ICLEI World Congress: A Network of Cities and Regions for Tomorrow’s Generation?

By Valériane Buslot, Morgane Ollier and Geneviève Westgate
Social Connectedness Fellows 2018

On June 19th, 2018, the city of Montreal hosted the ICLEI World Congress 2018 at the Palais des Congrès, welcoming delegates, ranging from mayors, engineers and city planners to community organizers. All of these stakeholders gathered for four days to share and learn about municipal and regional best practices, aiming to create the sustainable world of tomorrow. From sessions on nature-based solutions to collective local actions or mobility-smart initiatives, stakeholders had the opportunity to take stock of their respective progress regarding sustainability and resilience while gaining inspiration from their peers’ initiatives.

The Congress

In the past few years, Montreal has been at the forefront of sustainability. Montreal was the first Canadian city to submit its resiliency plan, offering a five year vision with measures to foster the city’s capacity to respond resiliently to climate uncertainties. The city is also a proud member of the C40 and 100Resilient Cities networks. The next logical step was for the city to host this year’s ICLEI World Congress.

During this four-day Congress, there were 56 sessions, 10 technical visits, and 3 networking events, allowing participants to learn more about the global impact of  urban sustainability. Throughout the Congress, ICLEI also welcomed exhibitors, including local environmental groups and start-ups that showcased their initiatives to ICLEI participants, creating further opportunities for interaction and discussion.

As a global network, ICLEI comprises 1500 cities, regions and towns and more than 100 countries, collectively committed to building a sustainable future. The network has, over the years, offered these actors a platform for exchange but also an international reach. This World Congress is thus a way for governments to meet and share about strategic ties with key actors.

Photo courtesy of the ICLEI World Congress

An Opportunity for Collaborative Action

One of the strongest components of this event is the collaboration it fosters between different actors and stakeholders in sustainability, including local governments, environmental organizations, journalists and entrepreneurs. These actors are not often present in the same room, and this kind of cross-sector collaboration should occur more often in policy-making, to ensure that policies and programs are more sustainable and inclusive.  

For instance, at one of the sub-plenaries, “Vision for cities and regions in 2030: Ensuring systemic and inclusive action”, one of the exercises consisted of drafting a sustainable development plan for 2030 in small groups.  Students (ourselves included), ICLEI representatives, government delegates and engineers had the chance to expose their work and experiences, and together drafted a plan that was both holistic and inclusive.

Collaboration was not limited to sub-plenary sessions. Following the speakers’ presentation, the audience had time to discuss, ask questions and give feedback. During the session, “Using the potential of nature to create greener, healthier and more inclusive cities,” a lively debate took place between local governments, community organizations, a professor and a P.H.D candidate on whether greening the city should be a top-down or bottom-up initiative. The debate ended with a recommendation from a government representative of Brazil, who stated that sometimes even when it seems that there is an urgency, there is also a need for us to allow voices that are not heard to be heard. As such, we need to put “people in the centre”, and develop more equitable visions for the future— a statement that received wide support in the room.

Collaboration is thus key to addressing the sustainability challenges in cities today. ICLEI, by enabling conversations between a wide variety of actors, showcased the powerful outcomes of collaboration, setting a positive example and helping guide stakeholders in future decision making.  

Strategic alliances for future partnerships?

The conference also served as a strategic meeting for countries with the idea of ​​creating new partnerships, which was one of the key elements that was brought up during the presentations of projects by cities from Australia to South Africa. A key theme was that genuine partnerships go beyond mayor-to-mayor interaction and involve all stakeholders, from citizens (of all geographical areas, backgrounds and ages), to policymakers, non-governmental organizations, businesses and institutions.

Partnerships are a key element to developing sustainable cities and implementing projects because the fundamental goal is to have a long-term shared vision for sustainability between all stakeholders. This can only happen if trust is built and there is equal participation and support between all partners throughout the implementation processes.

A major challenge in creating more partnerships is in sharing a common vision; aligning all stakeholders to be able to work efficiently, having equal incentives and ensuring that the interests of all parties are represented.

To overcome these hurdles, many of the cities that attended take the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a key basis to create what they call national SDGs. For instance, the Korean government created the Korean-SDG, and then small communities have developed Local SDGs. This approach holds every level of government accountable concerning sustainability. Increasing shared responsibility was one of the main components that Marta Cuixart of the City of Barcelona put foreword, which now has over a thousand partners. Amanda Stone, from the City of Yara, Australia, recapitulated perfectly in one sentence what partners needed to do to build a sustainable city— build trust and share information and resources between all partners.

The authors from left to right: Morgane, Geneviève and Valériane

A network: what about inclusion?

While the congress showcased an interesting blend of sessions on both resilience and innovative sustainability at the city level, sessions also offered a space to discuss the position of minority groups in advocating for greener and more inclusive sustainable transitions. Two sessions were held on the topic of women in climate leadership, while one of the plenary discussions focused on Indigenous People’s knowledge. The Congress also held newly launched Talanoa Dialogues. The Talanoa Dialogues, rooted in the traditional fijian meaning of “inclusiveness and transparency”, were built upon COP23’s (Conference of the Parties) Bonn-Fiji Commitment of Local and Regional Leaders, an annual international conference gathering United Nations signatories to discuss climate change actions under the convention (UNFCCC). The Dialogues were designed to help governments strengthen their national plans by exchanging local practices and grievances and to spur a non-judgmental and inclusive dialogue. While these sessions offered delegates a platform to share stories and learn from each other, participants would have benefited from a longer session with more opportunities for others to be involved.  Talanoa Dialogues happen year-round and can be found at many locations, including the COPs but also High Level Political Forums or the Global Climate Action Summit that will take place in San Francisco in September, hopefully offering more opportunities for countries to gather and share collective and individual stories to foster solutions, rather than convictions.

Overall, there was room for more inclusivity in the 2018 Congress. On the whole, youth were  notably absent during the Congress, likely due to the high cost of participating. How can the future of sustainable cities be discussed without integrating the youth as a force of change? Simply put, youth must be more involved in discussions that will ultimately affect their lives the most.

This year’s ICLEI World Congress was certainly an optimistic gathering that helped countries reiterate their commitment to creating a sustainable world by sharing views and best practices from their respective fields. However, the questions we now need to ask are: how much space is there for a change? How can we make sure that the cities’ most vulnerable people are not forgotten in the transition to smart and sustainable cities? Delegates, researchers and civil-society alike will hopefully go back to their home countries full of ideas for future collaborations and partnerships and will implement what they have learned during the week. It is now about translating these words and encounters into actions.

To learn more about ICLEI, visit their website at: http://www.iclei.org/