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Reflections on the World Urban Forum

Last day at the WUF

The vast grounds of the WUF conference

I left the World Urban Forum a few days ago, and have since been searching for the proper word to summarize my experience there. Only one has come to mind: confusing.

Of course, as I wrote at the beginning of my time there, it is hardly possible to partake of everything that goes on at a conference so large and with so many conflicting agendas. But that which I did experience was, well, far from inspiring.

In my introductory interview with Mariam Yunusa, World Urban Forum Project Coordinator for UN-Habitat, she described the conference as “a marketplace of ideas” for the Habitat agenda, particularly the special sessions and the dialogues. But attending the dialogues, for instance, along with many of the other sessions and “networking events,” I had to wonder what could possibly be garnered from them that would guide any agenda, or be truly representative of, as she put it to me, “what the world thinks.” From what I saw from the outside, the majority of the “dialogues” encompassed presentations from a previously selected group of panelists on their own work in their respective cities or organizations, a short question-and-answer session with the audience, and just a few minutes for genuine debate at the end in answer to those questions.

Those few minutes at the end were by far the most exciting, engaging, and productive. The most exciting things I learned in the entire “dialogue” around “The Shape of Cities: Urban Planning, Institutions, and Regulations for Better Quality of Life,” for instance, were in the few brief minutes where true dialogue erupted and true city-to-city learning was debated.

It’s not that rich dialogue is not possible: I did attend one session where I genuinely felt advice and guidance was being solicited, notated, and digested. And while I was there, I was amazed by the professionalism, efficiency, and productivity of the conversation. There was a clear question asked, and at the end, a relatively clear answer received. But this format did not seem to be the norm for the conference as I experienced it.

I was not the only one who left feeling perplexed by World Urban Forum. At mega-events like these, the media room can often feel like a protective den of closely guarded secrets and scoops. But here, journalists often openly asked one another for interesting hooks from the conference day that they could follow up on, because they’d come up empty-handed themselves. I even found the networking difficult from time to time. From descriptions of previous WUFs, I imagined working my way through a constant throng of new ideas—bumping into interesting people from around the world on their way to sessions, eating lunch, and sipping coffees with new acquaintances at break time. But the venue was so large, and the crowd so relatively small, that spontaneous interactions were surprisingly few and far between.

Eventually the Report of the Forum will be published, and perhaps, reading it, I will come to a clearer understanding of how the dialogues and sessions are actually going to be made useful by UN-Habitat or other key stakeholders. But for the time being, I am left with the overwhelming reminder of the difficulty that comes with scale: that while the idea of global consensus and dialogue is admirable and an important aspiration to pursue, the reality of it is incredibly laborious and, it seems, problematic.

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Photo: Christine McLaren

  • Fiona Woo

    Thanks for this piece. The World Future Council co-hosted a networking event focusing on “Regenerative Cities” (blogged about here: http://power-to-the-people.net/2012/09/world-urban-forum-6-the-need-for-better-policies-for-our-cities/#more-1068) in which we tried to generate real discussion beyond the standard (and unilateral) Q&A which you rightly criticised.

    At the end of our panel discussion the participants were free to join small goups, each led by a panel speaker, and were given a specific question about different urban planning opportunities and challenges especially with regards to local renewable energy sources, territorial resource management and enabling governance structures for successful implementation. We noted that this informal brainstorming format created productive dialogue and interaction that are too often absent from a large international conference.