Part 2. Cities and Data

Chris Delatorre. 2015. “Local Communities and Socialized Citizens: The Role of Social Networks in Sustainable Urban Development.” See my highlights on Diigo.

Data and Urbanization

Hyper urbanization is a challenge and a concern. By 2050 two thirds of the global population will live in cities. The global urban population has grown from 746 million in 1950 to 3.9 billion in 2014, and will surpass six billion in the next 30 years. The number of “mega-cities” (10 million inhabitants or more) has grown from ten in 1990 to 28 in 2014, and will hit 41 by the year 2030, with rural populations decreasing as urban populations continue to grow. Developing nations are experiencing the highest levels of urbanization, with the majority of expansion occurring in the Global South and across Africa and Asia. The largest urban growth between now and 2050 (around 37 per cent) is expected to take place in developing regions, especially Africa.1 Concerns with urban expansion include infrastructural deficiencies, poverty, continued environmental decay and civil unrest. Solutions remain fragmented and untested, where implementation requires significant coordination across sectors.

Sustainable urban development must reflect the needs, desires, values and realities of local communities. But communities cannot thrive without open civic participation, and people cannot participate if they are not empowered to do so. Cities are the soil for social and economic growth. The physical and social attributes of cities make them centers of economic and social innovation. Regarding cities as enabling environments for social creativity, Luis Bettencourt, professor of complex systems at Santa Fe Institute, asked if the challenge of slums, what he calls “the face of contemporary urbanization”, is a mere stage of development or something more permanent. He argues that societies where people are “just surviving” are not conducive to social innovation, going so far as to describe the principal role of the city as an enabler for socioeconomic creative potential. As engines of economic prosperity, cities will put increasing demands on governance and private innovation as we define the “urban best practices” that will lead us through this period of unprecedented growth. Bettencourt suggests that traditional planning and policy response in developing countries could fail if it doesn’t adapt to the current reality, reinforcing how local knowledge is useful to urban planning. The idea is for the planning process to “acquire a greater humanist dimension,” shifting focus from “concepts of general equilibrium and engineering solutions” to “the unique social creativity of humans to solve complex problems in their communities”.2 Because cities provide the conditions necessary for people to reach their socioeconomic and creative potential, urban initiatives should integrate local knowledge sharing as people work to solve problems in their communities.

Urban resilience is a top concern for the social sector. The United Nations, Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and various other NGOs are key in promoting and scaling up urban sustainability initiatives. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has said that partnering with civil society actors at the national and global level “can help contribute to the effectiveness of development interventions, especially with respect to marginalized and vulnerable groups.” As the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire this year, focus for addressing the world’s greatest problems through the ambitious post-2015 global development agenda has shifted to a new set of goals. The agenda is driven by five transformative shifts, of which sustainable development is at the core. Building on the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will consider economic, social and environmental dimensions of development, as well as good governance, with special consideration for transparency, accountability, and multi-stakeholder partnerships.3,4,5 Don Chen, who leads urban development initiatives for the Ford Foundation, says we are experiencing an exciting moment in the history of development, but admits that big potential remains untapped. Chen, “a global thought leader on transforming cities and metropolitan regions to be more just, inclusive and environmentally sustainable,” says the open nature of the UN SDGs invites more opportunity for new stakeholders to get involved. Ford Foundation, whose greatest emphasis is on civil society, is committed to building capacity and ensuring accountability, both of which encourage new voices on the global development scene.6,7,8 The 2013 report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda states that “developed countries have a special role to play in fostering new technologies,” where CSOs are instrumental in making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, as laid out by SDG 11.9,10 Building on the success of the massive open online course (MOOC) platform, Economist and Director of the Earth Institute Jeffrey D. Sachs has called for, through his popular sustainable development curriculum, a global community of “sustainable development practitioners”.11 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), through which Sachs’ course and others are offered, seeks to “mobilize scientific and technical expertise from academia, civil society, and the private sector in support of sustainable development problem solving at local, national, and global scales”.12 No doubt a legion of global workers dedicated to building sustainable urban practice is not only needed, but it also provides a unique opportunity and entry point for civic participation on the local level. Given the distributed and global nature of the MOOC as a learning platform, local communities can produce practitioners who are both knowledgeable in local customs and directly invested in the communities they serve. But even with countless practitioners at the ready, a system is still needed to aggregate ideas and actions across a vast global network of people and organizations engaged in sustainable urban development.

Mobile technology will enable the social sector to promote more socially and economically inclusive urban development. Obtaining new data is critical to building awareness around urbanization as developing regions transform both physically and socially. “Big Data” (the voluminous amount of data in various structured and unstructured forms too large for typical software to manage) is often looked at through an economic lens of productivity and competitiveness. But it brings clear social benefit as well. It is now widely believed that better data will improve global philanthropy’s efficiency, influence and impact through targeted investment strategies. A key facet of this realization is the ability for CSOs to share goals and best practices, and to coordinate efforts across borders. A number of organizations have already pledged their support to implement a Global Philanthropy Data Charter.13 While philanthropy practitioners have yet to harness the full potential of data, thinking strategically about how it advances their goals is an important step toward ensuring access to quality information, while also filling a shortage of data-qualified personnel in the sector.14

Given the right tools and incentives, creative individuals can bring social data to life in new and innovative ways. There are several dimensions of social data to consider, one of which is crowdsourcing — the process of procuring information directly from large groups of people, bypassing traditional channels. This process drives a wide range of philanthropic applications, including donations and grants data mining, and social impact assessment. But it also has a number of urban applications, where datasets reflect cultural movements, public transportation systems and evolving neighborhoods.15,16 The story of Nadieh Bremer, an astronomer who found that she loved data visualization, shows crowdsourcing as more than a mere extraction of information, but also as an outlet for individual creativity, self motivation and shared problem-solving. A recent World Bank report used geospatial mapping and satellite technology to help illustrate mass migration in East Asia.17 Bremer accepted a crowdsourcing challenge to produce a visual companion to the report, which led to a breathtaking suite of visualizations, a resource whose end goal as she understood was to motivate policy makers to invest more in research related to urbanization.18 This suggests the potential for a new kind of synergy that can drive local governments to be more accountable and CSOs more responsive to their constituents, as they work together to build community resilience to natural disasters and other infrastructural challenges. Data visualization underscores what is perhaps the most compelling aspect of data in the digital age — the ability to compare very large datasets, knowing that we can act on what we see with some degree of certainty that what it represents is real. Now imagine each person with access to technology painting pictures of their communities in real time, much like Bremer, along with hundreds of thousands of their peers.

The increase of mobile subscriptions worldwide, along with the shift of social networking from standard browsers to mobile apps, presents an opportunity for CSOs to take a more interactive role in their communities. Mobile technology provides the means for connecting individuals with trusted local organizations who can use their data to build safer, cleaner, more sustainable communities. The use of mobile technology is growing rapidly around the world. In 2013, a “swift and unrelenting” rise of mobile in the U.S. moved it to a “multi-platform majority”, where most digital consumers owned both desktop and mobile devices, and the use of mobile surpassed desktop in terms of total digital media engagement. In 2014, “the app majority” launched a new era where most time with digital media is now spent on mobile apps. According to a recent report, apps drive the vast majority of mobile activity, accounting for about 7 out of every 8 minutes, where most people 18 and over use apps every day.19 Mobile tech in Latin America is also on the rise. A recent survey on device ownership, app usage and behaviors revealed at least nine in ten online Latin Americans as owning or using a mobile device on a regular basis, and nearly all (99 per cent) as app users.20 In 2013 Asia had nearly 3 billion mobile subscriptions. And the number of mobile phones in Africa jumped from 25 million in 2001 to 650 million in 2013, more than the total number of phones in the United States and European Union combined. These findings lead experts to believe that implementing new technologies would allow developing countries to surpass the competition on at least some social and economic metrics, including health care, literacy, and education.21 Technologist Ramez Naam describes the coming collective consciousness, where the majority of the planet is connected, as having a profound effect on distinguishing ‘self’ from ‘other,’ which has deep implications for urbanization. Naam correlates the best economic growth with good governance, adding that good governance is made possible through freedom of communication and access to technology.22

updated 9/1/17

Part 3: Engagement

United Nations (2014, July 10). World’s population increasingly urban with more than half living in urban areas. United Nations. Retrieved from

Bettencourt, Luis (2014, August 29). Mass Urbanization Could Lead to Unprecedented Human Creativity – But Only if We Do it Right. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

UNDP (2005). Partners for Change: UNDP’s work with CSOs through the GEF. Retrieved

United Nations (n.d.). Open Working Group proposal for Sustainable Development Goals. United Nations. Retrieved from

SDSN (2012, December 19). A Framework for Sustainable Development. Draft.

Ford Foundation (2015, January 5). Ford Foundation Appoints Don Chen New Director of Metropolitan Opportunity. PR Newswire. Retrieved from

Chen, Don (2015, April 21). The Role of Philanthropy and Social Investors in Financing for Development. Symposium conducted at the UN side meeting, New York, NY.

Chen, Don, Hilary Pennington (2014, September 26). Strengthening Philanthropy’s Engagement with the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Symposium conducted at the Ford Foundation side event to the 69th Session of the U.N. General Assembly, New York, NY.

SDSN (2015, January 15). #UrbanSDG Campaign Meeting on Targets and Indicators for the Cities Goal. SDSN. Retrieved from

10 UN (2013, May 30). The High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. United Nations. A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies Through Sustainable Development.

11 SDSN (n.d.).

12 SDSN (n.d.). Vision and Organization. Retrieved from

13 WINGS (2014). Global Philanthropy Data Charter. Sao Paulo. Retrieved from

14 Bays, Jonathan, & Davis, Steve (n.d.). Harnessing big data to address the world’s problems. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved from

15 Citymaps (n.d.).

16 Google Puts Online 10,000 Works of Street Art from Across the Globe (2015, March 22). Open Culture. Retrieved from

17 World Bank, The (2015, January 26). East Asia’s Changing Urban Landscape: Measuring a Decade of Spatial Growth. The World Bank. Retrieved from

18 Visual Cinnamon (n.d.).

19 comScore. (2014). The U.S. Mobile App Report [White paper].

20 IMS. (2015). comScore / IMS Mobile in LatAm Study [White paper].

21 Brindley, William, Jessica Long (2013, December 2013). The ‘How’ and ‘Who’ of Emerging Market Tech. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved from

22 Kaplan, Dan (2015, April 11). A Connected Planet, Digital Telepathy And Other Passions Of Ramez Naam. TechCrunch. Retrieved from


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