Report from Side Event at the UN-Habitat Assembly, Nairobi, 30 May 2019

The side event under way at UN-Habitat Assembly, 30 May 2019

“Innovation Districts for Rapidly Urbanising Cities: Opportunities and Challenges” with Ax:son Johnson Foundation, UN-Habitat, and other partners

Report by Dr. Katherine Kline, Co-chair, General Assembly of Partners, Older Persons Partner Constituent Group

Summary:   In recent years, ‘innovation districts’ – neighbourhoods where companies and academic institutions cluster with startups and incubators to produce new products and services – have emerged in cities across the world. In recent research, the success of these innovation districts is linked to mixed-use, compact and integrated urban forms that provide high-quality and inclusive public spaces, catalyzing social interaction and economic “spillover” effects. Removing physical barriers such as walls, fences and roads create networks of public spaces that promote greater diversity of interaction and greater creativity. When innovation districts are anchored in the existing cities, additional dynamics ensue, as they are often linked to urban regeneration processes.

Some of the best-known examples of successful innovation districts are in slower-growing cities of the Global North, including Barcelona, Berlin, London, Montreal, Stockholm, Seoul, and Boston. But many other rapidly urbanizing cities are also employing innovation districts, including Medellin, Wuhan and Johannesburg. What are the lessons for the Global South, and especially for rapidly urbanizing cities? How can innovation districts be planned, and how can networks of public spaces contribute (as called for in the New Urban Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals)? What are the opportunities and also the dangers? This session brought in research evidence and perspectives from planners and implementers from different parts of the world.

Introduction by Michael Mehaffy, moderator: We now have the New Urban Agenda agreed to by all 193 countries, and the focus now must be on implementation.  The NUA and Sustainable Development Goals both contain language about the importance of public space and economic development. There is a new understanding of what cities do to create synergies and “knowledge spillovers,” especially through public space. We see the critical importance of street network connectivity for knowledge spillovers and other creative social and economic interactions. We need a “Goldilocks zone” – a maximum level of diversity, combining the widest possible range of low income and high income — not a concentration of either (i.e. “slum” or “gentrified enclave”). Research shows that over-concentration on either is destructive, economically and socially.

The Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings Institution has compiled a report on so-called “innovation districts,” meant to take advantage of this kind of interaction in urban and public space. This is an emerging trend globally, tapping into not only “agglomeration benefits” of cities, but the propinquity and serendipity of interactions within public spaces as well as adjoining private ones. “Urban knowledge parks” provide physical assets in the public realm that help to create interactions, especially with “weak ties” (people from different fields with different knowledge). This might require removing fences and walls and adding pathways, they say — sometimes restructuring public space, e.g. in isolated suburban locations. The results knit the district together and strengthen connectivity within the broader metro area, so that these districts do not  become islands with themselves. Truly “smart cities” (a dangerously vague and feel-good term) requires an evolution of our thinking about cities, and the way we plan and design them, especially around public space networks and their adjoining private edges.

Challenges to consider:

  • What are the pitfalls of innovation districts, and “smart cities” more generally?
  • How can these districts be better integrated into their regional urban systems?
  • How can innovation districts avoid over-concentration on one type of innovation, and at the same time, avoid becoming too diffuse?
  • How can the interests of private entities be balanced with public interests?
  • How can innovation districts serve to regenerate the weakest parts of the city, without causing excessive gentrification?
  • What are the tools that we can identify, and how can we share them?

Laura Petrella, Leader of City Planning, Extension and Design Unit, UN-Habitat: We are currently dealing with cities at city-wide scales.  We work from the perspective of the New Urban Agenda:


  • Protection and promotion of human rights and the rule of law
  • Equitable urban development and inclusive growth
  • Empowering civil society, expanding democratic participation and reinforcing collaboration
  • Innovation production – new ideas, economic development

One of the tools is to create innovation districts in cities. They have a contribution to a sustainable transition in an urban environment; they contain a variety of actors; they span the boundaries of academia and industry; they can help transform urban areas into iconic models of urban quality.

The UN-Habitat Strategic Plan is new. The innovation tool is a component to spatial equality, shared prosperity, and a response to climate change. We are interested how these innovation districts connect with the rest of the city:

  • Urban sprawl vs. compactness
  • Segregation vs. Integration
  • Congested vs. Connected

There is now a huge effort underway globally to create innovative new cities, and to attract a wide range of stakeholders from international to local levels. There is strong collaboration with academia in this effort.

Planned city extensions must piggybacking on existing cities – promote business and extended research activities.

Regeneration is also important, the repurposing of existing fabric to revitalize the local economy.

We need city-wide strategies well-distributed across cities.  We need to thereby promote a green economy, combining regulations and incentives (a good example is the current work of Sao Paolo, Brazil).


  • Adequate space for streets and public spaces in an efficient street network
  • Mix of land uses
  • Social mix and diversity
  • Adequate density
  • Connectivity

Jie Song, Deputy Director of Wuhan Land Use and Urban Spatial Planning Research Center: She is an urban planner involved in over 100 projects. In December 2018 they helped to organise “International Placemaking Week”  in Wuhan, with UN-Habitat support. They then founded the China Placemaking Network to share experiences and knowledge. This is now a UN-Habitat innovations project. Wuhan is the largest city in central China with a population of 11 million, and has a famous historic part of the city. In 2018 they organized the International Urban Design Student Competition, a global competition for innovative urban development. They used the case study of Guibei to explore how to make improvements. They renewed historical heritage sites and public spaces, and introduced vibrant mixed-use space.

She showed a project on Deshengqiao Street, a pilot project to engage young people in local planning by using via Minecraft (with Microsoft as a partner). The workshop included 32 people aged 7-77.

Stefanie Chetty, Director of Urban Policy Development and Management at the National Department of Cooperative Governance. South Africa: They look forward to sharing their many experiences how to align with the New Urban Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals. They developed integrated implementation or localizing framework of implementing the NUA with SDGs.

They had four strategic goals:

  • Inclusion and Access
  • Inclusive growth
  • Effective governance
  • Addressing social and spatial inequalities.

They have a huge backlog of untransformed spaces from the apartheid era. South Africa is working to address past issues under apartheid, but this is a huge challenge. Pressures on income are determined by race; although there is a good growth rate, there is still high unemployment; people want to be involved; they want to live where there are basic services. They try to bring in linkages. There are many problems with connectivity, e.g. gated communities. Civil society plays a big role on overcoming these challenges. The informal sector has a role to play too, and it is essential to involve everyone. We must all ask, who shapes our cities and how? With established formal and informal cities, they are trying to integrate cities and create rural urban linkages.

All of this work must consider, what is the state of implementation of the New Urban Agenda?

They recently had a conference with all sectors via the South African Cities Network. They are exploring different ideas, looking at two intermediate cities, working with business and civil society for all, developing inclusive good governance. This work shows we can introduce new ideas through spatial integration.

Ismail Bin Ibrahim, Chief Executive of the Iskander Regional Development Authority in Malaysia: Iskander is an economic region established 10 years ago to support the nation’s vision toward becoming a developed country. They are located on southern tip of Malaysia just north of Singapore. They established 3 phases of growth: development; strengthening growth; and sustaining growth and innovation. Innovation cannot be imposed but must come naturally, and be supported under the right conditions. We need to create an urban ecosystem to support those coming up with new ideas. They embraced an appropriate Comprehensive Development Plan – addressing environment, economy and one more. In Medina City, they addressed strategies of use and development of land from city planners, for example producing a district cooling system. In the city center, government is leading the way, working with small entrepreneurs who turn existing buildings to restaurants for younger people, for example. Growth is now at 8+%, with one problem of a resulting encroachment on agricultural areas. It was important to provide new ways of life for existing residents so that they could remain in their communities while embarking on new types of jobs and work. As one strategy, they supported startups via government grants. Improvements came through major significant projects benefitting the community as a whole.

Lessons learned:

  • Innovation must be long-lasting, giving maximum benefit
  • Inclusive benefit must be for all, not to a single person or group
  • It must be able to be copied by others
  • It cannot be too costly
  • We must create an ecosystem to help people to be creative and innovative

Emmanuel Kombe Nzai, CEO of Jumuiya ya Kaunti za Pwani (Coastal Economic Bloc, Kenya): They are promoting a regional economic effort in the coastal region of Kenya. This is a new project with the European Union along with UN-Habitat. They have many blue (ocean, water) opportunities. They have been setting up policies as an economic development agency, and coordinating with partners. They also have three universities spread across three cities, an important asset. The problem is the vicious cycle of poverty, marginalization, corruption, weak political leadership, feeding one another in a cycle. The innovative solution they are implementing is to change the story focused on Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) incubation. This work is aligned with the 2030 national vision, and includes the Jumiya Investment Fund. They have 6 governors as managers, and they serve as the Secretariat. They are looking to partner to build up the new innovation labs. A catalyst is the Kenya Constitution 2010. So far, there are 7 economic blocs of which they are one. The country has had a failed trickle down policy with little reaching the bottom level. In the new model, they have 14 cross cutting sectors with agriculture, livestock and cooperatives at the top.

During the discussion, attendees asked for additional information about examples discussed and lessons learned. A representative of the GAP and World Blind Union asked Stefanie Chetty about South African examples of inclusion, and wondered how persons with disabilities are included. Do they have indicators of inclusion, and is universal design used? Stefanie reported that they focus on infrastructure we haven’t gotten down to the disability focus. They work with the Secretariat of Police to develop safer and more inclusive cities, and have incorporated many of their policies and strategies.

Speakers at the Side Event.

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