Scott Burnham delivering the keynote on maximizing available urban resources at MIPIM Global Mayors Think Tank, Cannes, France

“Nations talk. Cities act.” Five Insights from the MIPIM Mayor’s Think Tank in Cannes

Gathering of Mayors and City Officials at MIPIM Mayor’s Think Tank. Credit: MIPIM

For those who wonder what is on the mind of the world’s mayors, last week’s MIPIM Mayor’s Think Tank in Cannes, France was a rare opportunity to discover just that. In the Salon Royale of the Cannes Majestic Hotel, mayors and officials from cities around the world gathered to talk about what their cities were doing, what issues were important to them, and to hear some new ideas for cities from me and how to get the funding to make them happen.

The day kicked off with my opening keynote outlining ideas and strategies to leverage the potential of existing urban assets, with a specific focus on maximizing the potential of existing infrastructure.

I was followed by John D. Macomber from the Harvard Business School who outlined strategies for private investment in infrastructure projects. Following this one-two combination of “here’s some ideas … and here’s how you can pay for them”, the heart of the session opened up as the mayors discussed, workshopped and reported out the key topics on their minds.

“There are opportunities within the problems.”

Below is a selection of themes that were shared at the end as the chairs of each subgroup reported out. Though cities face a vast array of problems, Dr. Arab Hoballah, Chief Sustainable Consumption and Production of the United Nations Environment Programme [UNEP], summed up the spirit of the day: “There are opportunities within the problems.”

1. City Autonomy: Let the Cities Decide

In my keynote, I touched on the topic of distributed infrastructure and how cities can become more resilient and resourceful by decentralizing systems. This became part of a much larger focus on decentralization of great importance to mayors – that of City Autonomy and the need to decentralize cities from central government control.

“The world,” said Bernard Brochand, Mayor of Cannes, “will be saved by the mayors. You are the only ones who know the problems, know the avenues to prosperity.”

“We have to work on resource efficient cities, and the message we’d like to give is that local public incentive, investment and control on policies is very important to build resource efficient cities. In particular, cities should be able to decide – and it is important that they are the ones to decide – the operator who is going to deliver the service to the people, whether it be a local public company or a private company.” *

“It is important to be able to control the way the services are built and that sustainable solutions are invented by local actors.”

“Central control is stifling innovation and investment.”

“It’s not only about more money it is about being in control of how you spend it.”

“Autonomy should offer the potential and capacity of cities to be more autonomous in terms of energy production and energy supply. Consider the buildings first, and then the rest of the city as a provider of energy, not only a consumer. It is a great opportunity that mayors have not fully embraced.”

2. The Potential of City Regions Transcends National Borders

Cross-border collaborations have an immense amount of potential that can be thwarted by the limitations of national borders. Across the street in the Palais des Festivals, this was fully demonstrated in an intriguing city pavilion: The Copenhagen Malmo Region – a collaborative initiative for development and investment that transcends the respective borders of Denmark and Sweden to view the neighboring cities as a single entity of opportunity. “More than Scandinavia,” as their PR material says. It was a theme playing out elsewhere in the world.

“Cities are older than states.”

Cieszyn, Czech Republic and Cieszyn, Poland, are just across the border [from each other]. They have the same issues to deal with. So they can cooperate and exchange ideas on how they do it – regenerating brown field sites, transforming the old coal mining industry into something new. The same thing between Copenhagen and Malmo. Malmo is known by those in Copenhagen as being a good example of waste management, where Copenhagen has other things to offer, so the cooperation is very important.”

The justification for this also lies at the basis of the “Ljubljana Forum”. As Miran Gajsek, Head of Urban Planning for Ljubljana noted, “Cities are older than states.”

3. Early, Clear, Collaborative Thinking Cures Complexity

“It is vital to have clarity and collaboration in terms of governance, especially between investment and planning, and the relationships between levels of government.”

“Quality and clarity of leadership is needed for outside investment.”

“Thinking on Scott’s keynote presentation outlining the opportunities in current urban assets, the key is that you need to dissect this process in order to assess the hidden value in the different component parts of the infrastructure. The importance is to include into this thinking very early on in the planning the growing social inequalities in the city.”

4. Great ideas are everywhere. Communication makes them work.

“There’s a lot of vibrancy of ideas coming from the public sector and the private sector, but not everywhere is the demand in society right enough to make them actually work – to make them work at scale where they can really make a difference. The key thing is how you tell the story.”

“As a city, you have to tell the story. Think about how the citizens are going to perceive, understand and appreciate what it is you are trying to do. Think about what this means in terms of work within the city, between different departments and how you engage the people in your communication department early enough on in the process to be able to integrate this thinking on communicating to the citizens, which is perhaps the most important part.”

“Technology, infrastructure, resource management… it’s still about citizens. It’s still about how this is communicated.”

“We usually call on citizens to be more proactive, and to think more of the future, the next generation and so on, but the greatest incentive to them is when we show them that they are going to reduce their personal expenditures, for example, how they are going to save money using public transport. That is more efficient than calling for good behavior in everyone.”

“The highest tech solutions will not work if you don’t have ‘take-up’ – if the citizens don’t understand the value that is in it for them.”

5. Developing Cities Need to be Part of the Conversation

“There are no sustainability solutions if developing cities aren’t part of the conversation. Developing cities have to be invited if global sustainability has a chance. If things go wrong in those cities, what we do here won’t matter.”


* Unattributed quotes are table summaries from the moderators, so individual attribution has not been given.