Opinion: How can a city be 'smart' if it doesn't include education?

A DfID-funded bus school comes to Kali Bari slum in central Delhi, India, offering free lessons to children. Photo by: Nick Cunard / DfID / CC BY-NC-ND

Urbanization is one of today’s defining trends — more than half the global population lives in cities and urban areas. But this trend does not come without challenges. Past growth has led to significant education gaps in urban areas, with a distinct lack of access to quality public education in urban slums. The rise of refugees around the world, many of whom move into cities, has also led to a chronic need for skills development of migrating youth and adults, who otherwise land with few options of finding decent work. Global projections indicate that the majority of future urban population growth will take place in lower and middle income countries, stretching inequalities wider and making protests louder.

These changes — many of them surprisingly fast — have led to an urgent need for us to rethink the way we are designing cities’ architecture and infrastructure. This, thankfully, is in our complete control. But those designing the plans for cities have rarely decided to see education as a partner. Education is ignored completely from the list of important elements for tracking progress toward the new global goal on cities, SDG 11. The role of schools is mostly missing from debates on urban priorities such as slum upgrading, or how to deal with the urban sprawl.

How can a city be a ‘smart’ if it doesn’t include education?

Our recent report, Place: Education for inclusive and sustainable cities, released before the New Urban Agenda at the Habitat III Conference, challenges the status quo.

Here are five ways education helps create more inclusive and sustainable cities:

• Providing equal education for all can even out inequalities inside urban areas

• Education improves employment prospects for all, reducing numbers in informal work

• Effectively trained and supported teachers can challenge stereotypes and discrimination in schools

• Educating people can also help them know their rights to access basic services, which can encourage inclusion

• Educating people on environmentally friendly activities can make cities more sustainable.

Education fosters more inclusive economies by improving employment prospects for all

One of the major challenges cities face, for instance, is that they house many people working in vulnerable jobs and informal employment. In 2013, domestic workers, home-based workers and street vendors accounted for about one-third of urban employment in India, for example. In South Africa, street vendors alone accounted for 15 percent of the urban workforce.

There is a strong case that education fosters economic growth and innovation. Many cities put policies in place to attract students, knowledge workers and innovators, by positioning themselves as global hubs for higher education, skills and talent. Look at Shanghai, if you’re doubtful, which has doubled the proportion of its college-educated labour force in a decade, to the point where today it has access to over 100,000 graduates. Similarly, Stanford University in the United States has reportedly had significant global economic impact: Some 18,000 firms created by its alumni are based in urban areas in its home state of California.

But education also fosters more inclusive economies by improving employment prospects for all. For example, this Global Education Monitoring Report shows that 39 percent fewer workers from poor backgrounds would be in low-paying informal work if they were able to attain the same education level as workers from richer backgrounds.

We can educate people about their basic rights, and how to access them

Making cities inclusive goes beyond the provision of decent work opportunities, of course. Many city residents — including rural migrants, slum dwellers and refugees — are denied access to vital services, including public education. While cities need to expand their infrastructure and economic opportunities, they must also focus on the needs and rights of the people living within their boundaries. Planners must be sat down and informed about the multiple benefits that bringing education to the table could have in tackling stubborn urban challenges, such as discrimination, the lack of inclusiveness and personal safety.

Look at Medellín, Colombia, for instance, which selected education as the tool it was going to use to tackle crime and discrimination in its 2004 strategy “lo mas educada” (the most educated). The program targeted crime and violence in the poorest areas via integrated urban planning, which included innovative buildings as learning spaces, and, significantly, the construction of 120 new public schools and nine library parks. The city’s levels of crime and violence have fallen dramatically over the past two decades as a result.

Educating people can also help them know what their rights are to basic services, which can encourage inclusion. Some urban organizations, such as Slum/Shack Dwellers International, have grabbed this mandate and are helping residents of urban slums speak up about their needs to city leaders. Curitiba is a city that has worked this sort of education into their plans for urban development, setting up mobile learning centers in retired buses, for example, and taking them out into disadvantaged areas.

We need to train urban planners in the benefit of education for challenging stubborn urban problems

This is not to say that education is the panacea for all the inclusion problems cities face. Indeed, inequalities in education can be perpetuated if teachers exhibit discriminatory attitudes toward children of migrants and minorities. A randomized evaluation in India, for instance, found that teachers gave worse scores to lower caste than higher caste children, suggesting that 20 percent of the performance gap between the students was attributable to caste-based discrimination.

But proper training for urban planners on the potential power of effective education can help make urban development less about buildings and roads and more about people, and their access to key services.

Hand in hand with that training, there should be an increase in the local autonomy of city leaders. While local autonomy is clearly no guarantee for positive change, it has been shown on multiple occasions to be a prerequisite for strong city-level ownership of urban reforms that incorporate education. Inspirational education leadership has been demonstrated to be key to the effectiveness of education reform in five major cities — Dubai, Ho Chi Minh City, New York City, London and Rio de Janeiro.

In short, how can a city be a “smart city” if it doesn’t include education? The recent COP22 conference on the climate change agreement last year dedicated a full day to education. Meanwhile, health and education are bedfellows and have been for years. It’s time for cities and the SDG 11 network to realize the benefits that bringing education to the discussion table can bring to inclusive and sustainable urban planning.

Over six weeks, Devex and our partners will explore what it takes to build a successful smart city, how climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies are being implemented, and how actors in the global development community are working together toward common goals and engaging local communities in an inclusive way. Join us as we examine what it takes to create our smart cities of the future by tagging #SmartCities and @Devex.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Aaron Benavot

    Aaron Benavot joined the Global Education Monitoring Report team as director in June 2014, bringing with him decades of experience in global education policy analysis and comparative research. Previous to this post, he served as professor in the School of Education at Albany-State University of New York and consulted for UNESCO, its institutes and UNICEF.