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The world is facing an unprecedented urban shift. Only one century ago, one in ten people lived in cities; today the figure is 50% and by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will call cities home.

Not only is the urban population growing at an increasing rate, but dynamics are shifting as the majority of new urbanites find their place in fast-growing cities and new greenfield cities in the global South and East. According to the Rockefeller Foundation, in the next 30 years two thirds of those additional inhabitants will be absorbed primarily by Asian cities.

In these emerging markets the fast pace of urban migration in many cases has outstripped the capacity of local governments to respond. The results are precarious. In Africa, the world’s fastest urbanizing region, more than 90% of development is taking the form of slums, according to the United Nations. Residents lack access to a basic urban infrastructure – water, sanitation, electricity and roads. Yet much of this infrastructure will not be built if traditional methods, costs and processes are the only options – they are simply too costly and too slow to keep up.

Cities in the global North and West face the challenge of shifting dynamics too. As emerging economies heat up on the other side of the world, these cities must innovate to keep competitive and remain compelling places to live and do business. Many face declining populations, while almost all face pressure to provide better services with fewer resources.

In essence, shifting urban dynamics are changing the world quickly.  As the world builds more urban fabric and adds more people to existing places, how cities are structured will define how healthy and productive we are as a society. Cities are hubs for innovation and culture; they are the engines of the world economy, responsible for an estimated 70% of GDP. Their design provides the very structure for human interaction: they shape how people build social networks, how businesses reach consumers with their products and services, and reveal the impact of the global population on the environment. The infrastructure and urban systems of cities serve as the backbone of well-functioning societies, allowing people and firms to live and work productively under dense conditions.

If the great urban shift is to be a levered into a positive trend – where urbanization is a catalyst for scaling up economic growth, innovation, wealth creation along the income spectrum, and an elevated standard of living – then city leaders, urban citizens, and industry stakeholders must have updated tools to design, build and finance cities.


The World Economic Forum recognized the need for new models for urban development and mobilized a multi-stakeholder team to find alternatives. The Global Agenda Council for Infrastructure & Urban Development is a team of 15 experts and industry leaders from around the globe.

At the Summit on the Global Agenda in Abu Dhabi, the Council recognized the importance of highlighting new urban development models to inspire leaders to act, so it set in motion a process to identify new, replicable models that break the mould of traditional urban planning, development, design and management. It aimed to capture the essence of these models and highlight them in compelling formats to attract the attention of change-makers.

After the Summit, the Council engaged in a collaborative process to identify 20 “success stories”, each highlighting an innovation in urban development that could be replicated in other cities and communities. These stories range from small but powerful interventions led by community members to industry-driven efforts and enormous government-sponsored projects. Each story was chosen for its ability to be replicated, positive impact and innovation. The group also designed a creative format to showcase these success stories and make them accessible to mayors, ministers and urban leaders.

The result is Urban Anthologies: Learning from Our Cities, a series of booklets bound loosely together, to be read as a single document or taken apart and read as individual stories. Each story highlights a real scenario where seemingly insurmountable challenges were overcome through innovation in technology, the development process, leadership and more. It is designed to equip mayors, ministers, industry leaders and citizens with the information to transform their cities and communities worldwide.

Framework for Success Story Selection

Urban Anthologies highlights not only the physical outcome of urban development intervention but also the catalytic and enabling factors that made these transformations possible. The series was developed as a prototype for presentation at the January 2012 meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Initially, six case studies were selected and showcased a global spread of mature cities, fast-growing or developing cities and those in decline. Each has used non-traditional means of planning, finance or design to offer a healthier, more productive and environmentally responsible place to live and work. They represent replicable models for development at a time when traditional concepts and methods are failing.

Thirty of the booklets were distributed at the Annual Meeting to positive response. It has also been reviewed and critiqued by Council members and a final version will be released in June 2012. 

Widening the Impact: Ideas & Future Plans of the Global Agenda Council

To reach the broadest range of urban leaders, Council members will leverage the network of the World Economic Forum, the World Bank’s Urbanization Knowledge Platform, and city and mayoral networks including ICLEI, which will distribute the book within its network. In the next cycle, the Council will explore an online, open-source format whereby success stories can be submitted electronically by members of the public. Council members could then curate these submissions and post them in an online version for all to see and use.

Council members plan to use an Open Source/Open Data software tool (for example MindMap) to help to chart numerous natural links between Council-originated success stories. Perhaps even more important, it will enable visitors to the Global Agenda Council’s website to use the same tool to visualize the connections between the success stories they consider to be a good fit within this particular initiative.

The 15-plus organizations represented by individual Global Agenda Council members will be asked to take two small steps:

  1. to identify at least three additional success stories that can be used during the next stage of the Council’s work;
  2. and to promote and publicize this “public call for success stories” (through their websites, FB pages, LinkedIn pages, Twitter pages).

In addition, Gordon Feller and Cisco are offering to showcase these curated stories during the “Meeting of the Minds 2012”, a leadership event which convenes in San Francisco from 9-11 October 2012.  Similar opportunities are also being explored.

 The Future of the Urban Development Project

To complement the publication of Urban Anthologies the Council also contributed to the launch of a major initiative of the World Economic Forum at the Annual Meeting in Davos in January 2012.The Future of Urban Development project leverages the leadership platform of the Forum to provide a neutral third party setting for mayors, ministers, experts and the private sector to think through the major urban challenges of the 21st century and accelerate the transition to better urban development models.

Initial activity for the project calls for a multi-stakeholder team to work hand in hand with select partner cities, serving as a top-level “brains trust” for mayors and urban leaders to think through key challenges facing each city and to identify interventions that can apply globally. Tianjin, China will serve as the inaugural partner city for this activity, beginning in the spring of 2012.The Steering Board will work closely with local officials and stakeholders in Tianjin to craft strategies and offer global thinking on two key challenges outlined by the city. The Global Agenda Council will serve as an integral part of the team and core advisory body as the project moves forward.

Over the life of the project, the Steering Board will aim to work with different cities around the world, developing a scalable model for interaction between city leaders, industry leaders and experts; creating a catalogue of interventions; and fostering regional partnerships to support the transition to better models.

The Council will also continue to think of additional activities to maximize impact under the initiative.


The opinions expressed here are those of the individual members of the Council and not of the World Economic Forum or any institutions to which they are affiliated.