17 Jun 2016
Konvitz on Cities and Crisis

Josef W. Konvitz’s recently published Cities and Crisis comes just in time for the lead up to Habitat III. A historian, former diplomat and authority on economic governance and urban development, Konvitz is also a UN Global Compact – Cities Programme Global Advisor. He was responsible for the coordination between the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and UN Habitat in the preparation of the Istanbul 1996 Habitat II conference.

Cities and Crisis is Konvitz’ fourth published book. In it he tackles the question of why the 20th century model of growth is incapable of restarting urban economies. He looks at lagging cities, infrastructure and competitiveness; examines the evidence of how to cope with shocks and crises, and the shortcomings of regulation; and concludes with a discussion of how paradigm shifts occur and of international relations when cities are at risk.

According to Konvitz, cities are the “motors” of our economy. The secret in driving efficient cities therefore lies in finding the right way to fuel them. Konvitz argues that governments have failed to put cities at the centre of recovery strategies and that although we may know what to do, we don’t know how to do it.

In our recent interview with Konvitz, he speaks of the need for greater national support for action at the city level.

“Today, we have the paradox that so many of the good examples are at the city level, but so many countries have very weak national urban policies. What can national governments do to help cities (and regions)? And what national policies or investments would complement and facilitate positive change on the ground?”

Leadership is also cited as a key factor to a city’s success, for which Konvitz says that not enough is being done to identify, encourage and train people who can lead.

We asked Konvitz for his thoughts on city engagement with the UN Global Compact and if he had any words of advice for participant cities.

“Making a commitment to the Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact is, to paraphrase Churchill, the end of the beginning. One of the main challenges is to secure the commitment across electoral and economic cycles, across parties and communities.”

“Progress will always be uneven,” he said. “We learned in some OECD projects that success sometimes comes after a couple of failures.”

Although acknowledging that failure is often part of the route to success, Konvitz also identifies himself as an idealist and offers words of encouragement:

The way to get things done is to aim high, and inspire. The city is like the earth itself: if the city is to survive and its inhabitants, to thrive, we must work to advance the common good

Cities and Crisis was published in January 2016 by Manchester University Press and was distributed in North America by Oxford University Press.

A snapshot of Konvitz’ rich professional life would show 11 years leading the OECD’S work on urban affairs from 1993 and then their regulatory policy programme until 2011. He was a visiting professor at King’s College London, and is an honorary professor at the University of Glasgow, as well as Chair of the PASCAL International Observatory, which brings academics and practitioners together to make progress on place-based social and environmental development.

Article: Mim Kempson