The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 2, 2016

To foster sustainable development, cities need data—and permission to use it

Cities are where sustainable development challenges like poverty and disaster risk are felt most acutely, particularly as the world’s population shifts to urban areas. But cities can also be incubators for the policies to address those challenges, and local leaders increasingly hold the keys to fostering inclusive growth and mitigating climate change.

Fortunately, city leaders across the globe are rallying behind sustainable development in all its dimensions: environmental sustainability, economic opportunity, and social inclusion. Mayors and local leaders were instrumental in securing a dedicated goal on inclusive and sustainable cities in the United Nations’s 2030 Agenda and framework of 17 high-level Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), signed by all member states at a historic summit last September. Since then, hundreds of local leaders have made commitments to support SDGs in their cities, forming new global networks and designing local implementation plans.

But what tools do city leaders need to drive progress on the SDGs?

In a roundtable last week hosted by the Wilson Center, Urban Institute scholars joined colleagues from the World Bank, Ford Foundation, and Sustainable Development Solutions Network to discuss how to build a local infrastructure that enables city leaders to support the SDGs. We started by recognizing the tremendous data gaps that plague many cities. In many cities in the developing world, data on basic service access or climate-related disaster risk are entirely missing. Even advanced economies lack shared metrics to compare and monitor progress across cities and regions.

The United Nations designed the SDGs to spark a global sustainable development “data revolution” to improve statistical capacities in countries that need them most. Harnessing new data sources (e.g., those created by mobile phones and geospatial technologies) can track progress on the SDGs. Philanthropic organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and donor institutions are already increasing local governments’ capacity to use new and existing data sources to support evidence-based policies and interventions.

While these efforts are important, we argue in a recent paper that city officials face broader constraints than a shortage of data or capacity. Cities also need permission to use that data and incentives to apply it to decisionmaking. National ministries may hold data that they don’t disaggregate or share with local governments. National legal frameworks often limit city leaders’ ability to analyze and apply data to local policies. And when cities lack authority to administer services or raise revenues, data analysis can expose problems but not solve them. And without transparent and democratic local political systems, city leaders may lack the incentive to allocate resources based on evidence rather than self-interest, leaving behind groups and neighborhoods that need those resources most.

Beyond supporting data use, the SDGs can spark insights into the institutional arrangements necessary to support data-driven sustainable development policies at the local level.

The SDGs can highlight some of the bottlenecks that stem from national governance frameworks and support more efficient assignment of functions (e.g., data collection, analysis, and application) to the appropriate level of government.

International development donors can create an incentive to use data by providing aid on the basis of demonstrated local commitment to evidence-driven governance. Indicators to monitor progress on the SDGs should also be localized; in addition to national-level indicators being developed by the United Nations, we need metrics that city leaders can use to measure progress. This can help not only shine a spotlight on cities that are “lagging” on key sustainability indicators, but also guide city officials seeking to address their local sustainability challenges through data and evidence.

The SDGs offer an important opportunity to go beyond filling data gaps and to address cities’ institutional constraints to using data to make better decisions. The success of efforts to engage cities in the SDGs should not be measured by a head count of cities with data, but by how many cities use it to solve problems their citizens face.

The nonprofit Urban Institute is dedicated to elevating the debate on social and economic policy. Urban Institute work on localizing the Sustainable Development Goals is supported by the MacArthur Foundation. Funders do not determine research findings or influence scholars’ conclusions. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

President Enrique Pena Nieto, of Mexico, addresses the 2015 Sustainable Development Summit, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, at United Nations headquarters. Photo by Richard Drew/AP

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