Article written by Valériane Buslot, Morgane Ollier and Genevieve Westgate, Summer Research Fellows with Data-Driven Yale and the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness

This blog is cross-posted on the Samuel Center for Social Connectedness website

Palais des Congrès, June 19th 2018. The city of Montreal hosted the ICLEI World Congress 2018, welcoming delegates, ranging from mayors, engineers and city planners to community organizers. All of these stakeholders gathered for four days to share and learn about cities’ and regions’ best practices, aiming to create the sustainable world of tomorrow. From nature-based solutions sessions to collective local actions or mobility-smart initiatives, stakeholders had the opportunity to take stock of their mutual progresses regarding sustainability and resilience while getting inspiration from their peers’ initiatives.

The Congress:

In the past few years, Montreal has been at the forefront of sustainability. Montreal was the first Canadian city to submit its resiliency plan, offering a 5 year vision with measures to foster the city’s capacity to respond resiliently to climate uncertainties. The city is also a proud member of the C40 and 100Resilient Cities networks. It thus seemed a next logical step for the city to host this year’s ICLEI World Congress.

During this four-day congress, 56 sessions, 10 technical visits, and 3 networking events took place, allowing participants to learn more about how urban sustainability can have a global impact. While the conferences were happening, ICLEI also welcomed exhibitors, including local environmental groups and start-ups that showcased their initiatives to ICLEI participants. The former could host workshops around their activities, creating a space for interaction and discussion.

As a global network, ICLEI gathers 1500 cities, regions and towns and more than 100 countries, collectively committed to building a sustainable future. The network has, over the years, offered these actors a platform for exchange but also an international reach. This World Congress is thus a way for governments to meet and share about strategic ties with key actors.

An Opportunity for Collaborative Action

One of the greatest components of this event is that it fostered collaboration between different actors and stakeholders in the sustainability field, including local governments, environmental organizations, journalists and entrepreneurs. This is perhaps a hard collaboration to come by on a day-to-day basis, and something that needs to be replicated more in policy-making, to ensure that policies and programs are more sustainable and inclusive.

For instance, at one of the sub-plenaries, “Vision for cities and regions in 2030: Ensuring systemic and inclusive action”, one of the exercises consisted of drafting a sustainable development plan for 2030 with the group that you were sitting with. Students (ourselves), ICLEI representatives, government delegates and engineers had the chance to share their work and experiences, and together drafted a plan that was both holistic and inclusive — something that could not have been produced alone. Hence, collaboration fosters more realistic and quality outputs.

Collaboration was not limited to sub-plenary sessions. Following the speakers’ presentations, the audience was given time to discuss this content, ask questions and give feedback. A lively debate occurred during the “Using the potential of nature to create greener, healthier and more inclusive cities” conference, between local governments, community organizations, a professor and a PhD candidate, as to whether greening the city should be a top-down or bottom-up initiative. The debate ended with an advice from a government representative of Brazil, who stated that sometimes even when it seems that there is a need for urgency, there is also a need for us to allow voices that are not heard, to be heard. As such, we need to put “people in the centre”, and develop more equitable visions for the future — a statement that the room widely supported.

Collaboration is thus key to addressing the sustainability challenges in cities today. ICLEI, by enabling conversations between a wide variety of actors, showcased the powerful outcomes of collaboration, setting a positive example and helping guide stakeholders in future decision making.


Strategic alliances for future partnerships?

The conference was about sharing, but it was also a strategic meeting for countries to ​​create new partnerships. This was one of the key elements that was brought up whilst projects from cities all over the world, from Australia to South Africa, were presented. Partnerships go beyond mayor-to-mayor interactions and involve all stakeholders, from citizens (from all geographical areas, backgrounds and ages), to policymakers, non-governmental organizations, businesses and institutions.

Partnerships are a key element to develop sustainable cities and implement projects, because the fundamental goal is to have a long-term, sustainable, shared vision between all stakeholders. This can only happen if trust is built and there is equal participation and support between all partners throughout the implementation processes. Efforts to foster increased partnerships can face challenges in sharing a common vision, aligning all stakeholders to be able to work efficiently, providing equal incentives to different groups, and being able to be socially inclusive to make sure to represent all parties.

To overcome these hurdles, many of the cities take the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a key basis to create what they call national SDGs. For instance, the Korean government created the Korean-SDG, and then small communities have developed Local SDGs. This multi-level governance approach holds every level of government accountable to fostering sustainability. Increasing shared responsibility was one of the main components that Marta Cuixart of the City of Barcelona put foreword; the city now works with over a thousand partners. Amanda Stone, from the Australian City of Yara, recapitulated perfectly in one sentence what partners needed to do to build a sustainable city, which was to build trust, and share information and resources among all partners.

Summer Research Fellows Valériane Buslot, Morgane Ollier and Genevieve Westgate at the ICELI World Conference

A network: what about inclusiveness?

While the Congress showcased an interesting blend of sessions on both resilience and innovative sustainability at the city level, sessions also offered a space to discuss the position of minority groups in advocating greener and more inclusive sustainable transitions. Two conferences were held to support women in climate leadership, while Indigenous People’s knowledge was placed central to one of the plenary discussions. The Congress also held a session of the newly launched Talanoa Dialogues. The Talanoa Dialogues, rooted in the traditional Fijian meaning of “inclusiveness and transparency”, were build upon COP23’s (the 23rd Conference of the Parties) Bonn-Fiji Commitment of Local and Regional Leaders, a yearly international conference gathering United Nations signatories to discuss climate change actions under the convention (UNFCCC). The Dialogues were designed to help governments strengthen their national plans by exchanging on local practices and local grievances and to spur a non-judgmental and inclusive dialogue. These sessions thus offered delegates a platform to share stories and learn from each other. This session only lasted for 30 minutes and one would have found pleasant to see it extended. Talanoa Dialogues happen year-round and can be found at many locations, including the COPs but also High Level Political Forums or the Global Climate Action Summit that will take place in San Francisco in September, hopefully offering more opportunities for countries to gather and share collective and individual stories to foster solutions, rather than convictions.

Additionally, there was still room for more inclusivity. Youth were widely absent during the Congress, likely due to the high cost of participating. How can the future of sustainable cities be discussed, without integrating the youth as a force of change? Simply put, youth must be more involved in discussions that will ultimately affect their lives the most.

To conclude, this year’s ICLEI World Congress was an optimistic gathering that helped countries reiterate their commitment to creating a sustainable world, sharing views and best practices applied in their respective fields. However, the real question we now need to ask is: how much space is there for a change? How much more can we include the people that are most vulnerable within cities and make sure they are not forgotten in the transition to smart and sustainable cities? Delegates, researchers and civil-society alike will hopefully go back to their home countries full of ideas for future collaborations and partnerships and will implement what they have been learning during the week. It is now about translating these words and encounters into actions.

To learn more about ICLEI, visit their website at:


Graphic on “the ICLEI-Montreal Commitment” created by ICLEI World Congress. All other images taken by blog authors.