The theme of the 10th World Urban Forum is ‘Cities of Opportunities: Connecting Culture and Innovation’. In his welcome, His Excellency Falah Mohammad Al Ahbabi, representing the host, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, reminded the audience of a saying from Sheikh Zayed, revered founder of the United Arab Emirates: “The real asset of advanced nations is its people.” Noting the difficulty of the times, and “compounding factors” like climate change, inequality and forms of violence, president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, urged speakers and participants to take a broad, inclusive view of culture. A view informed by “masses, not elites… and their collective intelligence”. Ghani urged us to “reject stereotypes”, arguing “literacy and gender are not blocks” on participation. In an explicit critique on institutions of the global north, like the forum, he noted that “institutions also have cultures” that needed cultural change. This theme was picked up by Frank Bainimarama, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Fiji, who argued, despite being one of the smallest emitters of greenhouse gases, everyone must play their part, since 80% of cities lie along the coast and will be affected by sea-level rise. The convenor of the forum, Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN-Habitat, pointed out that the urgency that Afghanistan and Fiji show is a reminder to us all that these are urgent problems.
Ghani’s reminder about governance culture also shows how important culture is as the frame in which instrumental actions can occur. While the topic “culture and innovation” can seem like a generic platitude, when it is probed it reveals some interesting contradictions which are present in the Global South, for example between specific age-old traditions and digital technology. Ghani also urged a change from “urban planning to design thinking”.
In embracing culture, and its dynamic relationship as both “content and container”, Assistant Director-General for Culture of UNESCO, Ernesto Ramírez, cautioned against the superficial appropriate of culture by capital for urban branding. Architect Eduardo Moreno, Director of Research and Capacity Building of UN-Habitat talked about 3 stages of models of culture: culture as a source of capital; culture as a sense of place; and the convergence of culture.
Echoing the refrain of the opening speech by Ghani - “leave no one behind” -Polokwane Executive Mayor and President of the South African Local Government Association,Thembi Nkadimeng, argued this convergence must be focused on service delivery and a “bottom up” approach to culture, where all have access.
Honorary Associate Professor, ATCH (Architecture, Theory, Criticism and History) Research Centre, School of Architecture, University of Queensland