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An Inside Take On the Guangzhou Awards For Urban Innovation

Nicholas You / Jan 10 2013

For Release Sunday, January 13, 2013 /

Nicholas YouEditor’s Note: For decades, Citistates Associate Nicholas You, in positions with the United Nations and beyond, has been a leader in seeking to identify, publicize and spread the best learning and experiences of world cities to companion city regions around the globe. I first wrote about his work following the Habitat II conference in Istanbul in 1996. You has also been key in inspiring our Citiscope project to commission journalists’ articles about innovations in their cities across the globe.

It was no surprise that Nicholas became a key adviser to the first Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation, serving on the technical assessment committee and jury for the process last fall. He has kindly provided a summary report on the process, as well as brief summaries of 45 of the most impressive entries. His message below describes the background and scope of the Guangzhou process. The summaries of the 45 may be reached by clicking this link. – Neal Peirce

Nicholas You’s Report: Like many other major metropolises, Guangzhou, China, population of more than 14 million, is striving to become a more livable and sustainable city. As early as 2002 it was recognized by the Dubai International Award for Best Practices for enhancing its urban road transport network. Car ownership and usage rates rapidly overtook the system, and by 2007 the city was again suffering hideous traffic congestion. Ready to learn from others, the mayor of Guangzhou, having seen for himself the benefits of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in São Paolo, Brazil, decided to implement what is today one of the world’s most impressive BRT systems, providing affordable, timely and effective transport to some 800,000 commuters a day.

More recently, the city of Guangzhou has implemented a promising strategy for affordable housing, a major challenge for many rapidly growing metropolises in China as well as other cities around the world. The approach combines the conventional subsidy approach to affordable housing with land-use planning and value capture. Rather than trying to convince real estate developers to integrate housing for low-income groups as part of their higher-end projects, the city identifies suitable locations within the urban fabric for affordable housing. Instead of financing the subsidy from general revenue, always an issue fraught with political contention, a fixed percentage of revenues from selling rights for real estate development is earmarked for housing subsidies for the urban poor. Furthermore, to avoid controversy, the entire process – from identifying deserving beneficiaries to the allocation of revenues from the sale of development rights – is open to public scrutiny.

Guangzhou, Credit: Neal Peirce

Guangzhou is well aware it faces many other challenges. When I was asked to advise the city on the first edition of the Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation, which took place last November, I was agreeably surprised to learn that the city’s leadership was committed to building a knowledge hub to learn from other city innovations and to promote the exchange of lessons learned between cities and regions on a global basis. Having devoted a significant portion of my 30-year career to promoting good policies and best practice in urban development, such a vision and commitment was music to my ears.

Forging an award as a learning process: A major drawback of the concept of “best practices” that lies at the heart of most award and recognition systems is looking backward at what has already been achieved. In a world characterized by rapid urbanization and equally rapid change, we need a system that looks forward. This implies less focus on results and achievements in overcoming problems of the past, and more focus on policies and strategies being put into place to address the challenges of tomorrow.

What is innovation in the urban context? The Guangzhou Award, by focusing on innovation, takes a big step in this direction. It defines innovation two ways: revolutionary innovation and evolutionary innovation. The first is clear; we are looking at “never before seen or thought of” policies, strategies and projects. Besides their “wow” factor, they play an important role in stimulating decision-makers at all levels, and especially in local government bureaucracies, not only to think outside of the box, but to encourage others to do so.

Evolutionary innovation, on the other hand, is what characterizes most innovation in urban development. Such innovations also fall into two broad categories. The first consists of ideas inspired by the actions of others and adapted to a particular context. The second refers to a process of learning from experience and integrating those lessons in a systematic way to achieve, over time, cumulative and often outstanding improvements in effectiveness and efficiency.

These two sets of concepts of “revolutionary and evolutionary innovation” and “contextual adaptation and learning” formed the core criteria used by the Technical Assessment Committee to identify 45 deserving initiatives and, from those, to shortlist 15 city initiatives from a total of some 200 submissions. The shortlist was forwarded to a jury which selected five award-winning city initiatives.

The jury also used the same basic concepts. In both stages of the selection process, a third concept was used to help level the playing field between cities with different resource bases. This concept consists of “absolute” and “relative” merit. Thus two cities – one well endowed in financial, human and technical terms and the other poorly financed and equipped – presenting similar initiatives in, for example, transport or water, could be compared in terms of the relative degree of difficulties to be surmounted.

Testing the learning and exchange dimension. The award has been set up to focus on innovation where it matters: at the policy level, at the level of strategies and, not least, at the level of projects. This is what has been missing in many other award systems – a link between policies and practices, or simply put, what a city is trying to achieve and how it is achieving it. Over time, a database of such initiatives will become a practical tool for leaders in all spheres of government, in the private sector and in civil society.

To test the learning dimension in the short term, the City of Guangzhou organized a one-day conference, linked with the award ceremony, on learning and exchange. The first part involved journalists and mayors in a classical format. Mayors from different cities formed panels on specific themes and answered questions from journalists and from the floor.

The second part involved all 15 short-listed city initiatives. Two representatives from each were invited to take part in a learning seminar. City initiatives were clustered according four domains corresponding to the main issue being tackled by a given practice: social, economic, environmental and governance. Short presentations were followed by questions and answers from a panel of experts.

An on-the-spot, ex-post evaluation of the session by both the cities involved and selected members of the audience revealed that the most appreciated aspect was the focus on lessons learned, on difficulties encountered and how they were surmounted, rather than more conventional conference formats focusing on results.

Perhaps one of the most significant outcomes was a statement by the mayor of Guangzhou that he would encourage his staff to go on study trips abroad to learn more, first-hand, on the 15 short-listed city initiatives.

Ways forward. A summary of all 45 deserving initiatives is available at the website. Together they represent a first step toward building a database of urban innovations from which others can find inspiration and learn.

The next cycle of the Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation will take place this year. Lessons learned from the first cycle, including essential information required to enhance learning and exchange, will serve to improve the system. Viewers’ feedback, suggestions and inputs on this first stage are most welcome.

Nicholas You is a veteran urban and intergovernmental expert, architect-planner and organizer of international city activities. Based in Nairobi, he recently capped 28 years of service to various United Nations agencies with five years as senior policy and strategic planning adviser for UN-Habitat. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to

One Comment

  1. Posted January 14, 2013 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    Great piece on why the idea of “best practices” is obsolete in many cases. During the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City a symposium was held on the topic of “The Physical Fitness of Cities: Vision and Ethics in City Building.” During one session Tim Weiskel made a presentation where he said, “enough best practices, what we need are best possibilities.” Tim was the former director of Harvard Divinity Schools “Center for the Study of Ethics in Public Life. ”

    Since that day I have come to shun best practices exactly for the reasons Nicholas describes. While I would certainly want my physician to provide best practices as a baseline for my care, if I became seriously ill I would want her to start looking at best possibilities. So it is with our planet; a seriously ill place needing best possibilities. As Neil noted in the subtitle to his book, “Century of the City,” there is, “No Time to Lose”.

    Similarly this February, students in the Honors Scholars in Sustainability and Urban Ecology program at the University of Utah are hosting a symposium titled, “Innovative Sustainability.” It is their way of seeking best possibilities at a time when, as stated in their call for submissions, “we are scared, but we are not paralyzed.” The evolutionary impulse of these students, the forward lean they represent as we all grapple with how to manage our planet, is worthy of our attachment. It is also less expensive than Prozac.