01 Give 'urban' the respect it deserves

    Urbanisation is one of the defining trends of our times and yet perhaps still our sector’s best kept secret. Many people would likely name urbanisation, along with climate change and advancing digitalisation, as major current global driving forces. But it doesn’t have anywhere near the same visibility or coherence in most CSOs’ work – through strategy, advocacy, programming, communications and resourcing – as these other major forces. Across our sector, we need to give it the full respect it deserves.


    Urban contexts will increasingly be the locations for many issues we’re working on to challenge inequality and injustice, and at the nexus of development, humanitarian and peace-building, as these challenges interact and play out in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) ways. But the future aside, a significant proportion of organisations’ existing work is undoubtedly already in urban settings, but as an incidental rather than fundamental factor. It needs to be a deliberate, focused priority for all of us in all our work, not just a backdrop to things we already happen to be doing.


    Strategically, urbanisation is treated in different ways by different organisations, and some haven’t even yet worked out how to do so (is it a strategy, a sector, a theme, etc.?). At most, there’s a team of two staff members dedicated to working on it, even in the organisations that have very deliberately invested in this. And it’s difficult to identify from either advocacy messages or public communications how much – let alone how – organisations are currently working in these contexts.


    The process of identifying this set of case studies from across our sector has in itself been hugely revealing. Finding our way to them has often felt like navigating a secret world shrouded in mystery, or an investigation into a highly sensitive or underground topic. We attended a ‘specialist’ practitioners’ convention (the UN World Urban Forum), were referred through trusted intermediary organisations or networks, or happened across a blog. In this context, anything you do find already feels innovative and disruptive, from the very simple fact that the organisation is already communicating publicly about it.

    02 Elevate 'compound' and community protagonists

    Every case study organisation is very clear that they could not have achieved inclusive outcomes or scaled success on their own. However, another recurring theme is how many urban challenges can unintentionally end up as ‘everyone’s responsibility, so noone’s responsibility’ at the city administration level, and that CSOs may need to help join all the dots. And at the same time, many CSOs also have some way to go in developing the new skills necessary to nurture and navigate a different set of relationships and power dynamics for urban working, compared to traditional programming in rural areas, or advocacy with national-level actors.


    So we need to get better at conceptualising, convening and communicating conversations around collective responsibility – as a means to empower individual action – and sharing models and stories of success of many stakeholders working as one system. This is not a utopian ideal, it is the pragmatic reality as the only way to bring about inclusive and sustainable urban change. This will involve CSOs developing new mindsets, skills, visions and vocabularies for working as one of many ‘compound protagonists’ in urban settings, and ways of deploying their assets and influence within this system as advisors, advocates, balancers, builders, connectors, educators, fact-finders and facilitators – often at the same time.


    And at the very heart of these ‘compound protagonists’ are community protagonists. CSOs have critical roles to play in enabling, ensuring and elevating their active participation within city design and decision-making processes. Our case studies recognise and champion the fact that, just as city or municipal authorities are technical experts in urban design, communities and key populations are the technical experts in how the city’s spaces and services are used. So their perspectives are just as critical to these collective responsibility conversations and one system of ‘compound protagonists’ working together. CSOs which are led by and represent key populations living in the city, such as the refugee-led organisations in this report, also show how they are experts not only on their own communities, but also natural imagineers of coherent and cohesive wider ‘whole community’ approaches for everyone living in a neighbourhood or city.


    Finally, we need to get better at telling these collective stories of urban impact and innovation, better and collectively. It’s not just the type of stories we tell but the ways in which we tell them, how often and to whom. Of course, this includes public communication and engagement – as per our first recommendation – to attract attention and remain relevant. But we also need to be more comfortable and systematic in sharing our experiences of urban success and failure with each other, to smooth our learning journeys with ‘compound protagonists’ and inspire each other’s aims and ambitions. This report is our small contribution towards this wider aspiration.

    03 Think systems, outcomes and entry points

    Our case study organisations have shown how they have got to grips with a range of complex urban challenges, identified their niche in the system, introduced sometimes simple solutions and expanded beyond specific entry points to bring value to urban actors, transform data and decision-making processes, and unlock the achievement of broader positive outcomes.


    Any kind of success in cities means getting to grips with complexity and systems thinking, and in many cases intentionally introducing disruptions into this system. This presents a significant challenge to organisations accustomed to the relative operational stability of working in rural areas, where communities are easier to delineate physically and populations may be more static. Cities, in contrast, are and will increasingly be porous and precarious places of transient populations with multiple intersecting identities of ‘community’ which cannot be spatially separated, and where different needs emerge, overlap and shift more quickly in time.


    This links to the need for a radical shift to outcome-based approaches, from more typical output-based ones. Some organisations, such as Amend and Community Solutions, achieved strong early success in directly delivering infrastructure improvements in the cities where they were working. However, they really only started seeing significant results which actually ‘moved the dial’ on their urban challenges (road safety and homelessness respectively) through refocusing on the ultimate outcomes they wanted to achieve. Through this, they re-engineered and refined their influence, co-ordination and support roles within the wider data and decision-making landscape, which then unlocked swift and sustainable change on these issues across a large number of cities and countries.


    Organisations with entry points for specific key populations, e.g. older people, informal settlers, refugees, etc. have seen how their activism, advocacy and approaches have actually delivered broader outcomes – both hyper-local/neighbourhood and city-wide – which benefit everyone living there. This also resonates with the broader opportunities which can be unlocked through adopting universal design thing and principles, already underpinning innovative thinking for ‘smart city’ solutions, for example.

    04 Seed good – and continuous – self-disruption

    As it is impossible to predict how urban challenges may change over time in increasingly VUCA contexts, our case studies taken together indicate that there can be no fixed recipes for success, ‘durable solutions’ or even ‘best practice’. Instead, what exists and emerges are sets of promising approaches, tools and practices which can be brought together in shifting, context-specific combinations, which must in turn be inclusive of and accountable to community-wide data and insights. These promising approaches, tools and practices will have to be developed and refined on an ongoing basis, and often abandoned, as contexts shift, new needs emerge, or a regular re-examining of outcomes and systems indicates something else might be required.


    As a whole, the case studies point to the fact that effective urban working inevitably means embracing short cycles of continuous self-disruption, and constantly evaluating, rethinking and innovating what an organisation does, how it does things, and who it does them with. The big question this poses is whether organisational cultures and staff are sufficiently flexible, empowered and skilled to not just respond and ride change, but in many cases actively seek to initiate it.


    Simply being adaptive in response to external shifts doesn’t seem to be sufficient given the dynamic nature of urban working. Instead, organisations should increasingly adopt and embed a strong futures focus, actively considering different scenarios – with insights from all the ‘compound’ and community protagonists – to inspire the changes necessary from inside out, which can in turn better shape and shift urban systems to be more inclusive.

    05 Invest in knowledge management structures

    This is clearly a common theme in unlocking both organisational impact and sustainability of outcomes. Although these could – and should – involve multiple stakeholders, four opportunities in particular stand out:

    i)  Within international CSOs: the organisations which have invested in this across teams and partners working in a – growing – global portfolio have found this key to identifying enablers of scale and impact; for example, ActionAid Association India, Habitat for Humanity International, Plan International and World Vision International.

    ii) Between CSOs: there is no regular cross-organisational learning and peer support space beyond individual sectors, such as housing, but as this report shows, there are many relevant lessons and shared inspiration and solidarity to be learned and developed across a diverse range of approaches, experiences and geographical locations.

    iii) Between CSOs and city representatives, municipal units or other urban practitioners: Organisations which have set up or invested in mutual learning journeys with other city stakeholders – to understand the different strengths and barriers within the urban system – can better establish clear added value, specific entry points and opportunities, stronger collaborations and greater demand, for their own roles in that system.

    iv) Between cities or municipal units within a city: The organisations and approaches which have invested in setting up and technically supporting horizontal structures between different administrative units within the same city, or between cities, have seen this strong peer-to-peer dynamic both driving quality and sustainability – by seeding ‘virtuous and friendly competition’ – and catalysing more organic community-building. Importantly, all the relevant organisations highlighted how critical these existing peer-to-peer mechanisms also became in mobilising at and across city level to support COVID-19 responses in all these locations.

    06 Leverage different routes to scale

    When it comes to urban impact and influence, many small organisations are thinking big, whilst many big organisations are thinking small (not the same as starting small with bigger vision). The empowering insight from this report is that we can all both think and do big, regardless of size, but we may need to rethink the opportunities and ways in which we can best achieve this.

    The case studies in this report highlight at least three successful routes to scale:

    1) National CSOs, like Mosaico in Turin, Italy or the South African Urban Food and Farming Trust in Cape Town, South Africa – and international CSOs like ActionAid and HelpAge, employ routes to scale by building and nurturing national and regional advocacy or academic networks to amplify local-level experiences and lessons;

    2) Organisations like Amend, Community Solutions, Urban Refugees and Welcoming International, have developed guiding frameworks, standards, curricula, tools and methodologies which they have successfully designed and implemented themselves and are now increasingly supporting others to scale internationally;

    3) International CSOs with broad global reach, like Habitat for Humanity, Plan International and World Vision International, have first developed and refined different campaigns, approaches or frameworks through local testing and global knowledge management, which they have then successfully applied and contextualised to multiple cities around the world.

    All organisations can think bigger as to how to better position themselves to ride these different routes to scale, and as – if not more – importantly, how they can help scale the work of others.

    XX Final thoughts

    The opportunities for civil society organisations, working as part of a network of ‘compound’ and community protagonists, are both huge and hugely exciting, especially as national governments increasingly turn inwards when thinking through solutions for big sustainable development challenges and co-ordinated responses to increasingly VUCA humanitarian and conflict situations.


    Circumstance, if not active choice, will ultimately force organisations working for any kind of social good, equity and justice, into urban contexts. All the signs, statistics and stories we come across point to this as inevitable. So we can be dragged into this urban future, individually and unprepared, or collectively, clear-eyed and competent, with the shifts we’ve outlined in these recommendations. From being our sector’s best kept secret, this could become our sector’s best success story.


    This report is only a starting point in bringing diverse experiences together, but it is a call to action for us to do so more systematically and more often, with our peer ‘compound’ and community protagonists.

Innovation Report     2020