top of page

It is time to take action! Join our Tribe of Changemakers. Sign up for Virtual Conversations! 

Below explore the issues that are shaping cities and Urbanization around the world

Urban Infrastructure and Services

Urban Resilience

Cities require a range of basic infrastructure and services in order to be viable: sanitation systems, power grids, roads, public transportation, housing, hospitals, and schools. Particularly in developing countries, cities face considerable challenges in providing this infrastructure, and accelerating development is essential to alleviate poverty and improve livability. Establishing robust infrastructure and services is also necessary to boost resilience in the face of challenges like climate change and rising sea levels. Many cities faced serious obstacles to providing basic services even before the advent of COVID-19.

The capacity of urban infrastructure is often overwhelmed by the cascading effects of rapid urbanization, sprawl, and demographic shifts - and the COVID-19 pandemic has only more clearly exposed gaps in many urban healthcare systems for both the rich and the poor. While no healthcare system could realistically cope with a pandemic of such magnitude comfortably, managing hospitals on the premise of full efficiency but with no excess capacity has worsened the pandemic in some cities.

More than 700 million urban residents have no access to piped water, and more than one quarter of the world’s urban population lives in informal, haphazard settlements lacking the most basic infrastructure and services. Weak urban governance and capital constraints can exacerbate these issues. As a result, cities from Australia to China, and from Europe to North America, have begun to rethink what is possible.

Asia alone is projected to require $1.7 trillion per year in investment until 2030 to address infrastructure needs.

New conceptions of sustainable urban forms include so-called compact cities, where high residential density and efficient public transportation are emphasized, and eco-cities specifically designed to curb carbon emissions.

Some places have been able to harness technology and the non-governmental sector to address their issues. The Australian social enterprise Pollinate Energy, for example, has offered solar-powered products including water filters and clean cookstoves in Indian slums; six years after its founding, Pollinate Energy had provided tens of thousands of products to more than 20,000 families. Meanwhile the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has financed dozens of infrastructure projects collectively worth about $4 billion in developing countries since it was established in 2016 - including a public train line in Bangalore, and slum upgrades in Indonesia.

China is meanwhile pushing its Belt and Road initiative, which is funding large infrastructure projects throughout cities on a massive scale including highways, ports, and IT systems, in a bid to strengthen ties with other countries in Asia and further afield.

​The issues that plague cities are often chronic, and must be addressed proactively. The Rockefeller Foundation-funded City Resilience Index provides dozens of indicators that cities can use to measure their resilience, such as the availability of safe and affordable housing, and it has been tested in cities including Hong Kong and Liverpool. Meanwhile, the World Bank Group’s City Resilience Program is designed to foster investment in viable projects that can enhance resilience. In practice and in theory, urban resilience must go beyond merely managing urban challenges like transportation system failures, housing shortages, and social strife by merely reacting to them. Instead, it should focus on proactively anticipating and preparing for challenges. Still, it is often only following the catastrophe that city governments implement system-wide changes. It remains to be seen to what extent cities will be able to fix the many flaws - in governance, infrastructure, and trust between the city authorities and residents - that have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While urban areas can become stronger in the aftermath of a catastrophe, it is a less-than-ideal way to bolster resilience. Urban resilience is a measure of how well communities, businesses, and government agencies can withstand both temporary shocks and chronic stress; increasingly, it is an essential goal for urban planners everywhere.

The distinction between temporary shocks and the chronic, long-term stress that affects urban areas is sometimes unclear. Threats to resilience include viral epidemics, such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome in the early 2000s that killed hundreds of people in Asia. It is likely that COVID-19 has been relatively well managed in Singapore, Taiwan, China, and China because these places experienced SARS, and have since boosted their urban pandemic resilience. In addition, natural hazards exacerbated by poor infrastructure and services (such as Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2005, which claimed thousands of lives) also continue to pose threats.

Social upheaval that seems to have been triggered unexpectedly is often underpinned by longstanding underlying tension. Indonesian riots in 1998, for example, were triggered by systemic and sustained problems in urban Centers - such as widespread unemployment, food shortages, an escalating cost of living, and an increasingly bifurcated society along class and ethnic lines. Building urban resilience is a difficult process that requires good governance and significant capital investment. In many cities, resilience is hindered by geography; Jakarta is increasingly vulnerable to floods, as 40% of its land area is below sea level and generally over-developed.

Urban Innovation

KIKAO SDG 11.png
KIKAO SDG 11.png

Innovation that is in everyone’s best interest must account for local values. Cities innovate in order to compete with one other, though they innovate better when they connect and cooperate in an organized way. Taiwan, China, for example, has designated different cities for different specific test-beds in order to maximize experimentation and learning.

The most successful cities will not be those that solely focus on innovation at the expense of other needs; they will be those that manage to recognize and adapt to specific local challenges while pushing innovation forward.

The European Commission has launched a Digital Cities Challenge, and China's Xiongan New Area aspires to transform a barren landscape into a digital city powered by blockchain and artificial intelligence. Meanwhile Global Digital Seoul 2020 is focused on developing e-government in South Korea’s capital, and India boasts a Smart City Mission. Cities must seek to innovate in order to become more sustainable, advance social well-being, and boost economic competitiveness.

The technologies fueling the Fourth Industrial Revolution can multiply innovation, though potential perils have also proliferated. Technologies can be misused to disrupt economies and splinter societies; jobs can be eliminated; and socio-economic differences can be amplified.

To help manage this risk, cities are experimenting with regulatory sandboxes, participatory design, innovation systems, and public-private partnerships. Ultimately, cities must reckon with a potential clash between economic value and social values.

With ride-sharing, for example, supply and demand can be better predicted and matched, but regulatory dust-ups and protests - from Montreal to Montevideo and Melbourne - demonstrate how social values can be at odds with simple economic value. Cities, and companies, are increasingly sensitive to this potential clash.

The European Union's Sharing Cities program is testing smart lampposts in several cities, and aims to eventually scatter them across the continent. The ASEAN Smart Cities Network has 26 Southeast Asian cities partnering with companies in order to improve sustainability and competitiveness, and to learn from each other. COVID-19 has shown that fast-track novel urban innovation can prove to be helpful. This innovation has included the use of robots to disinfect hospitals in China and mitigate the spread of the virus, and apps that harness big data to facilitate contact tracing in South Korea and Singapore. In Spain, the use of virtual doctors has meanwhile increased dramatically.

Urban environment and resources

Urban Diplomacy

Entirely new cities are being built from scratch in order to address environmental challenges. Cities should better integrate both natural and constructed environments in order to form urban ecosystems, supported by related resource-planning and infrastructure policies.

The ecological footprints of cities, or the productive areas required to supply them with resources while also absorbing their waste, need to be reduced. Cities consume more than 75% of the world’s energy, and are expected to generate more than 2 billion tons of waste annually by 2025 - compared with 1.3 billion tons of waste in 2012.

The urban environment faces multiple threats: air pollution; climate change; and the rapid loss of green space and biodiversity. As they grow, they must therefore become more resource efficient, and protect the environment (including air and water quality) from the negative impacts of urbanization.

Overstretched infrastructure plagues many cities, and authorities should implement policies that optimize the use of fresh water, electricity, and fuel. In addition, the World Resources Institute has estimated that the number of people living in water-scarce regions will grow from 1 billion presently to 3.5 billion by 2025.

Urbanization is also connected to the degradation and loss of forests, grassland, and marine areas (it is estimated that 90% of the wastewater in developing countries is discharged directly into bodies of water). These ecosystems, both within cities (such as urban parks), and near cities (such as watersheds), are vital for sustaining urban areas, as they can improve air quality, provide for recreation, and moderate the effects of flooding and drought.

World Bank statistics have shown that electricity loss during transmission is about 5% for developed countries, while in less developed countries, such as Myanmar, that figure reaches as high as 20%; investment in overhauling power grids is therefore urgently needed.

There are serious challenges in retrofitting existing cities to meet these goals; as a result, there have been radical attempts to build resource-efficient, green cities from scratch. One example is the proposed New Clark City, which is being constructed about 100 kilometers north of Manila. Two- thirds of this planned urban area would be reserved for parks, farmland, and other green space, and all of its buildings would make use of the latest technology to reduce energy and water use. Other, similar projects include Songdo, a smart city that features waste disposal via pneumatic tube in South Korea (though criticisms of that city’s vibrancy have surfaced), and Dholera, a utopian experiment in India.

Greater global networking can help cities ensure a better urban future

The C40 Cities Climate Change Leadership Group connects 90 cities and more than 650 million people, to facilitate collaboration on addressing climate change. In 2014, Ho Chi Minh City received technical assistance and investment from Rotterdam to better deal with rising sea levels and increasingly severe storms via the C40’s Connecting Delta Cities Network.

Cities have increasingly made their presence felt in the global community, in the interest of their specific local needs and as a means to better find solutions to vexing urban challenges.

At the 2014 UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit, the so-called Compact of Mayors, an ambitious agreement to commit to deep greenhouse gas emission reductions, was formed. In total, 447 cities, with a collective population of 391 million, committed to the compact. City mayors also played an important role in shaping the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The Compact of Mayors formally merged with the European Union’s Covenant of Mayors, a climate change initiative launched in 2008, in order to create a more powerful platform to demonstrate the global impact that cities can have.

In 2018, the ASEAN Smart Cities Network was launched, in order to bring together 26 Southeast Asian cities to learn from each other about how to become digital-ready. The twinning of cities is a longstanding practice; according to a UK Government Office for Science study on city diplomacy published in 2016, twinning has evolved to become more strategic, and has spawned multi-city coalitions as localities create joint projects and platforms where businesses can interact. Beijing alone has 47 “sister” cities, according to the report, and launched 114 “concrete co-operations” with 37 of these cities between 2009 and 2014, including shared efforts by the Bank of Beijing and the International Netherlands Group, and between Beiqi Foton Motor Co. and the City of Moscow.

It was inevitable that cities would form closer international connections based on concerns about trade, infrastructure, culture, and migration. Increasingly, municipal leaders are asking why they are not part of discussions related to, for example, the UN Global Compact on Refugees - even as many refugees and internally displaced people end up in urban areas.

Urban Governance


​ With ride-sharing, for example, supply and demand can be better predicted and matched, but regulatory dust-ups and protests - from Montreal to Montevideo and Melbourne - demonstrate how social values can be at odds with simple economic value. Cities, and companies, are increasingly sensitive to this potential clash.

The European Union's Sharing Cities program is testing smart lampposts in several cities, and aims to eventually scatter them across the continent. The ASEAN Smart Cities Network has 26 Southeast Asian cities partnering with companies in order to improve sustainability and competitiveness, and to learn from each other. COVID-19 has shown that fast-track novel urban innovation can prove to be helpful. This innovation has included the use of robots to disinfect hospitals in China and mitigate the spread of the virus, and apps that harness big data to facilitate contact tracing in South Korea and Singapore. In Spain, the use of virtual doctors has meanwhile increased dramatically.

Urban Society


In 2018, the United Nations Department of Social and Economic Affairs reported that 55% of the world’s population was living in urban areas, and estimated that the figure will reach 68% by 2050. This relentless rural-to-urban shift will add 2.5 billion people to cities, coming in search of a better life, new opportunities, and excitement. As a result, cities will face massive challenges: insufficient decent and cheap housing, expanding waste management needs, growing demand for access to clean water and employment, and worsening traffic congestion.


Billions of additional people will be flooding into cities, creating a need for responsible policy-making. Technology can help, as policy-makers seek to meet the needs of diverse populations representing different ethnicities, cultures, religions and ages, while at the same time they attempt to address inequality. Singapore, for example, is a mosaic of multi-racial and multi-religious communities, carefully managed through the city state’s policies designed to encourage inclusivity - such as the allocation of public housing done in a way that avoids ghettoization, and education and public service programs that foster integration. While the population diversity that must be addressed in developed countries like Singapore is largely attributable to international migration, in developing nations it is mostly a result of internal migration.


In Japan, where 28% of the population is over 65 (according to the World Bank), the government has made radical changes to healthcare delivery; long-term health care insurance was introduced there in 2000 to supplement the national pension plan (Japan is also a leader in using robotics to assist the elderly).

Another challenge: cities must deal with the inequality between those plugged into globalization and those left behind, particularly in high-tech hubs where growing wealth has left the middle class unable to buy homes, as is the case in San Francisco.


Internal migration remains a significant feature of East Asian countries in particular, according to the International Organization for Migration.


Indonesia alone has an estimated 9.8 million temporary internal migrants, according to a UN report, and about 40% of Beijing’s population are migrants. Addressing diversity also means not leaving people aged 60 and over behind, as this demographic is expected to double in size by 2050 globally. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that cities with a relatively healthy sense of social solidarity have been more successful in following important directives like social distancing and self-quarantining, which are necessary to slow the spread of the virus.

Urban Economies


An urban economy is a city’s economic base, or the mix of economic functions that create value and employment. These functions are continually being transformed; though the pace can vary, depending on demographic or migration factors, local and regional fiscal policy, business cycles, and regional development efforts. 

Currently, 600 cities generate close to 60% of the world’s economic output - numbers that are expected to remain roughly constant over the coming decade, though the geographical mix of these core urban areas will change significantly.

Whether in decline or ascent, cities need to balance their desire for a vibrant culture with a recognition of ways that they can become home to widening disparity. As cities work to embrace the same digital and innovative processes that are transforming business models, and creating economic value, this must be pursued in tandem with stronger social protection and inclusion measures that both help less-skilled and displaced workers find opportunities in expanding sectors, and increase access to the services that matter for households that subsist on stagnating wages.

The global economy is urbanizing, as economic influence shifts to the East. While policies can transform the trajectory of cities in order to better support growth industries, urban areas also experience restructuring that is brought on by disinvestment, and an exodus of highly-skilled workers; a significant number are trending in this direction. In North America and Europe, for example, there are many examples of cities that are shrinking as their physical and social infrastructures decay.

Only a decade ago, roughly half of all global economic output was generated by fewer than 400 cities, all of them in advanced economies, and many in North America. This is projected to change dramatically, as economic power shifts towards Asia and other emerging market regions.

Over half of today’s two dozen “mega cities,” or those with more than 10 million inhabitants, are in Asia, and more than half of these are in China.

In Asia, where the legacy of the developmental state (where economic development is centralized and directed by the government) still looms large, big cities like Seoul have made efforts to transform their economic base by moving large-scale manufacturing to outer regions as they develop more service-oriented economies. Such efforts have been made for years in Hong Kong, and are now gradually being made in Beijing.



Cities everywhere have been dramatically impacted by COVID-19, which has closed businesses and prompted a reassessment of public spaces. It will only be through the collective efforts of governments, the private sector, and the public - and by harnessing transformative technologies - that we will we be able to rebuild in ways that realize the true potential of cities.

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and many urbanites reside in one of the 33 “megacities” with at least 10 million inhabitants. Urbanization can threaten the quality of life, but cities also provide the testbeds needed to come up with related solutions.

This report, Silver Hues: Building Age-Ready Cities, suggests that proactively thinking about and investing intentionally in planning and designing cities can aid their transformation toward age-readiness, and that a good starting point for cities and towns to make progress toward age-readiness is to focus on the following areas:

bottom of page