current debate


Do international agencies, consultants, and other “orchestrators” truly help cities reduce climate-related risks?

Final Announcement: winners of the “Best contribution” awards
The committee members (Ali Asgary, Gonzalo Lizarralde, and Mauro Cossu) acknowledge the engagement of all participants and their thoughtful contributions to this debate. They determined that the winners are:
Lisa Hasan  First prize (best comment)
1000 CAD$
Maria Ikonomova  Second prize
500 CAD$
Steffen Lajoie  Third prize
300 CAD$
Congratulations to winners!
The moderator’s opening remarks
Cities are playing an increasingly active role in governing climate change action. Even in countries where national governments have done little to tackle global warming, municipalities are seen as key to reducing carbon emissions as well as vulnerabilities. But cities do not always have the resources or capacity to implement ambitious measures to reduce atmospheric pollution (mitigation) or disaster risk. In response, non-governmental institutions are working with cities rich and poor to better tackle climate-related challenges. These organizations include 100 Resilient Cities, ICLEI, C40, and UN Habitat, as well as multiple city networks and international consultancy firms.
Defenders of this approach argue that hybrid governance is an opportunity for building local capacity. Uniting private consultants and public institutions, it makes it possible to combine funding and expertise from the public and private sectors. Proponents of hybrid governance contend that climate change and other risks must be addressed at a global scale by constructing international coalitions guided by consensus towards common objectives. For them, international consultants and agencies are not only needed to fill gaps in municipal expertise, but also to broaden participation and contribute to a more inclusive co-governance approach to global issues. Hybrid governance facilitates public awareness, reinforces relationships between cities, contributes to city-to-city and government-to-industry knowledge transfer, and provides a platform for promoting successful policy experiments. Besides, proponents argue, transnational actors help build a common language and identify comparative indicators. 
Not everyone is convinced, though. Many experts have raised ethical questions about the legitimacy and transparency of a form of global governance that depends on private, non-elected, international organizations that are not directly accountable to voters or taxpayers. For them, the delegation of policy design to consultants and non-government agencies reinforces neoliberal practices. Critics argue that agencies and consultants may pursue their own agendas without sufficiently adapting initiatives to the specific conditions of each context. They claim that philanthropists, think-tanks, and agencies are increasingly orchestrating* climate action in a way that protects private interests and fails to respond to the real needs and expectations of the most vulnerable. This orchestration often leads to “green-washing” and adaptation initiatives that may comply with international sustainability or investment standards, but often result in overlooked secondary effects. Others question the effective impact of orchestration and the ethical consequences of implementing foreign concepts. They argue that consulting services are often limited in time (with their contracts typically ending with the delivery of reports, guidelines, pathways, roadmaps, and checklists) and rarely include disciplined, long-term implementation, monitoring, or follow-up. These limitations ultimately foster cities’ ongoing dependence on external expertise. Finally, others contend that even when changes are made within municipalities (often in the form of new climate or disaster-risk departments or units), these structures quickly become empty shells, deprived of expertise, resources, or administrative mechanisms to implement change in the long term.
For this debate, we have invited two internationally recognized experts on urban sustainability and development to defend each viewpoint. Our panelists will present their most persuasive arguments over the next seven days, but the outcome of the debate rests in your hands. Don’t hesitate to vote immediately—you can always change your mind. Better yet, once you have cast your vote, add your voice to the debate and explain your decision.
* Orchestration here refers to a mode of indirect governance whereby an institution attempts to influence a target population through intermediaries using non-coercive means (Abbott & al., 2015, 2020; Gordon & Johnson, 2017).
Lorenzo Chelleri argues that international agencies, consultants, and other “orchestrators” truly help cities reduce climate-related risks.
Dr. Lorenzo Chelleri is the Director of the international Master’s program in City Resilience Design and Management and Chair of the Urban Resilience research Network (URNet) at the International University of Catalonia (UIC). With a background in urban and regional planning, environmental policy and urban geography, his research and teaching activities critically address the governance and planning processes related to city resilience governance. Interested in the complex relationship between urban resilience and sustainability, he is particularly concerned about the nowadays normative application of resilience in cities, and the emergence of unaccounted trade-offs among social, environmental or spatial and temporal aspects of urban resilience. Lorenzo has been working for the European Environment Agency (EEA), and has conducted research in Mexico, Bolivia, Morocco, Europe, and Asia.
Craig Johnson argues that international agencies, consultants, and other “orchestrators” are not truly helping cities reduce climate-related risks.
Dr. Craig Johnson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Guelph where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in environmental politics, sustainable development, humanitarian policy, and global environmental regimes. His research lies in the field of global environmental governance, focusing primarily on the role of cities and transnational city-networks in reducing the worlds global carbon footprint. Craig is author of The Power of Cities in Global Climate Politics (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2018) and Arresting Development: The Power of Knowledge for Social Change (Routledge, 2009). He is also a Senior Fellow with the Global Cities Institute at the University of Toronto, and has taught at the London School of Economics, the School of Oriental and African Studies, University College London and the University of Oxford.
The proposer’s opening remarks
I’d like to share with you, by reflecting on my own career path, how and why my response to this debate on the efficacy of orchestrators changed throughout the years from being a “not at all” to an “of course they help.”
When I started my PhD, I was so skeptical about resilience that I co-founded a network that challenged its usefulness along with some colleagues who shared similar concerns. We felt that orchestrators’ grand statements about “building resilient cities” were often facades to cover up large urban infrastructure initiatives. In addition, we called out their “business-as-usual” agendas for inducing and perpetuating “green or climate gentrification.” I recall our first paper stating that “resilience is not a normative positive concept” as well as my blog posts on the fallacy of urban resilience. Our research was based on several cases of resilience, including the evidence of desalination plants reducing drought risks while increasing energy consumption (the rising water tariff and how it pollutes the environment); the massive solar power plants built in arid regions in need of water; the costly reconstruction of a safer, flood-proof New Orleans while displacing vulnerable populations; the contested green (climate) belt in Medellín, and many other examples of climate and green gentrification in the Global North.
While I was writing these articles on resilience and risk trade-offs, I started to get more in touch with many of the “orchestrators” who I had previously criticized. I saw valuable reports, useful tools, and thoughtful recommendations, and also critical thoughts, all of which had required many hours of hard work, being abandoned on politicians’ desks. Thereafter, I realized the complexity behind the implementation of these recommendations. For example, many colleagues working with city councils experienced backlash for unsuccessfully lobbying politicians to consider climate change or sustainability within their projects. The more I was advancing in my career, the more I was asking myself, “Who is responsible for not hearing the thousands of IPCC scientists’ recommendations?” I was slowly realizing that many of these reports, guidelines, tools, and frameworks developed by “the orchestrators” were almost always welcomed within policy statements, but were ultimately being rejected by policy makers whenever the time came to implement them.
At this point, a key point became clear to me: I began to see the increased critical mass of people fighting for resilience and DRR (respect to the powerful few who did not listen). I realized that if we witness green-washing, we cannot blame the concept of sustainability, nor those who advocate for it. If we have “safety-washing,” then resilience is not responsible for it. While realizing that bad implementations can turn a well-intentioned concept into deception, and that the whole process is about how stakeholders behave and their (lack of) due diligence, I started to understand and value the hard work of consultants, associations, and city networks in their advocacy for best practices good.
Thus, I invite you to take a closer look with me at the work of these so-called “orchestrators”. Consider how thousands of small cities benefited from designed plans of adaptation thanks to the support and commitment of their mayors, who overcame the inefficiency and blindness of their provincial, regional, or national governments. Think about how many cities and practitioners benefited from having their best practices and initiatives amplified, and thus gained the opportunity to learn from each other, taking part in these organizations’ events and peer-learning programs. Finally, I ask you to reflect on how many professionals, students, politicians, and activists are stepping forward to advocate for resilience and DRR thanks to the work of these orchestrators. In brief, during my career I have witnessed both how and why orchestrators “truly help” those who ask for advice, and are truly interested in reducing risks.
The opposition’s opening remarks
In a world of “fragmented” global governance, municipalities and transnational city-networks are often portrayed as “saviours,” whose proximity to urban populations and responsibility for providing essential urban services make them particularly well-suited for representing communities whose needs are either lost or ignored in the high politics of nation-states. However, the notion that international agencies, paid consultants and other policy orchestrators will help to reduce the climate-related risks of vulnerable urban populations implies that they have an interest in doing so. Focussing primarily on the role of climate consultants and city-networks, I make the case that transnational efforts to reduce urban climate risk are biased in favour of protecting the assets and interests of relatively affluent cities and urban elites.
Before proceeding, it is important to recognize that not all city-networks are created equal. At one end of the spectrum are the “donor-driven” models that bring cities and city-networks together through time-bound payments that are tied to a single set of programmatic goals. One glaring example of this is the now-defunct 100 Resilient Cities program, which was funded and subsequently scrapped by the Rockefeller Foundation in 2019. At the other end are decentralized networks, like ICLEI and UCLG, whose climate adaptation programming is part of a much larger and longer-standing history of grassroots collaboration. A third – and for our purposes – dominant form of city-network governance is the corporate network model, whose connections to global finance and investment make them far more visible and influential in international climate policy networks.
Arguably, one of the most ambitious examples of corporate city-network governance is the C40 whose collaborations with the international consulting firm, ARUP, have resulted in a large number of policy recommendations and reports ostensibly designed to build urban resilience to climate change. Funded by the American billionaire, Michael Bloomberg, the network claims to represent the interests of “nearly 100 world-leading cities collaborating to deliver the urgent action needed right now to confront the climate crisis.”
Broadly speaking, three major concerns can be raised about this model of urban climate governance.
First, the “problems” that networks like ARUP and the C40 are trying to resolve are geared primarily towards relatively affluent cities, whose populations are arguably unrepresentative of the larger number of secondary and low-income cities facing wide-ranging vulnerabilities to climate change. Second, the “solutions” being offered (or sold) entail costly investments (e.g., “sophisticated” flood modelling systems and large-scale rainwater retention tanks) that exceed the financial and political capacity of many municipalities. Third, there is a noticeable lack of attention to policies that may be used to address the factors causing systemic vulnerability, including land rights, labour rights, affordable housing, domestic violence, and systemic racism.
What this means in practice is that corporate city-networks are primarily working with mayors, city officials, and teams of paid consultants to develop plans, metrics, and other networks for reducing risk and exposure to extreme climatic events. What it frequently doesn’t mean is working directly and collaboratively with vulnerable populations whose access to affordable housing, living wages, clean water, food security, and other essential urban services remains limited.
The proposer’s rebuttal remarks
I could agree with Craig regarding his overall criticism of the potential bias of donor-driven or corporate city networks, of the lack of consideration given to systemic vulnerability, or of the priority given to the protection of assets over investments in retrofitting the houses of the urban poor. However, I see two gaps in these arguments, which can lead to problematic generalizations.
First, I will address the lack of specificity at the foundation of Craig’s points. On the one hand, if big engineering firms like ARUP, EACOM, among others, are looking for profits, or the Rockefeller Foundation has started to build a group of “lighthouse cities” to launch its program, it is natural to expect outcomes betting on technology and infrastructure’s short-term gains, not addressing structural vulnerabilities. On the other hand, looking to the C40 or 100 Resilient Cities program initiatives to construct an entire critique of the orchestrator’s bias means keeping a very narrow perspective on the topic — looking only at a small sample within a big, complex picture. Indeed, within orchestrators, other big players like ICLEI (and many others) work with small towns and cities to coordinate volunteer-based events, like debates and tutoring sessions, which can serve the purpose of knowledge dissemination and peer collaboration. In these cases, I see substantial value in those orchestrators. Raising awareness about climate risks and providing tools for helping cities in moving forward, goes beyond the big engineering firms’ fixes.
This leads me to the second gap, which pertains to the central topic of this discussion: that is climate risks versus structural vulnerability, justice, and sustainability. I certainly agree with Craig’s point that few investments are prioritizing vulnerable populations. In a highly unsustainable world with increasing inequality, these behaviours and outcomes are to be expected. But the questions posed here are not “do orchestrators truly support cities in addressing social vulnerability to climate change?” or “do orchestrators truly drive climate actions toward social justice?” Even if these were the questions at stake, I would respond “NO” at a first glance. However, upon more reflection, I would say that even the C40 and 100 Resilient Cities program have been promoting a massive debate around climate resilience, equity, and justice.
Nowadays, compared to ten years ago, there is an incredible amount of knowledge and capacity building in place, which puts people at the centre of initiatives. On top of this, notwithstanding the 100 Resilient Cities and ARUP did engage mainly with certain big cities at the beginning, the proposed ARUP’s City Resilience Framework used within their program is noteworthy because it is free to the public since its launch. Dozens of cities not awarded to enter the 100 Resilient Cities program could have anyway started to build a resilience strategy using (or getting inspired by) the reports, tools and templates which were freely available within ARUP website. All this work with hundred cities led after six years to the formation of a new network of cities that does not rely on any donor-based mechanisms, and it is now widening its membership to allow any city to do resilience “their way,” sharing tools and knowledge.
This means leaving behind short-term or donor-driven networks and trying to offer to any city the opportunity (and resources) to start doing resilience its way (thus addressing structural vulnerabilities, or the risks that each city is interested to address). In short, this means that the responsibility of truly addressing vulnerability is now in the hands of cities, not the orchestrators. The orchestrators offer a variety of truly supporting mechanisms to reduce risks — from investments- to social impact-driven tools, to ecosystems’ health and services-driven instruments — depending on who is part and identified as one of the hundred players of “the orchestrators.”
The opposition’s rebuttal remarks
Thank you for sharing these important points. I agree that many cities and city-networks are doing excellent work to raise awareness, build capacity, share knowledge, and mobilize action on urban vulnerability, DRR and climate change. My comments on the C40 are meant to highlight the new forms of corporate power that are currently shaping the contemporary landscape of urban climate governance.
Strictly speaking, orchestration is a theory which aims to understand the organization and projection of power at a global scale. In my article with Dave Gordon, we argue that city-network orchestration reflects both the proliferation of “sub-“ and “non-state actors” and the fragmentation of traditional multilateral governance institutions. Particularly important in this regard is what we call “emergent orchestration,” which describes the growing influence of industry standards, metrics, and performance indicators in ranking and comparing cities.
Being “seen” by investors, businesses, employers, and bond rating agencies matters because it provides a means of managing, comparing – and orchestrating – the perceptions of risk, urban policy narratives (e.g., “liveability”), and capital flows that are so important to improving the health, wealth, and wellbeing of cities. In an age of acting locally and thinking globally on climate change, effective policies for reducing urban emissions and improving ambient air quality provide important metrics that connect cities to private and multilateral investment platforms like the Cities Climate Finance Alliance or the World Bank’s City Creditworthiness Initiative.
So, the question remains: do transnational networks and management consultants make cities less vulnerable to climate risk?
To answer this question, it’s important to look at the relationship between management consulting and transnational city-networks. Broadly speaking, management consulting implies a wide range of professional services whose principal aim is to help public, private, and nonprofit institutions achieve their core goals and objectives. In the words of the American consulting firm, Bain and Company, it is about replacing visions and dreams with real “facts and common sense.”
However, one of the criticisms about hiring management consultants to develop urban climate governance plans is that it prioritizes large and valuable assets (e.g., formal housing, large businesses, and infrastructure) over reducing the chronic risks and vulnerabilities of marginal urban populations. Part of this reflects the challenge of collecting accurate and timely data. But it also reflects the limitations of making and managing DRR priorities through a management consulting lens.
Take, for instance, the Global Covenant of Mayors. This is a city-network that is much larger and more diverse than the C40. However, like the C40, it has worked closely with ARUP (and with the C40, in fact) to develop its Climate Risk and Adaptation Framework and Taxonomy or CRAFT which “enables cities to perform robust and consistent reporting of local climate hazards and impacts.” In one sense, the taxonomy offers an important benchmark that city planners and officials can use to reduce urban climate risk. In another, it provides a metric that banks, businesses, and bond rating agencies can use to assess the financial risk of insuring or investing in cities with “similar hazard risk profiles.”
Like any information technology, risk assessment platforms such as CRAFT create new systems, cultures, and capabilities whose applications are difficult to predict and/or control. However, adopting a management consulting approach has implications for democratic and civic engagement which I will address in my final round of concluding remarks.
The proposer’s closing remarks
I see the points that you’ve raised, Craig. Thank you for sharing all these insights, as they highlight how important it is to keep a critical lens on what is happening within big consultancy firms. It’s especially important to observe how these firms’ reports and tools ground a metrics-based understanding of driving investments following only certain needs. I do agree with you on the potential danger of such influences. If I’m making recommendations for measuring resilience, then I’m pointing out which aspects should be targeted (such as investments and improvements), and which ones should be neglected. This is a key point that we should all keep in critical focus when considering this debate over the role of orchestrators.
While I would encourage such a critical perspective, and have in fact worked continuously on this approach, I would also like to share a broader view on how we perceive the power and influence that “orchestrators” wield in cities. Perhaps the amount of influence is smaller than we think, and if so, this could help us understand how much these stakeholders support each other.
Looking at the scientific literature, one can find dozens of assessments and evaluations of different networks’ tools and programs (i.e., on the roles of ICLEI acting as a connector, mediator, translator, and educator, or on the impact of the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities program, and how far justice was embedded in the resilience in this program). This literature includes a three-year, in-depth research project on climate resilience city networks, in which I had the pleasure to participate. We reviewed networks, associations, and initiatives (Compact of mayors, ICLEOI, Climate Alliance, UNISDR, 100 Resilient Cities, Energy Cities, C40, and EUROCITIES, among others). After conducting many interviews to understand how knowledge transfer and learning nourished those initiatives, we recently published a synthesis of our findings in a paper titled “City-to-city learning within climate city networks: definition, significance, and challenges from a global perspective.
In the paper, we unveiled that within these networks, the “lighthouse cities” (or “frontrunner” cities — the ones usually working with the big firms from Craig’s remarks) are supposed to provide solutions and examples for other cities to follow. In fact, this is usually a mere façade. It is difficult to follow those examples. As you were explaining, Craig, there are big groups that are lobbying to standardize how to implement DRR and climate resilience, usually working with large cities. Indeed, beyond CRAFT, there are also many ISO standards for sustainability, and now there is even a Resilient cities ISO. However, we found that when you talk to small cities, towns, or even to the big but “follower cities,” they will generally admit that the final aim of their involvement in the “orchestrators’” activities is simply networking. That’s it. Networking with other practitioners means that they share their mistakes and tips on how to lobby for objectives — all the things that you don’t see within the workshops’ programs, tools, or frameworks, showing mainly best practices. This focus on networking is present even in the 100 Resilient cities framework, whose top-down approach most likely represents the logic you described, Craig. When you look to the cities themselves and talk to them, they will probably adapt and employ their own interests, projects, and local lobbies, and not those from the big orchestrators’ recommendations.
Thus, here is my final word in defence of the YES. On the one hand, these top-down “lobbies” are pushing hard to drive implementations in cities, but the ultimate decision on what will be done will depend on the cities themselves. On the other hand, even if Craig’s points on these lobbies are correct, there are also dozens of other networks, consultants, and organizations working closely with cities on sustainable, community driven, justice-oriented climate resilience : for example, Municipalities in Transition, ECOLISE, and many others. Therefore, the orchestrators represent a variety of profiles and perspectives, and they can truly help cities if cities wish to work with them. Exactly how each city will lead this process is not necessarily a part of this debate in my view. In fact, what is most interesting to examine is who is driving the risk reduction initiatives and in what direction.
The opposition’s closing remarks
Lorenzo makes some excellent points about the role that decentralized networks like ICLEI and UCLG can play in building capacity, disseminating knowledge, and fostering collaboration among cities and municipalities. However, to suggest that the Rockefeller Foundation and C40 are a “small sample within a big, complex picture” understates the significant degree to which corporate-city networks are now shaping the agendas of many cities and other city-networks. ICLEI, for instance, collaborates extensively with the C40 – particularly on its community-based protocol for measuring and reducing GHGs. Although synergies can certainly be gained by entering and promoting collaborations of this kind, the fact remains that ICLEI has long struggled to secure stable financing, and this is why it needs to collaborate with corporate networks like the C40.
This takes me to Lorenzo’s second point about risk and vulnerability. Although I agree that the central focus of our debate is about international organizations, consultants, and orchestrators reducing the risk of climate change, I disagree that risk and vulnerability can or should be separated so easily. First, risk and vulnerability are by no means separate categories but rather inter-related processes whose impacts reflect the historical legacy of past decisions, actions, and non-decisions. Second, reducing risk often creates new vulnerabilities especially when it introduces infrastructures and technologies that dispossess people of their homes, livelihoods, and ways of living. Third, and related, the risk of losing one’s home, livelihood, or life to heatwaves, windstorms or floods is never evenly distributed, reflecting the social and political processes that create and sustain structural patterns of vulnerability.
Which brings us to the question of social justice. As Gonzalo points out in his opening remarks, corporate city-networks can be criticized for promoting solutions “that are not directly accountable to voters or taxpayers.” Lorenzo responds that city-networks like the C40 and 100 Resilient Cities are in fact working to promote new debates about climate resilience, equity, and justice. However, the plans that are promoted – and sometimes adopted – by city leaders and municipalities are often biased in favour of protecting those with wealth and power. Indeed, a recent study of 43 cities by Patricia Romero-Lankao and Daniel Gnatz found that C40 adaptation plans tend to prioritize “techno-infrastructural and economic investments” at the expense of food insecurity, energy poverty, and water scarcity.
Analytically, the recognition that city-network governance is contingent upon the power and wealth of corporations, consultants, and their benefactors draws our attention to the productive forces that are now driving the political economy of labour, capital, and accumulation at the urban scale. In the context of climate change, it also raises questions about the extent to which cities are able to act effectively or autonomously in the absence of private orchestrators, such as Bloomberg, the C40 and ARUP. In contrast to the participatory models that have been adopted by decentralized city-networks, corporate city-networks and consultants work in a policy vacuum that understates or ignores the wider forces (e.g., spiraling land values, inadequate housing, and precarious work) that are driving urban vulnerability and inequality. The implication is that corporate city climate solutions offer plans for measuring and improving urban services without addressing the systemic factors that perpetuate vulnerability to climate change.
The moderator’s closing remarks
The efficacy and moral value of “orchestrating” disaster risk reduction in times of global warming
International agencies, consultants, and other “orchestrators” are increasingly having an influence on climate action, disaster risk reduction, and urban policy. But their influence is constrained by both inefficiencies and fragile ethical frameworks. Are orchestrators part of the problem or part of the solution?
Our 11th online debate has certainly divided voters and participants. A slight majority (about 52%) believe that “orchestrators” of urban policy are helping cities reduce climate-related risks. During the 10 days of the debate, they found several advantages in hybrid forms of governance and networking that combine local governments and international stakeholders. Participants also highlighted several drawbacks and unresolved issues, which can be classified under two themes: inefficacy in implementation and ethical considerations. 
At a time when we need to “think globally and act locally,” our participants see hybrid forms of governance as crucial strategies to deal with global problems while responding to the needs and expectations of local citizens and social groups. For Lorenzo Chelleri and many others, international agencies, consultants, and other orchestrators provide tools and spaces for positive change. They give opportunities to municipal governments to network, share experiences, learn, and disseminate results. By creating instruments and spaces for debate and engagement, international stakeholders provide an alternative to national programs and to the (frequent) inaction of politicians and agencies within central governments. Orchestrators connect ideas, metrics, and tools in ways that can potentially impact local policy. In addition, transnational actors help build a common language and identify comparative indicators. It is only when cities have the capacity to understand, measure, and compare conditions that they are able to implement change. 
It’s important to note that even defenders of these hybrid forms of political influence find it difficult to implement change, convince elected officers, and mobilize resources toward risk reduction for the most vulnerable. Reducing structural vulnerabilities is challenging even for powerful alliances and city networks. Oftentimes, orchestrators cannot (or prefer not to) influence the entire process, from diagnosis and policy drafting to implementation, monitoring, and evaluation.
For Craig Johnson as well as many other critics in the field, the problem does not lie so much in the inefficiency of this form of agency but in its moral value. For them, orchestrators’ instruments and spaces for change are not morally impartial tools. Instead, they find that hybrid forms of governance suffer from a series of “pathologies.” While they agree that cities, especially small ones, can benefit from external help to tackle the challenges of climate change (and the innovations they require), they do not by the same token believe that the contribution offered by international agencies and consultants is risk-free. The instruments created and promoted during orchestration (including metrics, certifications, evaluation techniques, etc.) are conditioned to implement a certain vision of resilience, sustainability, adaptation, risk reduction, and ultimately, progress. They are also based on notions from other global contexts, which are not always adapted to local conditions. As orchestrators grow in power and influence, there is less space for municipalities (particularly small ones) to challenge their narratives, concepts, language, and tools. Local ways of doing things are thus delegitimized in the process.
A risk also arises where cities might use orchestrators to develop short-term solutions rather than address structural vulnerabilities through more complex policy measures. Whereas defenders praise the development of frameworks, guidelines, pathways, and other policy instruments, critics are wary of the consequences of manipulating action, concentrating power, and controlling the climate and risk reduction discourse.
For many, there are also conflicts of interest. Research on resilience and the development of tools and metrics is fueled by the same companies that “sell” resilience plans and consulting services. Some may find themselves wondering: Are international orchestrators contributing to local capacity building or simply creating new forms of economic and political dependency? Craig concludes that “the recognition that city-network governance is contingent upon the power and wealth of corporations, consultants; and their benefactors draw our attention to the productive forces that are now driving the political economy of labor, capital, and accumulation at the urban scale.”
Ultimately, this debate over the role of orchestrators raises a key question: Why do cities lack the in-house resources and skills required for disaster risk reduction? In many cities, internal services have been dismantled or reduced to a minimum by neoliberal policies based on austerity measures and downsizing. Cities are therefore increasingly forced to contract external experts. Having insufficient power and agency, they have come together to make themselves heard on a global scale, seeking a space beyond the control of states and provinces.
I am not sure whether the results of this debate mean that participants believe orchestrators’ agency can (or should) be improved. This is perhaps a question for a future debate. But we do know that there are various forms of “orchestrator networks.” Given this diversity, some network models may already be more suited than others to help cities build their adaptive capacities as well as to help them reduce structural vulnerabilities. Perhaps some orchestrator networks and tools should be redesigned to help cities address structural vulnerabilities. Finally, structural vulnerabilities — most participants might argue — can only be resolved through the interaction of citizens, civil society, cities, governments, and international stakeholders.
We have witnessed a fascinating analysis of the benefits and drawbacks of current forms of city governance. Panelists and participants have guided us to more than 20 pertinent references (scientific articles, reports, and websites) that can inform this important debate.
The public’s opinion on the role of orchestrators has changed over the past two weeks. At first, 60% of participants were convinced that the actions of orchestrators do not help cities reduce climate-related risks (the “No”). After a few days, though, the “Yes” won with 52% of votes.
Like our previous debates, this one proved to be popular. The debate received over 113 votes and 34 comments. Our webpage was visited over 1,600 times by almost 570 people from 49 countries.
Thank you to Ilan, Haleh, Margot, Maria, Steffen, Lisa, Jorge, Muhammad, Peni, and everyone else who participated for sharing their comments and pertinent ideas. Thanks again to our panelists, Lorenzo, and Craig, for their amazing contributions. And a special thanks to Mauro for coordinating the event!
I hope to see you all at our next online debate in November 2022.