What Makes Cities Catalysts of Change?
Michelle Hinrichsen
October 20, 2023
Cities are not just the heartbeat of our global society but also the crucible of innovation and change. Beyond the obvious economic reasons, cities play a pivotal role in development initiatives and improving this world.

Why do cities matter? Have you asked yourself this question? Cities are not just the heartbeat of our global society but also the crucible of innovation and change. Beyond the obvious economic reasons, cities play a pivotal role in development initiatives and improving this world. After all, we chose the name Open Cities Lab for a reason…

Why Cities Matter:

Unique yet common: 

Cities are unique entities in the grand tapestry of nations. They are both big enough and common enough to scale impact, yet they retain the complexity and uniqueness that make them the epicentres of cultural, economic and social diversity. This distinctive quality sets cities apart from the broader national landscape, allowing us to implement high-impact solutions that have local relevance and future ability to scale - like the Urban Resilience Programme. 

Local Relevance: 

Very often there is a predominant focus on national and international development efforts, while cities can remain overlooked. When tackling development services like healthcare, we might talk about billions of funding allocated at the national level. This is hard to comprehend. Citizens struggle to make sense of these numbers and truly understand the impact of this large-scale planning for their own neighbourhood or personal life. However, when we zoom in on the neighbourhood clinics’ budget allocation, for example, the picture becomes clearer. Local residents are able to see how the budget and planning will affect their local clinic - and their everyday life. This means that planning at city-level has stronger significance and offers a tangible, relatable scale for implementing and understanding development initiatives. All of this results in more suitable initiatives, better citizen buy-in and, hopefully, a deeper impact across the city which ripples out to surrounding areas. 

Direct Connection

Another critical aspect in understanding the importance of cities lies in acknowledging who residents tend to interact with from a governance perspective. While national government is undeniably critical, the form of governance that residents are most directly in contact with is their local government - city officials and ward councillors. Impact Initiatives that are connected through local government channels tend to make more sense to residents and have a greater chance of success compared to national-scale initiatives. It’s in cities that we can bridge the gap between policy and the lived experiences of individuals because there is enough proximity to those in government, and there are enough people to scale the impact.

Scalability through Cities:

The scalability of city-level initiatives cannot be overstated. By focusing on cities, we can maintain the complexity and uniqueness of local contexts rather than attempting to homogenise approaches at the national level. However, this doesn't mean we should disregard the broader national perspective. Rather, cities provide a fertile ground for understanding the nuances of social and economic challenges before scaling these solutions to a national level. They serve as laboratories where we can experiment with innovative approaches. For example, we have implemented Data Management Systems (powered by CKAN) in eThekwini, City of Johannesburg, Ekhurhuleni and City of Cape Town. These Data Management Systems allow cities to generate accurate insights to make decisions internally and to share with city stakeholders to make decisions externally too. 

Looking Ahead: 

According to UN-Habitat, low-income countries will see an increase of 76% in the number of cities between 2020 and 2070, making urban governance all the more pivotal.

Importantly, local government structures often extend beyond city limits to encompass rural areas, ensuring that rural communities are not neglected. While rural areas might be relatively less complex, it's in cities where the density of people brings forth a host of challenges and opportunities. This is fertile ground to grow innovative solutions that will change inequality, standards of living and quality of life. Focusing on cities is the key to addressing the pressing issues that will shape our future.

At OCL our mission is to harness the potential of cities as engines of development and change. We believe that by working in and with cities, we can drive meaningful impact that ripples out to national and global levels. Our approach is rooted in data-driven research, innovative policy design, and collaboration with local governments and communities. Find out more here. 

Cities matter in the context of development initiatives because they are the nexus of complexity, diversity, and innovation. They are where people come together, and where the challenges (and solutions) of our time are magnified. Open Cities Lab was born from the need to recognize and amplify the importance of cities’ role in affecting real change for people’s lives. By focusing on cities, we can create a brighter and more sustainable future for all, one urban innovation at a time. Together, we can shape the cities of tomorrow and ensure that they serve as beacons of progress for the entire world.

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