SDGs, the tyranny of sameness
Adnan Morshed
In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly designated October 31 as WCD to build global awareness of the challenges that cities around the world face. The day serves as a reminder of the planet's contested urban future and how it will unfold for more than half the world population (4.4 billion in 2020).
The world's urban future is full of challenges. But one of the greatest among them is a simple but profound one: the universalisation of urban problems and their generic solutions. The United Nations describes the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as "the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all." The SDG #11 focuses on "sustainable cities and communities." A blueprint is great, but, when not used with caution and introspection, it often tends to bureaucratise and homogenise the problems, as if by following certain universal prescriptions one can mitigate challenges as culturally, socially, and anthropologically complex as the city.
I have seen in way too many meetings and seminars the uncritical and overly devotional reception of the SDGs as a complete panacea, a one-size-fits-all solution for cities across continents. Again, the SDGs are great guidelines, but they are only the first step in addressing a city's unique advantages and disadvantages. The neoliberal economy perpetuates uniformity as an ideological tool to create a seamless flat world for uninterrupted capital movement. Despite their good intentions, the advocates of the SDGs can often become unknowing facilitators of Wall Street bosses who promote generic cities as part of their design to dominate world finances. Sameness facilitates the extractive economy of global corporations but not the local people and their cities. To resist this trap, it is important to keep in mind that the SDGs are meant to be a reminder not solutions.
The American urbanist William Whyte once said, "It is difficult to design a place that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished." Whyte's lament is against the city's unattractive genericness that fails to appeal to people. When people just live in a city without feeling ownership of their city, without feeling proud of their city, economic growth could only be a superficial indicator of their wellbeing.
In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote, "We'll start to forget a place once we left it." I always wondered what he meant by it. But I am tempted to interpret Dickens this way: If you do not remember a city when you leave it, it can never be a good city. We need to understand that each city has a distinct set of perils and promises that warrant careful considerations in its own economic, cultural and political contexts. When we develop a city based on its inherent qualities—geographic, cultural, social—we can build the real city with people who belong. We can develop a city with which could be called "organic economy."
An organic economy is the one that flourishes with local resources, local strengths, local entrepreneurships, while also acquiring the courage to negotiate the global in its own terms, not terms imposed by power-wielders in the Global North. By no means, this is localism or self-glorifying parochialism, rather a celebration of the ways the local can thrive by both meeting and resisting global demands. This is what I would like to propose as a point of contention for this year's World Cities Day.