfortunately, as the founder of the Myanmar Independent Living Initiative (MILI) Mr. Nay Lin Soe pointed out, today there are still huge human rights violations and engrained religious stigmas about PWD in countries like Myanmar.

From this brief history of the treatment of PWD historically and currently, it is evident that global initiatives and policies that incorporate PWD into the development framework must work to address these stigmatizations and prejudices. It is important to include the voices of PWD in development strategies because as Amartya Sen reasons, the people within a community must decide the rate and form of their globalization (240-242). It is imperative that PWD are included in the development conversation because they are the only ones who can speak to their needs and challenges for becoming full participants in this globalized world. As the international community has progressed from the UDHR and the MDG’s, which have not specific mention of PWD, to the CRPD and the SGD’s, which explicitly mention PWD, we can see that PWD are beginning to gain recognition and importance in the development framework. As we continue with forums like the HLPF, it is crucial that we include PWD in the discussion to ensure that the goal of developing a world that includes everyone is achievable.

Development Theory

My previous understanding of development has been rather limited because most of the discussions and research in my other development courses have been in reference to a states’ GDP and economic factors. I now know that development can actually mean much more, and I personally find Amartya Sen’s definition of development the most compelling.

Sen explains that human freedom is both the main object and the primary means of development. Therefore, development is seen as the expansion of everyone’s opportunities and freedoms. Sen realizes that development is a crucial element in determining people’s quality of life and not just state capacities (Development as Freedom).

At its core, Sen views development as the difference in what people can and can’t do – the freedoms they have versus those that they lack. People are greatly hindered by insufficient support and resources from their economic, political, and social institutions. Institutions also intersect and depend on one another, which means they impact those beyond their direct work. For example, it is the political institutions and their politics that determine what economic institutions a country has or doesn’t (Why Nations Fail). Vulnerable groups are then further marginalized when these institutions don’t meet their needs because their opportunities and prospects critically depend on whether these institutions exist and how they function. Moreover, people need the freedom of choice within institutional frameworks in order to have personal development within their state’s development.

The shift from the MDGs to the SDGs is so significant because it takes development beyond its predetermined economic relevance and incorporates it into political, social, and environmental institutions and indicators. As we move forward, smart cities are going to become particularly necessary in achieving true inclusive, sustainable development. This makes local and municipal leaders the main actors of development rather than just high-state officials. Development has to be rooted in local needs and innovation. From an international perspective, it is then important to determine and understand how these issues and actions permeate outward. Clearly, development is not just a term but a discourse as it is incorporates ideas and processes that shape real situations (Class). It is now up to us to reconsider how our previous notions of development have hindered true inclusivity and how we can use Sen’s definition of development to provide real opportunities with long-lasting impact throughout the world.

SDGs and the HLPF

In this past week, we discussed the way in which the new Sustainable Development Goals have been organized, and ways in which international institutions have tried to reform the goals themselves as well as how we enforce and monitor them.  As we know, the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) expired in 2015, and have since been replaced with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The UN has improved the organization of these goals, but has certainly added a lot to the already-ambitious agenda.  The new MDGs will expire in 2030.

The MDGs may seem overwhelming to some, as there are 17 of them.  There has been a lot of controversy over whether the UN has put too much on its plate.  However, while there are more goals this time around, very specific goals and indicators have been laid out.  I find this to be very important, since monitoring and enforcement has always been the biggest challenge to such projects.  There are checkpoints to each goal that they plan to complete by certain deadlines.  For example, one indicator for the goal to eradicate poverty is to eradicate “extreme poverty” for all, measuring that as those currently living on less than $1.25 per day.

The HLPF is another great way these goals are being monitored and enforced.  The HLPF (High Level Political Forum) was specifically set up to monitor the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals.  This committee has been meeting yearly to look at the status of different SDGs and to establish new deadlines, indicators and goals.

In my opinion, the most important and yet surprising change has been the inclusion of persons with disabilities.  This important stakeholder group was barely mentioned in the MDGs, but the UN realized the importance of including them with the fact that 15% of the world’s population is living with a form of disability, and that inclusive development practices are needed to speed up the process.

I believe the current development practices has greatly improved, since it has become more commonplace to recognize the complexity of the problem.  Development needs everyone to contribute in order to succeed, and fixing these problems require those affected by the policies as well as professionals from many different disciplines.  The Major Groups System is an inclusive way of working on today’s international development issues, as stakeholders from many different groups (women, children, indigenous groups, businesses, etc) have the right to participate in development conferences.  It is going to get more and more difficult to include all those who need a voice in the situation, but I believe it absolutely crucial that everyone have a seat at the table.

SDGs and the HLPF

Although much progress was made by the MDGs in terms of reducing poverty, with their expiration in 2015, the SDGs were adopted with a much more ambitious agenda. Not only do they look to end poverty rather than just reduce it, but they also make it a point to specifically advance where the MDGs fell short (Class Lecture). Another strong point of the SDGs is that they are much more detailed and focused which makes it easier to plan and oversee their implementation. With clear targets and indicators in place, oversight will be much more effective since there will be little confusion in regards to the goals and how they must be measured. However, one of the most important features of this new vision for the world we want is the fact that in the SDGs unlike in the MDGs, people with disabilities are specifically referenced eleven times within the document and a couple of the goals are explicitly relevant to their needs. Nevertheless, while this is a victory for the disabled community, it is only the first step towards the ultimate goal of having people with disabilities mentioned and included in everything else moving forward. The small victory is good for now, but it is not enough. In order for our world to develop in the way it should be at this point in time, more attention needs to be directed towards ensuring that people with disabilities are included into every aspect of life, because despite this advancement, traditional stereotypes of people with disabilities still consciously and unconsciously exist and in turn affect their wellbeing (Rimmerman).

As with all goals that are put in place, the critical part is implementation and the overseeing of that process. The unit in charge of overseeing the implementation of the SDGs is the High Level Political Forum (HLPF). However, there is one major issue with the forum and that is the barriers it has to inclusion despite claiming to be the “most inclusive and participatory forum at the UN”. At least the major groups were finally expanded to include PWDs, which is a major victory but again not enough. Nevertheless, it is great to see the progress that is being made to include and acknowledge people with disabilities. Although it might be slow, it is moving in the right direction and that is all we can ask for.

Grand Challenges

Grand challenges, by definition, are complex societal problems that have frustratingly defied solution (Branscomb, 2009). While these challenges are cross cutting, multidimensional, and permeate through all of society, they are not unsolvable. By capturing the public’s imagination, Grand Challenges can be solved through innovation and scientific, sociological, and technological breakthrough (Kalil, 2012). Some examples of Grand Challenges are finding energy sources that are reliable, curing cancer, improving healthcare for all people, and decreasing food insecurity around the globe.

Because of multidimensional, society encompassing nature’s, Grand Challenges are often taken on by governments and international governmental organizations like the United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU). The United States even has it’s own set of Grand Challenges that “help catalyze breakthroughs that advance national priorities.” In short, governments and international organizations can use Grand Challenges to pool resources, foster innovation, find solutions to major problems that can help elevate everyone.

A great example of the international community attempting to tackle a set of Grand Challenges was through the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) created at the Millennium Summit in September 2000. The MDGs set eight goals: eradicate extreme hunger and poverty, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/aids, Malaria and other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability, and develop a global partnership for development. Even though these goals were a step in the right direction to elevating all of society, I believe that there were some major blindspots. One, eight goals were not enough to tackle the entire world and account for international, national, and sub-national differences. Two, and the most discussed shortcoming during the lecture, the MGDs did not mention persons with disabilities (PWDs).

By not mentioning PWDs, the MGDs effectively excluded more than one billion people in the world living with some sort of disability (WHO/World Bank Report, 2011). The sheer number of PWDs throughout the world excluded from development efforts is enough to be problematic. By excluding about 15% of your population, you’re effectively saying they don’t matter and their needs aren’t valid enough to be met. What kind of society is that? Including PWDs at the table and elevating their freedoms is an elevation for all of society.

Before starting this class, I wasn’t aware that PWDs – 15% of the world’s population – have previously been excluded from development work. That was extremely surprising to me and I believe it’s a huge disadvantage that needs to be accounted for and righted. Moving forward, I believe this material and our discussions in class will help provide me with another lens to view international development and my academic efforts in my other classes.

SDGs and the HLPF

The SDGs, as discussed in class, are a framework to continue sustainable development goals that were put in place by the MDGs. By countries adhering to these targets and projects, it enables them to compare how well each country is implementing and enforcing the targets and indicators. Measuring the impact(s) of the goals is important in knowing how well the countries are adapting to the enforced/implemented targets. Compared to the MDGs, the SDGs are more focused in the disability inclusion (Class lecture). Because it is an international goal, there must be an organization overseeing that all the targets are being ratified and implemented. This is where the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) steps in. As an organization that is said to be inclusive, they are the most exclusive organization (Class lecture). The requirements for someone to be a part of the HLPF discussions limit a large number of people who would benefit in being a part of the discussion, including those that are part of the Major Groups. This goes against Sen’s view of how democracy is an important part of developing and strengthening development (Sen). It is true that people have to acknowledge the fact that many institutions cannot be viewed as a “mechanical device for development” (Sen), but as an organization that specifically deals in overseeing the implementation of sustainable development, they should be democratic in the way they manage discussions and who can participate in them.

Since the main goal of the SDGs is to continue promoting and implementing inclusive sustainable developments, reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights made me realize that the HLPF is not abiding by the basic rights that humans have to make sure that sustainable developments can progress in their country. Countries must abide by the UDHR to make sure that any changes occurring within a developed/developing country do not hinder a person’s or community’s desire to progress with their sustainable development. The same way that this document lets all people have the basic rights and freedoms that they are entitled to, I believe the HLPF should give whomever wishes to participate in the discussion, the opportunity to view how they are managing an international dilemma (UDHR). In addition, every person/community has the right to education, health and social security (UDHR). The SDGs intend to continue implementing universal education and health so that developing nations and their Major Groups can continue to prosper.

Mr. Sen and Mr. Soe

In our second session we opened up the discussion by looking at three different approaches to development. The long-term process of structural change in the international system, the short to medium-term poverty reduction and MDGs and lastly development as discourse or a set of ideas that shapes and frames reality. The idea of development as discourse and ideas that frame reality seemed to be most related to our Amartya Sen reading, as well as to the philosophy behind the work of our guest speaker, Nay Lin Soe.

Sen wrote about the role of freedoms of different kinds in countering  afflictions imposed upon us, and how fostering greater individual agency is central to addressing these deprivations in our lives. Mr. Soe’s organization, the Myanmar Independent Living Initiative -MILI, is a nongovernment organization that works for equal rights, inclusion and independent living of  people with disability in Myanmar.  Mr. Soe’s organization seems to adopt this philosophy in their organization, which  promotes the individual agency of persons with disabilities in all aspects of life, and to work as agents of change in their own lives. Sen explains that one of the impediments to development is that our individual agency is inescapably qualified and constrained by the social, political and economic opportunities (or lack thereof)  that are available to us. Mr. Soe explains that many of the impediments he and his organization face stem from the legal, cultural, and religious barriers imposed by his country. He spoke about the absence of funding in Myanmar’s government for disability organizations, discrimination that disabled persons face in the professional sphere as well as negative stigma against disabled persons stemming from some of the country’s religious traditions.

Sen expresses that the expansion of freedom should viewed as the primary and principal means of development, consisting of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency. This is exactly what Mr. Soe and his organization have taken upon themselves to do. One of the organization’s major achievements include the creation of accessible and disability friendly polling stations that were implemented at four locations in the country, to serve as models moving forward. They have made remarkable progress in removing unfreedoms in the electoral sphere, by increasing disability access in Myanmar’s elections, thus giving disabled people the agency to cast their own private  and secure votes and a voice in their countries elections.

Grand Challenges

Today’s grand challenges are exactly that. They are multi-dimensional, complex and far reaching issues that do not necessarily have a clear solution in sight. Louis Branscomb suggests many of these technically complex societal problems that have stubbornly defied solution should be addressed with a series of improvements or  by making processes more effective. Often times the emphasis is put on defining a solution to the grand challenges without necessarily giving credit to the discoveries, innovations or improvements that come out of the crucial brainstorming process.

Branscomb illustrated the importance of process rather than outcome in the context of solving the cancer problem. He explained that in the long-term process of diagnosing this grand challenge of finding a cure for cancer, the biomedical research community made discoveries in fields of immunology, cellular biology, genetics, yielding new ways of diagnosing and treating cancer that would never have followed from focusing on a more short-term, clinical research approach. There are benefits to looking at these grand challenges more as frameworks to be implemented and tested over time,  rather than issues that need resolving before an expiration date. Branscomb recognized the potential of  an this kind of intellectual environment that allows for curiosity  to light  new ideas for making the grand challenge easier and quicker to master.
It is important to remember this approach to grand challenges when we look at recent world development agendas such as the MDGs and the SDGs. Although much progress has been made leading up to 2015, the MDGs were not achieved in their deadline. Millions continue to be affected by grand challenges such as  hunger, aids, and lack of access to education after this 15-year development agenda. With the conclusion of the MDGs in 2015 we saw the expansion of the SDGs from eight goals to seventeen goals.The expansion and specification of the new development agendas goals could be seen as a result of the increased knowledge gained in the successes and failures of the MDGs. With the incompletion of the initial eight goals, and  processes of trial and error, people were able to better understand the complexity of these grand challenges facing our world today. They gained valuable insight into what strategies for evaluation and implementation worked and didn’t work, and recognized the need for a longer timeline. Although we did not complete the MDGs, the implementation process allowed for informed revisions to the way these grand challenges are approached in the SDG framework.