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World Built Environment Forum Dubai 2022: Five key takeaways

Senior leaders from more than 80 countries met to discuss The liveable city: Agile, healthy, resilient. Kay Pitman, RICS Thought Leadership Specialist, shares some of the key points.

Kay Pitman, Thought Leadership Specialist, RICS
14 February 2022

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the course of 21st-century urbanisation seemed set. However, as populations around the world went into lockdown, everything changed and the future seemed less certain.

In an age of disruption, cities remain central to global economic growth but the pandemic has left its mark. Ethical construction, a sustainable built environment, housing availability and urban redevelopment are all increasingly important as a result.

Although referred to as a policy goal by many cities, the concept of liveability and how to achieve it has been variously defined. As the urban century unfolds, the challenge of defining, designing and operating inclusive and liveable places has never been so significant.

Here are some of the key lessons on liveable cities from the World Built Environment Forum Dubai 2022.


1. Green finance the dominant approach for cities’ futures

Emma Vigus, business development director, , set the scene: ‘The nascence of cross-border standards and taxonomies, combined with an often compelling commercial imperative, has created several challenges. These include ethical concerns about greenwashing, speculation about a , and whether the rush to deploy new construction methods and materials puts the claim that we are building back better into question.

‘The need to improve the ethical code of the property and construction sector should not be overlooked. Neither should the challenge of tackling the pressing housing needs of the poorest in society and addressing the green credentials of the structures occupied by the comparably affluent.’

Two-thirds of hard financial assets on the planet are property assets. Sean Kidney, CEO, Climate Bonds Initiative explains, ‘the race is on to stop catastrophic climate change. But it is not just about emissions reductions: it is also about resilience. Rather than being the signs of a bubble, the reordering of capital towards sustainable projects is a straightforward risk management exercise.’

Mirjam Staub-Bisang, CEO, and senior adviser to BlackRock Sustainable Investing, agrees: ‘this is here to stay. At BlackRock we strongly support every effort of regulators to contain greenwashing. One of the biggest problems is that there is no understanding of what sustainable finance is. A bigger problem than that is data: providing clarity about impacts on the environment.’

New regulatory obligations for data and reporting are forthcoming, such as the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures. The industry must consider how it will gather the data to report on these wider environmental impacts.

As the urban century unfolds, the challenge of defining, designing and operating inclusive and liveable places has never been so significant.

Investors are increasingly recognising climate-related material risks, and the risks associated with policy and regulatory change. But there is still some way to go to ensure the credentials of sustainable and ethical projects are globally agreed and recognised.

We have to remember that some environmental, social and governance (ESG) investments still include best-in-class coal-fired power stations, so there’s a bit of flaky edging to the definitions. However, in January 2022, 10% of all bonds issues globally were green, which is an extraordinary figure. It gives you a sense of the way things are shifting,’ explains Sean Kidney.

Standards and regulation, applied properly and consistently, are essential for safer and more climate-friendly methods of city building and construction, says Andrew Alli, CEO of SouthBridge Group and formerly CEO, Africa finance corporation. Sean Kidney agrees ‘The US$1.7tr ESG bond market is growing at 80% a year. The rules that are coming in will continue to turbo-charge this market.’ The approach to standards is relative to the market, and this is appropriate

2. Smart societies: technology must be used in the service of people

Qing Wei, CTO, China, explains the digitalisation pyramid comprising data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. ’D.

‘As technology moves on, data, information and knowledge will be handled mostly by machines. The next stage – wisdom – is where humans need to take the lead.’

The smart society of the future has three components: ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence, and people-centric technology

Qing Wei
CTO, Microsoft China

Dr Noah Raford is futurist-in-chief at the . He explains that cities are not an optimisation problem, for which there is a solution. It's more an emerging debate and dialogue. The approaches that work best are those that help us to understand each other better. When asking how we improve people’s lives, the answer has sometimes been quite low-tech.

 Qing Wei says that we are on the cusp of a new era of smart societies. At Microsoft, they believe the smart future society will involve a new form of people-machine relations. It has three components: ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence, and people-centric technology. ‘Machines are needed to enable and empower us, without replacing us. This is why wisdom is so key.’

3. The liveable city embraces diversity

Ann Gray FRICS, RICS president-elect, explains that we’re not in control of who moves to cities so we have to plan for all kinds of people living there. A healthy city is going to include a lot of different people.

Yu-Ning Hwang, chief planner & deputy chief executive officer, agrees. ‘It’s about bringing people together to spur the exchange of knowledge and innovation, and to be a delightful place to live, work and play.’

Jonathan Woetzel, director and senior partner, McKinsey Global Institute, talks about the incredible benefits diversity can bring to areas such as research and development. This is an economic advantage of diversity, he explains, but there is also a social argument. The premise of diversity is access – the ability for each and every part of society to call themselves a member of the city. Without the basic rights of a city-dweller, whether in terms of housing, education or healthcare, it’s very hard to feel part of a city. Data is essential to understanding this.

We should recognise that this amazing technology we’ve developed, which is called ‘cities’, is a revolutionary force

Jonathan Woetzel
Director and Senior Partner, McKinsey Global Institute

4. Housing affordability and availability fundamental to city resilience

Sean Kidney explains: ‘There’s a direct correlation between the availability of housing in society and the extent to which that society survives severe shocks. Social housing is a climate resilient activity.’

Jonathan Woetzel agrees. He explains that, simply put, there’s a market for investment and there’s a market for shelter. ‘I can guarantee you that if two people are bidding on it, the investor will win. So either we think through how to carve out and create a financial model that allows us to reward very long-term tenure and economic activity with financial returns, or we won‘t have that market for shelter.’

Yu-Ning Hwang states that public housing is underpinned by the concepts of affordability, inclusiveness and accessibility. Greg Clark CBE, g, says that those successful cities with the most affordable housing, such as Singapore, Vienna, Hamburg and Shanghai, also have a high level of public-sector participation in land management and in the financing of the housing.

5. The dense city is our best piece of technology

According to Jonathan Woetzel, ‘We should recognise that this amazing technology we’ve developed, which is called the city, is a revolutionary force.’

A city is a set of high-frequency interactions that requires, encourages and enables evolution. In economic terms, the city is a process of specialisation. As with any revolutionary force, cities have an impact on the environment around them. Historically, technologies have exceeded our capacity to govern them, so we have to be more conscious of this ahead of further urban development. Dense but not overcrowded cities are required, recognising that we must take into account our environmental footprint.