Getting cities unstuck

Cities are ever-changing living systems. But are the current changes they undergo able to reflect all of future challenges? Read about new ideas for ways we can approach urban transformation, by thinking within each city’s own contexts.

In the Unstuck briefings, we create a curated collection of intelligence on a specific topic that we know is stuck, but also that with deeper observation and understanding can start the needed change. The briefings are always curated by people working in the field itself, who have realised that “business as usual” is no longer working.

Illustration by Matej Klíč

1. Why do we need to embrace uncertainty in cities?

“City” is an extremely general term. A city in South America looks very different to one in Western Europe or Central Africa, for example. But all cities have something in common; they are complex living systems of production and exchange, which work as dynamic networks with many interdependencies. So when we talk about cities, we talk also about unemployment, extreme heat, urban poverty, depopulation, informal markets, and more. Humankind has had many lessons that prove things rarely work out as we expect. So rather than continue trying to plan things out, we should instead embrace uncertainty in order to make cities more resilient.  

2. One key initiative to follow

If you want to see examples of how to approach urban transformation differently, follow the activities of this initiative.

🟢 UNDP’s City Experiment Fund (CEF) seeks to make sense of and address complex issues playing out in cities – including the impact of migration, climate change, and inequality – by working at the intersection of innovative methods and technologies. Up to ten partner cities across the region are developing a portfolio of experiments in response to cross-cutting challenges shared all throughout the region and beyond. CEF provides them with catalytic funding that de-risks investment in experimentation, and supports them with the tools and processes they need in order to prepare for the future.

3. Around the world

What's our experience with supporting an inclusive and sustainable transformation of cities? Read about the UNDP's interventions in these different parts of the world.

Europe and Central Asia: Applying systems thinking to urban transformation

In 2021, five cities from across the Europe and Central Asia region embarked on an exploration of a new approach to problem solving, which is rooted in systems thinking. Stepanavan (Armenia), Almaty (Kazakhstan), Prizren (Kosovo), Pljevlja (Montenegro) and Skopje (North Macedonia) began designing portfolios of options. Portfolios because there are no simple, singular solutions to complex problems. Options because addressing complexity requires an approach based on experimentation, learning and dynamic management.


Bolivia: Understanding the urban work in La Paz

Deep Demonstrations were used as a tool to dig deeper and understand the complex relationships and dynamics of the La Paz population and work opportunities, with a view to crafting a portfolio of interventions that would seek to expand those options with a particular focus on women and youth.


Africa: Cities disrupting the urban future

The future of humanity is urban. Africa is currently the fastest urbanising continent in the world, with an expected 1.2 billion urban residents by 2050. Find out about the strategic experiments being undertaken to try and support Africa’s rapid urbanisation.


Angola: Exploring informal urban markets 

Weve used a systems approach to make sense of the complexities of informal urban markets in Angola, while also exploring combined interventions that can help shape the future of these markets. We moved away from a singlepoint solution mindset and embraced a portfolio logic to tackle complex systemic challenges in the urban market space. 


Europe: How to tackle pollution in big cities?

Skopje is one of the most polluted cities in Europe. However, it’s the poorer neighbourhoods that are mostly, and disproportionately, affected by the exposure to toxic air and its associated health risks. The UNDP Innovation team has defined six zones of experimentation on which to focus to try and tackle pollution and other serious issues in European and Asian cities.


4. Become familiar with system and portfolio practice

Understand the system-level changes that won’t be possible in the immediate future, and why that’s so.

TEDx talk: Innovation as if the future mattered

Chief Executive Officer at EIT Climate-KIC, Kirsten Dunlop, and her introduction to the portfolio approach as the tool for systems transformation, resilience and regeneration.


Webinar: Strategic Covid-19 recovery: A mission-oriented, multi-stakeholder approach to complex challenges

A panel discussion on emergent models and funding for systemic change, illustrated using the case of plastics in Indonesia.


5. Let's think together

To get deeper into the topic, think about the most essential questions and read further content on the subject – both for those who have just started to explore the topic and those who would like to dive deeper. 

Four crucial questions to think about

The term “urban transformation” or “the future of cities” covers a lot of things. We’ve selected the most crucial questions that we collectively need to think about when talking about “unstucking cities”.

  • What are the emerging risks that our cities are blind to?
  • Can we understand how climate change, inequality and migration interact with each other, and how it impacts cities?
  • Where are the strategic points of intervention within complex systems that will help us address current challenges as they play out in our cities?
  • How can we employ tools of inclusive innovation to meaningfully address the current challenges?
  • How can we make cities resilient? How will individual cities be able to recover, adapt, react to continuously changing conditions (climate, economy, political regimes, war, etc.)? 

6. What to read / watch / listen
📰 Magazine: Desired Landscapes

A pocket-sized magazine delving into a diverse mix of city and urban observations.
🎙️ Podcast: The political will to transform a city

A podcast with Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, Mayor of Freetown – Sierra Leone’s capital, about the city’s ambitious goals, how the tough political decisions behind them were made, and what the Covid-19 pandemic has done to the city’s transformation plan.
🎙️ Podcast: Monocle 24 – The Urbanist

Interviews with city mayors, urban planners and architects about making better cities.
📚 Book: Cities for a Small Planet 

A bible for many architects. Across the world, from the isolated, gated communities within Houston and Los Angeles to the millions of residents of Mumbai living in squalor, “the city” has failed to serve its ideal functions as the cradle of civilisation, the engine of culture and the inspiration for community and citizenship. Sir Richard Rogers, one of the world’s leading architects, demonstrates how future cities could provide the springboard for restoring humanity’s harmony with its environment.
🎥 Movie: The Human Scale 

Professor Jan Gehl has studied human behaviour in cities for 40 years. His insights about the relationship and interactions between cities and people are discussed by thinkers, architects and urban planners in order to find out how to come back to human-first city planning. 
🌐 Global platform: Resilient Cities Network

The Resilient Cities Network builds on the legacy of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative. The aim is to deliver urban resilience through knowledge sharing, collaboration and collective action, seeking to inspire, foster and build resilience around the world.
📚 Book: Living in the Endless City 

A great overview and nice visualisation of the most important global data and its correlation with the sustainability of cities. Living in the Endless City is a close look at the issues that affect cities, and thus people around the world, in the twenty-first century.
📚 Book: Recoded City 

Recoded City is a collection of projects that examine alternative urban design, planning and architecture. It elaborates on a new “epoch in the relationship between cities and civil society by presenting an emerging range of collaborative solutions and distributed governance models.” 
📚 Book: Small Change 

Nabeel Hamdi is a specialist in housing, shelter and settlement, slum upgrading, and in participatory planning and design. Read about the nimble solutions that can have a significant impact. 
📚 Book: Ecological Urbanism 

An ecological approach is needed both as a remedy for the contemporary city, but also as an organising principle for new cities. Ecological urbanism approaches the city with a “world view that is fluid in scale and disciplinary approach.” Design also has a key role when it connects ecology with an urbanism that is not in contradiction with its environment.
💬 TED talk: Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth

Oxford economist Kate Raworth says that a healthy economy should be designed to thrive, not grow to work within the planet's ecological limits. Watch her eye-opening 2018 (but still very relevant) TED talk, or learn more about Raworth's ideas from her website.
Free manual: How to design a fair shared city

An illustrated downloadable manual that includes concrete steps for gender-sensitive urban planning. 

7. For deeper learning

A list of webinars, lectures, discussions and reports for anyone who is dealing with the topic of city transformation and related issues on a daily basis.

💻 Living and working in a hotter city

How does heat help us to understand and analyse social, economic and gender inequalities in cities impacted by rising temperatures? Watch the lecture by Nausheen Anwar, urban planner and research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, whose current research mainly addresses the challenges of climate change. 

Read more

💻 Webinar: Fair shared city Vienna and its path to being a gender-sensitive city

Ursula Bauer (Head of Gender Mainstreaming), Eva Kail (Gender Planning Expert) and Laura Wimmer (Deputy Department Head for Women’s Affairs) discuss what needs to be done to move one modern city towards gender sensitivity. 

Read more

💻 Interviews: Virtual forum on urban transformation

Watch this interview with Gabriella Gomez Mont, a founder of Experimentalista (a novel type of nomadic and creative office specialised in city transformation) and architect and strategic designer Nicolay Boyadjiev, about the radical changes needed in urban spaces, and the new narratives that are necessary for the change to take place.

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💻 Framework: How to build an urban transformation portfolio using the systems approach 

Where should a radical urban transformation towards resilience and sustainability start? How do we devise interventions that are not just a one-off attempt, but are truly capable of addressing the complexity and most difficult of development challenges such as poverty, inequality or climate change? Have a look at this technical guide on how to build an urban portfolio of solutions instead of creating a single project. 


8. Radical observations

Methods, ideas and discoveries that can shape how we think about urban transformation anywhere in the world.  

Listening is the first step towards opening a dialogue about possible futures

See how the UNDP approached the practice of listening, and if it helped to fulfil the goal of sparking enthusiasm about exploring possible futures, and to contribute to a shifting understanding of the future from being a distant horizon, to an extension of today.


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What is ethnographic listening and why do we need it to change things meaningfully?  

What is necessary is a deeper understanding of the social, economic and cultural dynamics that are conditioning the evolution of this crisis.


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