«Think globally, act locally.» The world has changed a lot since the first decades of the 20th century, when the Scottish sociologist Patrick Geddes inspired this sentence applied to urban planning and city management. However, somehow between the local and the global cities started cooperating and sharing knowledge on how to tackle their challenges, identify common goals and ultimately provide a better quality of living for people. Emilia Sáiz is the Secretary General of UCLG – United Cities and Local Governments, the network which represents the interests of a quarter of a million cities of all sizes on the world stage. Over more than 20 years, Emilia has been working within the international movement of local and regional governments in different fields. This is why, some weeks before UCLG’s World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders (Durban, South Africa, 11-15 November), we draw on her expertise to talk about how cities help each other, how cooperation – and competition – between actors and governmental spheres is evolving and the challenges that cities face in their quest for a more sustainable, inclusive future.
—When we interviewed you two years ago, you highlighted that “cities started cooperating much earlier than nation-states did”. How is the current state of the global cooperation between cities?
—Cities are continuously pushing the envelope of what is possible in terms of cooperation, and the past few years have been a testament to this. Our joint work as a Network has allowed cities to be present at the decision-making table at the United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, the Sustainable Development Goals Summit, the United Nations Environmental Assembly… and these spaces need to grow and be secured if we want to change how global governance is structured.
—What are the most urgent needs, best opportunities and major threats from your point of view?
—There is always the risk of going back. We live in a time in which recentralization is coming back with full force in many areas, and it is always a looming threat… to that end, of course, we need to also be aware of adverse national frameworks, and be very clear that our achievements mark the way forward, but need to be consolidated. In regards to opportunities, I believe the coming years will be critical to grow from cooperation among cities to develop a system of governance that considers all stakeholders. The best opportunity that we have, to this end, is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, that offers a visionary and ambitious way of governing ourselves that. If it is successful, it can show the best side of the multilateral system and what it has to offer.
—Talking about cities under a global lens can often lead to the disregarding of the heterogeneities between them –both continent to continent and internally–: are the challenges faced by cities in the Global South and the Global North similar or related?
—In the interconnected world that we live in, the challenges that cities face in the Global North and Global South can be seen as different manifestations of very similar issues. There is no better example of this than that the challenges and opportunities of public service delivery to our citizens. Cities in the Global North and Global South do come from different baselines when it comes to service provision, but even if they do, the challenges of waste management, of water provision, and of mobility, look strikingly similar. The need to change the conversation with the private sector, and ensure their involvement to provide efficient and affordable services to our communities, is also present both in the North and in the South. What we aim not is not to homogenize the problems that cities from the Global North and Global South are facing, of course, especially since we believe that our strength comes from this diversity, but to make it clear that even if we come from different places, we have similar ends if we want to provide a future for our communities.
“All cities have similar ends if they want to provide a future for their communities”
—We are in a moment where competitiveness is often seen as a ‘must’ for cities to succeed – with new rankings of cities appearing almost every day. And this ‘competitiveness-must’ would involve both the public and the private sectors, but also the academy, the think tanks and even the civil society… can that seek for competitiveness be a threat for cooperation and unity between cities?
—Competition is understandable. And the competition for attracting resources, events to cities is not a surprise, and a consequence of our globalized world. However, I am positive that competition among cities is not an impediment for cooperation. UCLG represents 250.000 cities and local governments around the world. All of the cities that we represent have individual needs. Many times, they will be at odds with other cities. But what unites us – what needs to be done to achieve the global goals, to face the climate emergency and to create a future for our society – is greater than this, and this sentiment is shared throughout our Network. We are talking about co-creating a future, together, for all humanity… and this cannot be a zero-sum game. Our shared goals are not just for cities, but for our communities. And I am certain that, in spite of competitiveness, the cities that we represent and the global municipal movement has this greater goal in mind, and it is this that we need to harness in order to overcome competitiveness.
—You often point out that cities have the mission to “put citizens at the core of the decision-making process”. In an increasingly unequal world, how can technology and digital innovation help in promoting a global, equitable, inclusive cooperation between cities and governmental spheres?
—Digital innovation and technology are important tools, but to ensure they play a positive role in the future that our communities need, we need to be able to shape technology, and not let it shape us. We are currently seeing how the evolution in technology is shaping our work environment, in real time. The barrage of new technologies, and the rise of the so-called “gig economy”, have looked for convenience for the customer at all cost, transforming our habits and doing so at the cost of the working conditions of their employees. It is imperative to cooperate in order to envision, together, how the future of work will look, and to make sure that technology becomes a net positive for our communities. Demand and supply alone will not cut it, and it will be up to all of us, together, to harness innovation with the purpose of achieving sustainability.
“We need to cooperate to make sure that technology becomes a net positive for our communities.”
—To conclude, let’s imagine we are 15 years ahead. What would you like to happen in the global cooperation sphere that is not happening nowadays?
—The greater challenge for the foreseeable future is, to my understanding, to develop a new model of governance that will allow us to achieve the goals that we committed to, and the transition from the current international governance system to an inter-urban system – a concept envisioned by the Director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements and our Ubuntu Advisor Aromar Revi. I believe that, if we articulate our action through the 2030 Agenda – the basis of a new social contract –, we will make city diplomacy truly transformative, by harnessing the potential of the SDGs to bring local governments, the private sector and the civil society together and cooperate on co-creating solutions for our communities to face the greatest challenges of our time.
At our next World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders we intend to provide a space for actors from all spheres of government – and civil society – to meet, debate and generate policy recommendations to carry out the global agendas. Not only do we intend to ask for space to influence global agendas, but I am convinced that it is the role of cities to lead and offer these spaces for all actors. Only by working together can we achieve such ambitious goals. Only if we bring all the actors to the table will we be able to achieve the future we dream of.
Interview and edition by Sergio García i Rodríguez, Communications Coordinator – anteverti, with the collaboration of Cristina Garrido, Innovation & Strategy Director – anteverti
Picture by UCLG
UCLG coordination thanks to Rosa Vrom, Alejandra Salas Petit and Fátima Santiago Matito
About the authors
Emilia Saiz is the Secretary General of UCLG having previously served as Deputy General Secretary of UCLG for the last few years.
She has worked with the international movement of local and regional governments in different fields since 1998. Some key areas of her work during her career years have been the strengthening of capacities of the Local Government Associations, the promotion of the participation of women in local decision-making and the strengthening of the role of local governments before the United Nations.