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    ‘Sustainability’​ is dead. Now it’s time for something completely different

    By James Southwood, on 21 March 2017

    ‘Sustainability’ is dead and much of its language should be buried and replaced.

    To just ‘sustain’, will always fail to capture the people’s imagination, just as ‘remain’. If I go out for drinks, I want to do more than ‘sustain’ and ‘survive’ the evening, I want to thrive and connect.

    ‘Environmental protection’ is no different. This mantra of sustainability doesn’t work because it is fundamentally restrictive, applying the brakes on ambition. And for the flag of ‘sustainability’, well, we have all seen how those 3 separate, yet interlocking circles have failed to capture people’s imagination.

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    Could it be that once we realize we are not separate from the planet, our problems will be solved? Let’s fundamentally alter the way we talk about ‘sustainability’ towards proper environmental endgame that is not premised on ‘loosing less’ but based on the principles of life itself.

    To move beyond the sluggish sustainability progress we have seen in the past, we are going to need:

    1) A long term outlook with the environment at the centre.

    2) A positive and inspiring vision of how to move forward

    3) To transcend the language of reduction with a new vocabulary of ambition

    Keeping these 3 pointers in mind, let’s go back to the drawing board and reconnect with how nature actually works in the first place.

    Well most importantly, ‘sustainability’ is in fact a reality of nature, rather than a conceptual meeting point between 3 interlocking circles. After all, there is no waste in nature, rather continuous re-use of elements and resources. All waste in nature becomes new growth. Take for example the carbon cycle where there is life in death and the waste of one is the food of another. This is simply fact of life.

    Perhaps we could do the same?

    In practical terms this means bringing to life that old saying that one man’s trash can be the treasure of another. This is more than just recycling as there is up-cycled added value in old waste being the input for something entirely different. We have to change the thinking along these lines.

    For sustainability to be more than an afterthought or at best, modest gains around efficiency, we need to re-connect with the natural circular approach. In doing so, we properly integrate ecology into the economy.

    After all, resource constraints are driving businesses to seek alternatives to traditional production and manufacturing processes. There is huge potential to create circular economies that generate wealth from waste. Just look at the EU’s circular economy strategy or any Ellen McArthur report.

    So what would happen if we aligned our infrastructure with the circular system we see in nature?

    In essence, we would have an uncompromising and clear headed view of ‘environmental protection’ because it would be built into the very DNA of the city.

    People are already thinking about how we can join the dots and apply circular thinking to old problems. Take the coal fired power plants in Australia where the CO2 waste is used as the food for Algae which produces energy through biogas. This is one of a raft of new innovative, interconnected approaches which promise to change the sustainability paradigm. (For more evidence of these new projects just watch any Youtube Video by Guter Pauli.)

    Rather than ‘sustain’, I suggest for the future of sustainability and indeed our planet, we duel ecological principles and innovation to ‘ecovate’. This means interdependent product design and interdependent action between communities, practitioners, regulators and academics.

    Ecovation promises to transform the sustainability paradigm' Credit to Charles Vincent charles@vincent-luxembourg.lu

    Ecovation promises to transform the sustainability paradigm’
    Credit to Charles Vincent charles@vincent-luxembourg.lu

    It means dumping the meaningless language of sustainability and instead taking advantage of life’s evolutionary learning curve and emulating it’s tried and tested circular strategies. The new language of ‘sustainability’, must be one of vast and thriving interconnections between and within both people and nature.

    By thinking in circles we can finally end the enduring era of the throwaway society. Turning old waste into new growth through new design + retrofit promises to transform our urban environments.

    In doing so, we can inspire towards a future where our society is premised nothing less than the ecological reality of the planet. I propose this should be the environmental endgame that sparks the public imagination, this is a place we all want to live.

    Out here in the Berlin green innovation scene, I have noticed that young entrepreneurs will settle for nothing less than 100% circularity because, in the long run they recognize it is not negotiable. The achievement of circularity is absolutely necessary; our only choices are in the route we follow to get there.


    James is an MSc Environment & Sustainable Development graduate (2015-2016), who has recently moved to Berlin to explore the green innovation industry.
    He is currently designing a new innovative platform which aims to use ecovatation to bring academics, communities and practitioners together.  If you are interested in collaborating, get in touch at james@dycle.org

     

    Industrial development and business-civic leadership in Nigeria

    By Naji P Makarem, on 5 July 2016

    Why is unemployment and poverty rising in Nigeria, despite over a decade of robust economic growth? According to new research from, Naji P. Makarem, the organized private sector (OPS) has the opportunity to leverage its clout and political influence for urban governance. To do so however, it must strengthen its urban organizational capacity and shift its political attention beyond pure-efficiency to broader conceptions of functional urban agglomerations. A failure to do so risks locking Nigeria into a ‘low-productivity trap’, long after it has overcome its chronic ‘efficiency-crisis’.

     

    Since its independence in 1960 Nigeria has been struggling to industrialize and diversify its economy away from low-productivity agricultural employment and dependence on Oil & Gas export revenues.  It has adopted numerous government strategies from import substitution to market liberalization; yet the economy continues to be highly dependent on oil reserves and imports of food and consumer goods from abroad.

     

    It is estimated that 70% of households are currently living on less than $2 a day and a similar proportion is employed in the informal economy. Impressive GDP growth and considerable diversification into new sectors such as ICT, Real Estate and Professional, Scientific and Technical services over the past decade have failed to translate into sufficient employment generation, with unemployment rising significantly over the period to well above 20 percent according to government figures.

     

    Figure 3 Unemployment in Nigeria, 1999-2010 Source: NBS data.

    Figure 3 Unemployment in Nigeria, 1999-2010
    Source: NBS data.

     

    Jobless growth over the past decade can be attributed to two aspects of Nigeria’s industrial structure: About a third of the growth in output since 1990 has been driven by Oil & Gas, ICT and Real Estate, which together employ a mere 1.4% of formal sector workers. These are highly productive sectors with considerable impact on employment within the cities where they are concentrated, such as Lagos, but they do not generate sufficient employment to absorb Nigeria’s growing labour market.

     

    Figure 6 Contribution to Real GDP Growth 1990-2010 Source: Authors’ calculations using NBS data

    Figure 6 Contribution to Real GDP Growth 1990-2010
    Source: Authors’ calculations using NBS data

     

    On the other hand, manufacturing, which suffers from low productivity even compared to countries within the same development club, such as Kenya, India and South Africa, has contributed a mere 5% to GDP growth since 1990. Today Nigerians import the vast majority of the products they consume. They also import the machinery and high value inputs of the few products which they do produce, such as foam, steel pipes and pharmaceutical products. If Nigerians produced more and imported less (or developed favourable terms of trade) more of the money going into tills and ending up in the pockets of investors, entrepreneurs and workers abroad could be going to Nigerian workers, investors, entrepreneurs and the government. Tradable industries in general, and the manufacturing sector in particular, offer Nigerians the opportunity of generating employment, income and public revenues, which are all necessary for poverty reduction.

     

    Nigeria’s 55 year struggle to boost its tradable industry is hampered by the country’s chronic ‘low-efficiency’ trap. Consider the following thought experiment to illustrate: take a successful exporting firm in China and place it and its managers and employees in Nigeria. It would not operate anywhere near as efficiently. Here’s why: In Nigeria the same firm would struggle to find serviced industrial land, having to build or fix its own slip roads, dig its own bore hole to access water, build its own sewers system, run its operations on costly diesel generators and hope the land it acquired is not claimed by somebody else, it would have to contend with often negotiated and opaque duplicity of taxes, inconsistent government regulations, a user-unfriendly bureaucracy, competition from counterfeit products produced locally or that enter the market illegally through poorly regulated international borders, an unreliable judiciary, poor quality roads connecting cities across the country with multiple check-points for informal bribes, slow clearing of imported intermediate goods at ports, tariffs on imported inputs which are not locally available, the risk of arbitrary increases in import tariffs for dubious reasons, double-digit interest rates and precarious access to finance and foreign exchange (Although this month, June 2016, the government floated the exchange rate).

     

    These dysfunctional aspects of the business climate are well known and well researched by the World Bank’s ‘Doing Business’ reports which in 2016 ranks Nigeria 169 out of 189 countries in terms of ease of doing business. They are substantiated by our 77 interviews with business and civic leaders in Lagos, Kano and Port Harcourt, as part of DPU research for a DFID-funded project called Urbanization Research Nigeria (URN).

     

    Yet the dysfunctionality of Nigeria’s economic development context runs much deeper than these ‘efficiency-related’ aspects of its urban and national contexts. Economic development theory highlights agglomeration economies, the home market effect (local demand) and productivity drivers as engines of industrial development and productivity growth, the essential conditions for income growth and quality jobs. Efficiency, while extremely important especially in contexts of cost-based competition, is just one of many development drivers urban regions and countries produce, and which firms draw on to compete.

     

    The question is how can Nigeria break out of its chronic ‘low-efficiency trap’? While conventional wisdom would point to the need for good governance, this is not very useful advice in and of its own (it’s too obvious). Our research takes a different approach. Drawing from economic sociology, we argue that business-civic leadership has the potential of influencing policy and governance. Moreover, the perceptions and world views of the business community and business civic leadership can shape the formal institutions that govern them (see Figure 1). So we investigate the degree to which the private sector in Nigeria is organized, and the scope of their political attention.

     

    Source: Authors’ calculations using NBS data

    Source: Authors’ calculations using NBS data

     

    Our research found the Nigerian business community, from small to large firms across different industries, to be highly organized. The peak business association which has been gaining power and influence since independence is the Manufacturing Association of Nigeria – MAN. The political attention of the organized private sector (OPS) focuses almost exclusively on efficiency-related aspects of the business climate. However, they overlook aspects of the urban context related to agglomeration economies and non-efficiency related productivity drivers; both indispensable features of functional cities for people and businesses.

     

    These overlooked urban features include access to affordable, secure and serviced housing which are essential for human capital development; public transport which is indispensable for worker access to work places; education and skills development which are essential for human capital development and innovation; public R&D in related industries to support knowledge creation; firm- and industry-level support strategies for facilitating coordination and knowledge sharing; public space and cultural amenities to enable interaction, identity formation and innovation; and initiatives designed to bridge fragmented communities and develop appropriate and widely shared perceptions and world views in pursuit of social capital.

    A failure to focus political attention on investing in functional cities risks locking Nigeria into a ‘low-productivity trap’, long after it has overcome its chronic ‘efficiency-crisis’.

     

     

    This is a Blog about a recently submitted URN report to DFID. It will be publicly disseminated soon.


    Naji P. Makarem is co-director of the Msc. Urban Economic Development at the Bartlett School’s Development Planning Unit (DPU) at UCL, and a lecturer in Political Economy of Development.

     

    Snapshots of the urban economy: Mekelle, Ethiopia

    By Matthew A Wood-Hill, on 11 May 2015

    For the past 10 days I’ve been with staff and students of the MSc Urban Economic Development in Mekelle, Ethiopia. They have been making sense of economic development by exploring four broad topics, and assessing their contribution to the local economy:

    1. Mekelle University as a supporter of small enterprises
    2. Urban and peri-urban agriculture
    3. Co-operative organisations
    4. The airport as a catalyst for economic development

    We have put together a series of images, which provide a snapshot of different parts of the urban economy in Mekelle.

    Tradition has it that Mekelle University was first formed beneath the Momona Tree on its campus – the shadow of which served as its first office. Nowadays it retains an important social function as both a meeting point and a place of intrigue for visitors. The DPU has been partnering with Mekelle University for the past 5 years– we have been immensely grateful for the contributions of University staff. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Tradition has it that Mekelle University was first formed beneath the Momona Tree on its campus – the shadow of which served as its first office. Nowadays it retains an important social function as both a meeting point and a place of intrigue for visitors. The DPU has been partnering with Mekelle University for the past 5 years– we have been immensely grateful for the contributions of University staff. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Coffee culture is rife in Mekelle with numerous coffee-houses lining a series of tree-lined streets close to the centre. We asked a new business owner why she had chosen this area in the face of such established competition. She had opened her coffee-house just one month ago, but her reply highlighted the social and economic role the businesses play in this area. They serve as meeting points for local business-people through which they engage with and build their professional networks. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Coffee culture is rife in Mekelle with numerous coffee-houses lining a series of tree-lined streets close to the centre. We asked a new business owner why she had chosen this area in the face of such established competition. She had opened her coffee-house just one month ago, but her reply highlighted the social and economic role the businesses play in this area. They serve as meeting points for local business-people through which they engage with and build their professional networks.
    Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Messebo cement factory, the fifth largest in Ethiopia, dominates views towards the outskirts of the city. It is by far the largest business and employer in the region and a key contributor to the local construction sector. Slow-build developments are common in Mekelle – this is evidently not due to a lack of available resources, but more often than not a consequence of financial difficulties which delay progress. Image: Tsuyoshi

    Messebo cement factory, the fifth largest in Ethiopia, dominates views towards the outskirts of the city. It is by far the largest business and employer in the region and a key contributor to the local construction sector. Slow-build developments are common in Mekelle – this is evidently not due to a lack of available resources, but more often than not a consequence of financial difficulties which delay progress.
    Image: Tsuyoshi Aiki

    Young boys roam the popular streets of Mekelle offering their services as shoe cleaners. While they often appear to be working independently, these boys actively contribute a small amount each day to an informal savings scheme in order to increase their financial capital. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Young boys roam the popular streets of Mekelle offering their services as shoe cleaners. While they often appear to be working independently, these boys actively contribute a small amount each day to an informal savings scheme in order to increase their financial capital.
    Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Farming within and on the outskirts of the city contributes to the security and affordability of food in Mekelle. The split between the two spaces is more than just spatial, however; it is also reflected in government attitudes. For example, peri-urban farmers are not able to obtain a license to sell their produce in the city centre – a restriction that others do not have to contend with. In spite of having more space to grow crops if greater quality in greater quantity, peri-urban farmer are therefore forced to sell to middle-men to reach consumers, which in turn has an impact on their income.  Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Farming within and on the outskirts of the city contributes to the security and affordability of food in Mekelle. The split between the two spaces is more than just spatial, however; it is also reflected in government attitudes. For example, peri-urban farmers are not able to obtain a license to sell their produce in the city centre – a restriction that others do not have to contend with. In spite of having more space to grow crops of greater quality and in greater quantity, peri-urban farmers are therefore forced to sell to middle-men to reach consumers, which in turn has an impact on their income.
    Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Mekelle is a regional hub for business and part of the ‘Garaltar Triangle’, a popular tourist route. The local tourist board believes that 95% of visitors come through the airport for tourism, however initial research by MSc UED students, through a series of surveys at the airport, suggests that the majority of travellers arriving by air do so for business purposes.  Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Mekelle is a regional hub for business and part of the ‘Garaltar Clusters’, a popular tourist route. The local authorities believe that 98% of visitors come through the airport for tourism, however initial research by MSc UED students, through a series of surveys at the airport, suggests that the majority of travellers arriving by air do so for business purposes.
    Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Towards the suburbs of the city an expanding manufacturing sector exists. One factory we visited produced honey for domestic consumption. The factory manager elaborated on the hope that they might be able to reach an international market. For the emerging manufacturing sector in Mekelle, and elsewhere, this challenge must be overcome if the sector is to become a key driver of national economic growth. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Towards the suburbs of the city an expanding manufacturing sector exists. One factory we visited produced honey for domestic consumption. The factory manager elaborated on the hope that they might be able to reach a wider international market. This challenge must be overcome if manufacturing is to make a greater contribution to national economic growth. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Urban Agriculture sites often exist where vital infrastructure services are not available, thus making it unattractive for commercial or residential development. Mekelle is not a densely populated city at present, so urbanisation tends to happen close to infrastructure and services. Urban farmers put these unoccupied spaces to productive use, but rely on motorised pumps to extract water from shallow wells to irrigate their crops. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

    Urban Agriculture sites often exist where vital infrastructure services are not available, thus making it unattractive for commercial or residential development. Urban farmers put these unoccupied spaces to productive use, but rely on motorised pumps to extract water from shallow wells to irrigate their crops.
    Image: Matthew Wood-Hill


    Matthew Wood-Hill is the Media & Communications Officer at the DPU. He has been in Mekelle, Ethiopia with the MSc UED programme for the past 11 days. The MSc Urban Economic Development has been working with Mekelle University for 5 years now, understanding urban economic development in practice.