Over half the world currently resides in major urban areas. By 2050 the United Nations estimates that number will grow to 70%. With proximity and access to networks, cities have been engines of innovation for centuries, providing a clear path from poverty to prosperity for many.

Cities have offered greater freedom and opportunity for social mobility for immigrants, minorities, and women than more traditional rural locations. As metropolises have grown – there are 33 megacities with 10 million inhabitants, and 8 cities with at least 20 million – cities are increasingly at the centre of the debate for a range of urgent global issues, from refugee migration to global warming.

Innovative responses

Mayors and local governments in cities around the world are collaborating with designers, architects, planners, and local communities to propose and implement innovative and “concrete solutions for inclusive, safe, and sustainable urban space.”

In the Netherlands’ coastal city of Rotterdam, its mayor launched an urban strategy to be fully climate proof by 2025. Prioritizing climate resilience, with 90% of the city below sea level, it is adapting its infrastructure to safely live with the water by integrating blue and green corridors into the urban landscape, while increasing biodiversity and supporting social cohesion with experimental housing, public spaces and programmes.

Barcelona in Spain seeks to include every voice in the city’s decision-making. It established a dynamic participatory process where its city council collaborates with over 600 civil associations. Organized into action networks, each is focused on a topic, such as labour, housing, education, or immigrant reception. Cooperating with the government on agreed strategies, and sharing knowledge and resources, they improve outcomes by combining efforts.

Design exchanges

Many local authorities, confronted by the growing number of people migrating to informal settlements around the world – an estimated 2 billion by 2030, are responding with innovative housing and service solutions.

In Chile, a local city government with limited funds engaged architects to design social housing that would increase – rather than decrease – in value over time. The architects collaborated with the settlement community, building only half of the house the families would never be able to afford – the structure, bathroom, kitchen, and roof – leaving residents responsible for the rest.

Other municipalities are seeking to create a more inclusive city by giving a voice in urban planning and design processes to informal workers. Over 60% of the world’s workers are in the informal economy and lack decent working conditions and rights. Architects commissioned by the city of Durban in South Africa consulted formal and informal businesses, residents, and commuters to overcome biases to design safer markets for 5,000 informal traders at a robust transportation hub.

Transnationally, networks like Shack/Slum Dwellers International, comprised of urban poor, have created a set of redevelopment tools they can implement to build more inclusive cities, which they share directly by visiting each other’s cities.

Education for all

Providing youth with a quality education, regardless of their abilities, race, language, religion, gender, or economic status, is fundamental to creating a thriving inclusive urban society. In India’s rapidly expanding urban areas, new developments are built by workers who move to and from sites, making even a basic education difficult for their children.

In Pune, to accommodate these transient lives, Door Step School sends a small bus classroom to pick up students, providing a stable setting in which students learn basic literacy and arithmetic skills. In New Zealand, there are supportive multi-cultural playgroups, where refugee parents learn English and information about early childhood education as they transition into their community.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to improve the future of cities?

Cities represent humanity’s greatest achievements – and greatest challenges. From inequality to air pollution, poorly designed cities are feeling the strain as 68% of the world’s population is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050.

The World Economic Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of Urban Transformation supports a number of projects designed to make cities cleaner and more inclusive, and to improve citizens’ quality of life:

  • Creating a net zero carbon future for cities
    The Forum’s Net Zero Carbon Cities programme brings together businesses from 10 sectors, with city, regional and national government leaders who are implementing a toolbox of solutions to accelerate progress towards a net-zero future.
  • Helping citizens stay healthy
    The Forum is working with cities around the world to create innovative urban partnerships, to help residents find a renewed focus on their physical and mental health.
  • Developing smart city governance
    Cities, local governments, companies, start-ups, research institutions and non-profit organizations are testing and implementing global norms and policy standards to ensure that data is used safely and ethically.
  • Closing the global infrastructure investment gap
    Development banks, governments and businesses are finding new ways to work together to mobilize private sector capital for infrastructure financing.

Contact us for more information on how to get involved.

Inclusive streets

The rapid convergence of data and technological innovations are increasingly impacting cities around the world. Smarter connected urban areas promise safer, multi-modal, inclusive streetscapes and transport that ease access for older adults, and the 15% of the population who are living with physical and cognitive disabilities.

Advances like Accessible Olli, an autonomous shuttle with software that can process sign language and simplified displays that remind individuals with memory loss, or Blindways, a mobile app that guides pedestrians who are blind to bus stops using community sourced clues, offer new independence of movement.

Human-centered values

Yet, there are multiple hurdles to overcome, including developing global principles for machine ethics and addressing gender and racial biases in data and algorithms, for cities to be truly inclusive and smart.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 11 aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable” by 2030. Making our cities more inclusive is central to this universal call to action to protect the planet and ensure all people enjoy peace and prosperity.