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

Insights from the networking event hosted by the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS) at the Habitat III Conference in Quito (October 19th, 2016)

Partner Organisations and panelists:  Jan Fransen (IHS), Alex Apsan Frediani (DPU, University College London), Forbes Davidson (Forbes Davidson Planning Netherlands), Emiel Wegelin (UrbAct Netherlands), Jeroen Verplanke (ITC Twente, The Netherlands), Claudio Acioly (UN-Habitat Nairobi, Kenya), Victor Vergara (The World Bank), Helen Santiago Finch (The University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, Austria), Giannina Zamora and Maria de Lourdes Larrea (Colectivo Espacio, Sociedad y Cultura, Quito)

Organising Committee: Veronica Olivotto (IHS), Jan Fransen (IHS), Els Keunen (IHS), Forbes Davidson (Forbes Davidson Planning), Emiel Wegelin (UrbAct Netherlands)

Local Assistant: Cristina Gomezjurado

Number of participants in the audience: 79 (30 female and 49 male)


During the Habitat II conference of 1996 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. 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. 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. Application of new knowledge and skills by participants in their work situations, however, 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.