Building Skills for Transformative Change: Beyond Individual Capacity
To thoroughly build capacity for cities at the systemic level, we need to foster collective action both within and among teams and institutions, not just individuals. Photo by WRI México

This is part two in a series on capacity development for city leaders.

As the global urban population continues to grow rapidly, cities are being tasked with addressing a variety of needs – economic, social, political, environmental – with very limited resources, and in ways that respond to the myriad goals of global agreements like the New Urban Agenda, Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement. To support the kind of solutions needed to address these complex challenges, urban professionals need equally holistic capacity development programs that impart a wide range of skills and support ongoing learning.

We have learned from engaging with public agencies that today’s urban leaders don’t have time to invest in theory. They need knowledge and skills they can apply immediately in real-world scenarios. We have also learned that effective capacity development should be rooted in the needs and mandates of participants, which can be achieved through the co-creation of training sessions.

But our organizational experience has also taught us that to thoroughly build capacity at the systemic level, we need to foster collective action both within and among teams and institutions, not just individuals. Engagement approaches such as multi-stakeholder dialogues facilitate knowledge sharing and support cultivation of strong working relationships among actors from different areas of city life. These foundations can help to create social ecosystems that are supportive of holistic, inclusive urban development initiatives.

Effective Enabling Environments

The benefits of skills building and knowledge enhancement for individuals are limited by the institutional and team contexts of those individuals. We suggest that an approach that focuses on building a framework for collective action is more suited to today’s challenges, as collectivization helps to build collaborative environments in which various individuals can utilize their resources, knowledge and skills to greater effect.

By helping organizations develop resources and processes for collective engagement, we can create the space for individuals and organizations to come together as groups to more effectively apply their knowledge and abilities. By ensuring that capacity development activities include stakeholders with diverse backgrounds and experiences, we can create learning environments that encourage new collaborations among individuals as well as organizations. WRI Ross Center’s experiences to date, while imperfect, suggest great potential for this approach.

Take TheCityFix Labs, supported by the Citi Foundation. TheCityFix Labs are intended to help bridge the gap from ideation to implementation for sustainable urban infrastructure projects. These goals are targeted both through financial and technical support for innovative approaches and through developing the capacities of both public and private implementing teams.

Participants are first selected through an application process. Then, through a series of workshops, they engage with a cohort of fellow entrepreneurs, government leaders and businesses to develop and refine their project proposals. Some applicants are from municipal governments seeking financial support from development banks; others are private sector entrepreneurs seeking government partnership for a new service. In both cases, we aim to nurture participants’ ideas and evolve their business models to give them a better chance of success, whether that means tailoring to meet the needs of municipal decision-makers or the requirements of investors. This process has helped to improve participants’ organizational capacities and strengthened relationships between a range of stakeholders.

Another example is Revolución Sostenible in Mexico, a series of dialogues led by WRI México with several partners to identify priority issues and potential solutions to guide responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The conversations inspired an action plan that includes a diverse array of perspectives that are often excluded from planning discussions of this scale and nature, including youth voices.

While such collective action requires time, persistence and empathy, the potential benefits – notably, the relationships formed among participants and the action frameworks developed among them – stand to radiate beyond the primary focus of a given initiative. The relationships provide pathways for future collaboration and can generate innovative solutions through identification of common interests among previously isolated stakeholders. These relationships can also make for more durable, sustained action, as shared interests, resources and capacities can overcome constraints that may undermine the efforts of a solitary actor.

These activities challenge a traditional model that relies strongly on technical expertise provided by niche expert organizations to senior governmental officials, with the hope that lessons learned from capacity building will trickle down through the broader organization. By providing a platform for dialogue, they also build trust within and across organizations. When trust is cultivated over time, these networks gain awareness of their collective roles in addressing complex and interdependent challenges.

How Do We Get There?

What do we need for collective action-oriented capacity development to become the norm for cities and other organizations concerned with building systemic capacity? How can we help to foster the necessary skills and relationships?

First, new funding models and strategic partnerships are needed that can support continuous, deep engagement with cities and other urban stakeholders. Long-term engagement needs long-term funding too, beyond the normal scope of most projects that last only a few years. We should invest quality time with donors and partners in early planning that looks at capacity development and collective action as key components of a project’s theory of change.

We should also consider collective action as an end goal. For instance, the Sustained Collaboration Network and SeaChange-Lodestar Fund have created resource pools to support collaboration among groups. Rather than providing funding to a single organization that then distributes those resources across various project costs and to different partner organizations, these funds centralize long-term collaboration in their grant-making approaches. Early returns indicate that this model has helped to build broader, deeper capacity among collaborating organizations and their target stakeholders.

Second, capacity development providers – whether government, academic, non-profit or private – need to develop their own internal capacity to support more inclusive dialogues. Our own experience has largely been based on technical expertise in specific urban development sectors, and we are not always well-trained ourselves on how to facilitate collective discussions. This skillset, of understanding how to bring people from varied experiences together for a shared cause and nurture their collaboration, should not be taken for granted. In our case, we’ve worked with the Center for Creative Leadership and GoInnovation to create a facilitation skills handbook which, along with companion training, is aimed at providing our staff with detailed guidance on how to conduct dynamic and effective capacity development activities. The handbook is structured around frameworks, learning concepts and methodologies for adult learning, and it guides users through the planning, delivery and follow-up stages of capacity development engagement.

Third, capacity development providers also need to consciously convene participants from different sectors and levels to enable the vertical and horizontal integration that’s essential to institutional capacity development. Our Leaders in Urban Transport Planning program with the World Bank utilizes policy dialogues to help orient diverse participants around a shared issue. Policy dialogue sessions are designed so that representatives from a city can receive feedback from their peers in other cities. We’ve conducted sessions that included heads of national or state programs and oriented discussion around a particular issue raised by local agencies in attendance. When we took this approach in Ethiopia, it shed light on the strong need there for greater awareness of the needs of smaller cities in the development of national transport policies, and helped to create a space in which such dialogue can continue over time.

To bend the curve for each of the world’s thousands of cities toward more inclusive and sustainable growth clearly requires new approaches. We are in the nascent stages of this new approach to collective capacity development that targets individuals as well as teams and institutions, and that is much more responsive to the immediate needs of decisions-makers and communities. But our own experience has encouraged us that cycles of internal reflection inform better engagement with our audiences. In turn, facilitated, sustained and inclusive dialogue with those audiences helps ensure that the design of our training sessions are more responsive to their needs – and to the needs of their cities.

Matthew Kessler-Cleary is the Strategy Development & Performance Assistant at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Sebastián Varela is the Manager for Strategy Development & Performance at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

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