I want to raise a fundamental question at the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week: What are we learning from the efforts of Abu Dhabi and its neighbouring cities in Menat (Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey) to become sustainable cities? How can we really know what is working and what is not?
Recently, I reviewed all available data on the Menat cities and asked how are they doing? One answer was very clear — they are growing fast.
There are very large cities and smaller cities, high productivity and low productivity cities, cities with strong and capable governments and revenues, and others with weaker institutions. There are cities that are very well connected with deep global reach, and others that are not yet in the circuits of global flows of people, ideas, and investment. Some cities have already successfully diversified their economies and others have not. This network of Menat cities is one of the most heterogeneous I have ever studied.
Despite this diversity there are four core impulses that unite the cities of the Menat region:
First, the rate of urbanisation is high and most people in this region live in cities that are growing very quickly. As a consequence, urban mobility and the quality of life in cities have become issues for urban populations and city governments. Accommodating rapid urban population growth is imperative for sustainable cities. If the population of any city outgrows the available infrastructure systems and city services there are severe consequences in terms of congestion, pollution, land use, and quality of life. Cities with populations that have grown larger than they can serve become overcrowded, segregated, and eventually unattractive.
The scale of investment in urban transportation in Menat denotes a remarkable shift towards high capacity/high reliability public transport options and heralds increasing ability of the cities of the region to accommodate larger labour forces and improve productivity through transport systems.
There is a major effort in training to ‘host the world’ for important gatherings that provide leadership and demonstrate the convening power of the region on the sustainable cities agenda.
Second, diversification of the city economies in the region proceeds rapidly. Diversifying urban economies serves three critical sustainability purposes. It allows the region to reduces its dependence on commodities and resources extraction. It also provides a greater level of economic resilience through ability to cope with shocks and sector challenges. Moreover, the focus on economic diversification enables greater attention on economic participation through attention to enterprise, education/skills, and multiple locations and concentrations of jobs and firms.
Third, resilience and circularity agendas coming strongly to the fore. The Menat cities are diversifying their sources of energy and the efficiency of their energy storage and management systems. They are also increasingly focused on habit, water, and food sustainability with renewed investment in desalination, water recycling, agritech, and food circularity. In addition, increased awareness of the costs of exposure to natural disasters, extreme heat, drought, and earthquakes is increasingly being addressed though long-term investment in resilience on infrastructure, utilities, and real estate.
‘Future city’ applications and platforms
Forth, ‘urban-tech’, ‘smart city’, or ‘future city’ applications and platforms are increasingly being used to improve the efficiency, integration, accuracy and inter-operability of urban systems and city services. Growth of AI, IoT, and VR-based applications are boosting building efficiency, transport reliability, payment systems and flow management. These increase the capacity of cities to host larger populations and more activities.
Finally, there is a major effort in training to ‘host the world’ for important gatherings that provide leadership and demonstrate the convening power of the region on the sustainable cities agenda. Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week is one such event and during the year that follows we will witness the World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi, the Expo 2020 Dubai and the G20 in Saudi with one of the themes being sustainable cities. Menat cities are just on the map of the innovation in sustainability, they are now also charting the future.
— Prof Greg Clark is a senior adviser to HSBC.