An Interview with Director of the UCLG Learning Department Ms. Sara Hoeflich de Duque

2021-06-21 11:24:53

Sara Hoeflich de Duque, an architect and urban planner, graduated from the University of Aachen with a diploma in engineering. She is also the Director of the UCLG Learning Department, being in charge of the UCLG portfolio on decentralized cooperation and city to city learning (director cooperation). Sara started working at United Cities and Local Government in 2006, after almost 10 years joining German Development Cooperation in Indonesia and Colombia - in the field of urban planning and management - and after being active in several German urban design projects and engaging in development NGO. Previously, she worked as a green architect and urban planner in Germany.

It has been ten years since UCLG’s participation in establishing the Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation in 2012. With the support of UCLG, the Guangzhou Awards has  collected innovation practices from all over the world, constantly sought the connotation of urban innovation, and increasingly become an important platform for promoting the implementation of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the local level.

Q: What qualities do you think make for a good initiative in urban innovation?

Sara:The Guangzhou award has been collecting a diversity of practices that speaks for itself over the years. The award is now working with UCLG. We could learn the understanding of urban innovation reaches from technology to behavior, and this is very inspiring. I had the honor to participate twice in the award selection and ceremony and not only found innovation, but also inspiration of practices from very different contexts.

However, I would like to add a remark on methodology, as this is focus of the learning work at UCLG. Many cities and local governments look for answers to challenges that might be new, unique or complex. Those initiatives that focus on a problem and pilot and develop targeted solutions are often the most innovative. It is important to dedicate attention to the problem, for example water or waste management, or exclusion of youth or elderly to name a few, not only in terms of analysis, but of process. This will allow to select and pilot, as there may be many solutions. 

Problem-based thinking is critical to a good initiative, and when looking at a practice we should pay attention to the story, to how and why it was developed, as innovation may be present in the process as well as in the practical solution itself. 

Q: In your opinion, how can urban development better integrate with the United Nations’ SDGs and the NUA?

Sara:At UCLG (United Cities and Local Governments), we have been localizing the global agendas for a long time, making sure that they respond to and consider local realities. The Localization of the SDGs has been a breakthrough in the way the global agenda has been used for local inspiration and vice versa. It is clear how many of the SDGs rely on public services provided by local and regional governments, and how without appropriate competences and resources at the local level, it won’t be possible to achieve not only SDG11 but all of the goals. This has raised interest on the importance of urban development for the global community and for the planet.

The way urban development is managed, directed, regulated, funded and implemented requires a lot of policy making at local level, it cannot be done only from a national perspective only. These local decisions, a building license, an urban biotope, a corridor of public transport are policy making, too. Taking this local knowledge and strategies more into account, makes planning and investment at national level and international level more efficient. So today we see many UN agencies talking about local governments, they understood that without local governments the goals will not be achieved. The New Urban Agenda reflects this, and provides a framework for national governments to engage with LRGs to create an enabling environment for local action, building on the strength and diversity of actors. 

Q:Citizens are the beneficiaries of urban innovation. How can they participate in urban governance more effectively?

Sara:Participation has many forms. Looking to citizens as beneficiaries leads to participation of knowing their needs, their interest, to decide where to allocate service, schools or bus stops for example. This makes urban and service provision definitively more effective. But it limits to a market like relation, the service provider and the consumer.

I think participation is an opportunity to engage, to innovative procedures and to change the way government is understood and formed. Participation means to be part, so ultimately have active and responsible citizens that oversee, benefit and contribute to the government work and the overall wellbeing.

Q:The Guangzhou Award is a platform for sharing innovative experiences in urban development. In your opinion, how can the Guangzhou Award help UCLG members apply the lessons learned from the Award more effectively?

Sara:First, let me congratulate the consistent work of the Guangzhou award team and the urban institute. The award is an excellent platform and members can see benchmarking practices and follow the selection process that is very interesting and fully transparent. I think the way the team of the Guangzhou institute, of Sydney University and the use platform document the practices is outstanding.

In order to bring the practice closer to the next user, maybe you could highlight the innovation process and the importance to really work on the problem first as I said before. The inspirational aspects could also be shown in peer-to-peer discussions and a step-by-step logic for application purposes could be enhanced. 

Q: Where should UCLG and the Guangzhou Award work more closely together going forward?

Sara:A key lesson of the awards is that so much innovation and knowledge is developed locally, and rarely do you find it on books or universities curricula. This knowledge is a jewel, and we need to find it, collect it and turn it into educational products. That is what we are doing with the UCLG learning approach.

We are looking forward to a collaboration process between UCLG Learning and the Guangzhou Award team. This year, we may be preparing a peer learning. This is not only interesting for the “follower community” so practitioners and leaders that want to see what is new and innovative, it is also interesting for the cities, as we will look for a genuine methodology to present the practice and the global relevance.

Many local governments want to share their stories, and the audience is large. It is not limited to the global community, but also to national stakeholders, partners, and last but not least to the community and local constituents.