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  • Writer's pictureIHS Alumni

Changing Capacity Building: Decentralising Urban Learning for Today’s Cities

Veronica Olivotto


During the Habitat II conference in Istanbul, the IHS worked with the UN-Habitat, the Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU) of University College London (UCL) and Lund University to research urban capacity building experiences at that time and to organize a series of major events. The result was a strong increase in the recognition of the importance of capacity building and a recommended approach encapsulated in the publication “Capacity Building for Better Cities”. We also organized, with partners, special sessions on capacity building at World Urban Forum in Vancouver and in Medellin. We consider that it is timely to revisit the subject in terms of what we have learned and what is the most effective way to move forward.  We believe a valuable theme is to stimulate a greater role for decentralized learning and evaluate its significance for national policy, paying attention to modes of working and the roles of existing institutions.

Being a training and education institution, we see two major trends.  Firstly the increase in the access to learning and information through the Internet. Learning and knowledge transfer increasingly happens in a diffused way where international and national universities establish partnerships with civil society organizations and businesses for educational or research purposes. Secondly, we recognize a shift in the way learning takes place in cities.  The bulk of capacity building funds have historically been invested in centralized learning from expert institutions for the benefit of selected individuals within national or local governments. Application of new knowledge and skills by participants in their work situations has often been problematic. It is a challenge to link individual learning better to the local environment in which institutions are also aware of the need to innovate and learn, and are willing of doing so. We need to move towards a greater decentralization of urban learning in which theory and practice of urban development are built not only in central institutions but also at the crossroads between learners’ backgrounds and their experiences as they encounter practice and knowledge from other people and disciplines.

The objectives of this event were to: 1) Understand what have been the main lessons in trying to apply the capacity building recommendations developed for Habitat II and explain the ways in which centralized knowledge is changing; 2) Reflect on existing and potential ways in which capacity building institutions can change policies and practices to realize decentralized learning and at the same time develop an understanding of the best ways in which the effectiveness of decentralized learning can be evaluated and learning can be shared; 3) Gather insights on the nature (principles, good and bad practices) of the interaction between international, national universities and local actors in producing and transferring knowledge about urban planning and development.

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