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The private sector must be included in urban development plans

More than two-thirds of the world’s population already lives in cities, and this will continue to grow.

Yet the private sector is often left out of urban development discussions. That’s why it was refreshing to see the private sector playing a more prominent role at this year’s World Urban Forum.

The World Urban Forum, an event that is easily the largest gathering on urban issues in the world, took place earlier this year. Over 10,000 representatives of governments, non-governmental organisations and the private sector met in Medellin, Colombia to discuss how cities can play a role the development process and how a new urban agenda for cities can be developed. This location in itself was remarkable as delegates could witness how this city has been transformed from crime capital to one of the most sustainable and innovative cities in the world.

It was good to see the private sector was finally playing a prominent role at the forum. In the past, and in many discussions, the role of the private sector has been overlooked. Rather short-sighted when the private sector plays a crucial role in development and is keen to help shape progress.

It is often forgotten that the private sector is particularly good at innovation, the exact kind of innovation that is needed to meet the huge challenges facing urban development. For example, doing more for less, and using fewer materials to accomplish more by thinking smart. The role of the private sector must be holistic – we have to look at all aspects of development – economic, ecological and social.  

A key way to make certain for the economic development of cities is to involve the whole population in the economy. The private sector cannot flourish in a society where large parts of the population are excluded in slums. Business can learn from soccer scouts who find the best talent in the poorest locations. We have to be better at inclusiveness in all societies by including all genders, sexual orientations, races and creeds in the process. The private sector profits from inclusiveness, but also has an important responsibility to achieve inclusiveness.

Of course these are all admirable but in many places of in the world that are in the most need of development, the basic judicial framework has to be addressed. Without this, there is no common trust. There is a need for a social and economic stability for the private sector to flourish. Medellin is prime example of this need and the possibilities for change. Understanding the roles of the stakeholders and building a common civic pride is also a responsibility for the private sector.  

The private sector is ready to take on the development process together and turn hopes into reality. It will support UN-Habitat in the preparation of the New Urban Agenda and will take on this responsibility in the daily practice and implementation its principles in building the cities of tomorrow.

  • Bert Smolders is programme manager for shelter program – a partnership between UN-Habitat and consultant Arcadis. He co-chaired the Public Partners Group of companies which support UN-Habitat at the World Urban Forum.

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