Your guide to global urban transformation: Top 3 ICLEI World Congress 2018 takeaways

The ICLEI World Congress 2018 in Montréal brought together more than 1,000 people with one unifying question in mind: How do we build a sustainable urban world? With 177 cities and regions and more than 120 political leaders in the room, from Warsaw, Poland to Phuentsholing, Bhutan and from Honiara City, Solomon Islands to Cape Town, South Africa, there is no one single answer to this question.

Sustainable urban development will always be context-specific, but there were some clear unifying messages from the ICLEI World Congress that are worth our attention.

  1. By building a world of sustainable cities, we will deliver on the global sustainable development agenda.

“Building a sustainable world starts with transformation at the urban scale. By sparking and scaling up action in cities worldwide, the ICLEI network will shift the trajectory of global development.”

– Ashok Sridharan, Mayor of Bonn and President of ICLEI


ICLEI intends to do exactly this through the ICLEI Montréal Commitment and Strategic Vision, adopted in early June by our newly elected council of mayors, councilors and city leaders from around the world. This vision, which framed the sessions and discussions at the ICLEI World Congress, provides a new framework for local and regional governments to use and adapt as they design and drive sustainable urban development.

“We will use SDG 11 on cities as the central lever to advance all 17 goals,” said Mayor Sridharan at the closing plenary. He was referring to the full set of goals set in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, from climate action to zero hunger.

The new ICLEI vision lays out five interconnected pathways towards low emission, nature-based, circular, resilient and equitable development, supported by policy approaches related to governance, innovation and finance. Together, they embody the principles in the New Urban Agenda, directly and indirectly tackle climate change and, through integrated thinking, hit on the many dimensions of the broader sustainable development agenda.

  1. Systems thinking is the way to go, no matter where you are in the world.

“A city is a system of systems.”  

– Mayor William Peduto, Pittsburgh, USA


This statement captured what was perhaps among the most frequently referenced concepts at the ICLEI World Congress. The complex relationship among urban systems demands an integrated approach to policy and planning. Systems thinking is critical to the way local and regional governments approach development, and is a core component of the ICLEI Montréal Commitment and Strategic Vision.

The five new ICLEI pathways are designed to cut across sectors and create connection points across urban systems. They offer a framework for looking at the various systems within a city, from ecology to economy to transit, seeing how they interact and designing policies and initiatives that link them.

Limin Hee, Director of Liveable Cities in Singapore underscored the criticality of systems thinking: “We have to approach many problems holistically,” she said at the ICLEI World Congress. “It is very important to take this integrated approach, and also to harness planning and instruments of urban government.”

  1. Sustainable urban development is fundamentally about cities designed with, for and by all.

 “We are determined to leave no one behind.”

– Ashok Sridharan, Mayor of Bonn and President of ICLEI


Coming away from the ICLEI World Congress 2018, it is clear that the local and regional leaders of ICLEI are driven to create sustainable, people-centered communities.

Political leaders demonstrated their commitment to ensure an equitable, human centered approach to urban development. Leaders like Mayor Valérie Plante of Montréal and Mayor Célestine Ketcha Courtès of Bagangté, Cameroon sent a strong message about ensuring equitable representation of women in local administrations and across the wider community. They believe in fighting to place women in leading political roles through quotas, a position that reflects the opinion of the vast majority of participants. According to on-site polls, over 80 percent of ICLEI World Congress 2018 participants are in favor of maintaining gender quotas in politics.

As host of the ICLEI World Congress, Montréal made sure reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples was a highlight on the agenda. Cities like Montréal and Victoria shared their active reconciliation programs that bring cities and First Nations into conversation. In 2017 Montréal redesigned its flag to include the white pine tree, an Iroquois symbol for peace selected by a committee of Mohawk, Anishnabe and Innu representatives.

“We are already committed and want to do more and better for our citizens, our planet and future generations,” said Mayor Plante at the World Congress. This means better cities and a better future for and designed by all.

This commitment to cities designed by all was echoed in the commitment to multilevel and collaborative governance that was expressed by leaders at all levels including Rita Schwarzelühr-Sutter, Parliamentary State Secretary, Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety, Germany and Robert Biwer, Vice Chair, Commission of the Environment, Climate Change and Energy, European Committee of the Regions.  The inclusive and collaborative spirit of Talanoa was carried throughout the Congress and seen in action at the Canadian Cities and Regions Talanoa Dialogue event co-hosted by ICLEI and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Next steps in the global urban transformation

The diversity of representation at the ICLEI World Congress 2018 represents the breadth and distinct composition of the ICLEI network. When else will Mauricio Rodas, Mayor of Quito, Ecuador and Emmanuel Seronjoji, Mayor of Kampala Capital City Authority, Uganda be in the same room together?

Cities like Katowice, Poland and Buffalo, USA are designing transformations that start from their industrial legacies. Cities like Seoul, Korea and Jakarta, Indonesia are designing citizen engagement strategies to promote low emission development and engage communities in sustainable action. Cities such as Turku, Finland are ramping up their climate action and committing to climate neutrality. In the case of Turku, they have set an ambitious target of being climate neutral by 2029.

The local and regional governments of ICLEI represent cities and regions of all sizes across more than 120 countries. They face a range of development challenges and have distinct assets and opportunities to leverage in tackling them.

As a global network, ICLEI represents the diversity of the urban world. This gives ICLEI a unique and nuanced global perspective and a representative voice. During the ICLEI World Congress 2018, ICLEI put forward news ideas, frameworks and concepts that represent this diversity and bring the network in a common direction.

This World Congress – a triennial event for ICLEI – represented our path forward across the diversity of urban spaces in our urban era.

For more on the outcomes of the Congress see The ICLEI Montréal Commitment in action.

Photo credit – Éric Carrière © Ville de Montréal