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.

35 thoughts on “current debate

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

    My answer to this political question is simple.

    Yes, absolutely!

    I would like to think they really do.

    International agencies, consultants, and other Orchestrator truly help my cities reducing our risks to be affected by climate change and/or disasters caused by natural hazards. At least, better than the alternative of nothing.

    And that’s why we sided and patronage’s Dr. Katharine Rietig for three reasons:

    1) Because we are sitting in the most vulnerable and at-risk region of the world to be affected by climate change and/or disasters caused by natural hazards, we have experienced the devastating effects of climate change throughout the year since our childhood;

    2) We already contributed to the building of a Resilient Tonga policy to be achieved by 2035 since this is 2021, as a result, we also contributed to the building of a Resilient Pacific Islanders, and thus globally, to the building of Resilience (CCA & DRR) Planet by 2030 and beyond;

    3) Since we are dealing with these issues in our everyday life, our experiences may differ significantly from others who are not in the most at-risk region of the world.

    So for me personally, I completely agreed that we as Orchestrators are orchestrated climate change in the right direction, at least for now.

    For example, as a resident of the country second to the most at-risk nation in the world affected by climate change and hazards in the world, not only that some of our people have to deal with living in the middle of the sea and/or coastal areas, but also we learn ourselves on how to be dealing with the impacts of:

    1) sea-level rise;
    2) temperature changes;
    3) drought;
    4) heavy rainfall;
    5) flooding;
    6) cyclones;
    7) tsunamis;
    8) earthquakes;
    9) Ocean Acidification; and
    10) others;


    Even People Living With Disability (PLWD) in our country knows too how to adapt to climate change.

    In my country, we do a lot of adaption work to reduce our risks, they may include but are not limited to:

    1) reforestation initiatives programs (e.g., mangroves);
    2) planned to be 100% Renewable Energy by 2050 and beyond;
    3) building a sustainable and resilient coastal management infrastructure and others;
    4) currently working on our Resilient Tonga climate change policy to be achieved by 2035 and beyond;
    5) we have a portfolio for climate change at the Ministerial level;
    6) we, also, have ocean adaptation programs (e.g., SMA);
    7) Tonga already implemented its 72 Hours program interalia in responding to disasters;
    7) but most importantly, we also, addressed the religious aspect of climate change in the sense that we are a Christian State.

    So, from the perspective of a person living in the least developed nation very vulnerable to be affected by poverty because of climate change, yes it does. As you can see, the Orchestrator in my country are not only doing good for the livelihoods, health and well-being of our people but they are helping to build a Resilient Tonga, Resilient Pacific Islanders and Resilient Planet Earth post-SDGs or by 2030.

    We want to live a sustainable and resilient life because if not, we will be destroyed by climate change.

    Also, as Christian, we believed that only our Christian God (e.g., Jesus) can reverse the impacts of climate change on Tonga and the world. We believed in Him because He already did it before and that’s why everyone is praying and fasting for Him to have mercy again and save us from this killing machine.

    Unfortunately, these very perceptions may differ significantly from those who lived luxuriously, coming from a non-Christian State or Secularism, and intriguingly no experience of climate change or any effects from any hazards.

    In Tonga, we called these conceptualities: “Takanga ‘Etau Fohe” meaning “Working Together in Unison”. As Orchestrator, that’s what we need is to work together as one. In order to reduce climate-related risks locally, regionally, internationally, we need to increase our Resilience capacity and always be ready all the time in order to reduce our risks. This Tongan concept originated from our Churches in Tonga especially in our tithe offering and others but this relationship is under research in Tonga and more widely.

    And because of this deficiency in research in this area on climate change and religion, this prompts me to explore further the linkages between climate change and religion. To me as a training Pastor, we cannot separate the care for a person to exclude spiritual well-being care. That’s why we need to think like a Pastor in Tonga or at least spiritually in some sense.

    Anyways, my research on climate change and religion have shown that this part is missing from the equation of Resilience and adaptation. Because climate change perceived to be sent by God for punishment and buffering, we need to look at it too, from a spirituality perspective. And I know, technically, most people may disparate, but this is true in the sense that if we treated it as a “spirit” being and in spiritual well-being, then we must look at it physically, mentally and spiritually in the image of a person. This dimension is missing in our adaptation approach!

    If this hypothesis is accepted, then we have spent most of our work globally at the physical and mental state of our adaptation. We missed the most important part of adaptation: the God factor. Because we are ignoring this part of the equation to the problems, it is very challenging to heal a person without a spiritual adaptation. The world needs spiritual adaptation too in order to reverse these impacts of climate change.

    So, as an Orchestrator who fixed our cities and helps to reduce climate-related risks, we need to call our global partners to factor in religion too. Spiritual adaptation is vital and therefore it should be considered in Resilience and all our global agenda and adaptation work.

    Please, help me! I would love to hear what you thought of my contributions to this debate. I can be reached at any time at

    Orchestrators truly help my cities reduce climate-related risks

  2. According to a report1 by the International Energy Agency , more than 70% of the world’s population shall be living in cities by 2050 which will test the capacity of countries to adopt sustainable measures in their urban expansion.

    In such efforts, the hybrid governance which calls for collaboration of state and non state actors with the assistance of later in the form of financial help and the technical expertise. Also, much is expected from the global non state actors to guide developing world with the coherent policy in their efforts towards sustainable future.

    The concept of governance is about how individuals and institutions act in the ways in which they manage their common affairs. While global environmental governance is the intersection of global governance with the environmental affairs. Surprisingly, this field is fragmented and it explains the apparent incongruence between a growing environmental crisis in the face of unprecedented degrees of international coordination, regulation and technical advance. For example the sustainable development goals and the nationally determined contributions are the targets expected to be met by countries. To meet these target, there is a lack of localized policy and planning emanating from the global level policy arenas which could guides the developing countries. Also, challenges faced by these countries are unique and different linked with their economy, geographic location, demographics, socio cultural status and political economy

    There are numerous examples of agencies and consultants not achieving true essence of build back better or constructing sustainable neighborhoods either due to meeting exigencies of time, excessive political involvement and their inability to engage local communities in the process. However, the role of agencies/ orchestrators cannot be ignored as they occupy positions of power and influence over strategic decisions of many governments through campaign promotion as well as research, advisory, and consulting services. Here, assuming a near perfect role of these orchestrators. their capability to “TRULY” helps cities reduce climate related risks depends on which state they are engaged with? This is primarily because urban’ governance of climate protection lies with the government, which has systems to make rules and coercive power to back them up. The manner in which policies are created and coordinated at different levels of governance varies with the type of Government in different countries. In addition, there are inherent institutional barriers which come in the path of cities to reduce climate risks.

    Another key factor which assists orchestrators to truly support their efforts in making cities sustainable is the will/ commitment of the Government. The Indian Government initiated the UJALA & Street Lighting National Programme2 under which 10 million smart LED streetlights were installed resulting in energy savings of 6.97 billion kWh per year and an estimated greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction of 4.80 million tCO2 annually. Although it was the government administered initiative, it could have brought better results if international agencies contributed through more advanced technologies in this endeavour.

    The orchestrators are there to help through financial, policy and technical support but these efforts are likely to go in vain in the presence of discussed barriers inherent in many countries specifically the developing world. Due to these facts and the limitations of orchestrators, the position of word “TRULY” in the debate is not rightly placed.


  3. Dr. Kelman, I have read most of your work and the shared article is helpful in understanding how various aspects shape the vulnerability of communities such as demographic characteristics and cultural entanglements, also crucial to design and plan sustainable and resilient cities.

    To better comprehend that how cities become resilient, and the responses expected from them, the CITY RESILIENCE INDEX is already in place(1). This index covers topics such as housing, infrastructure and energy, water supply, drainage, health, business of communities, disaster management, transport, and urban planning. The larger issues are related to the barriers which hinder the cities to reduce their climate related risks. So, in my view, the word TRULY in the statement of debate depends on capability of a city to overcome the barriers upon which the role of international agencies, consultants and other orchestrators also depends. This debate would be more meaningful and bring more tangible policy outcomes if we discuss why barriers exist and manifest in different forms and how they should be categorized.

    The barriers to adaptation to the climate related risks in cities are related to institutional inefficiencies, political preferences, governance barriers, financial constraints (2). The systematic structural issues restrict the majority of world’s population and deprive them of their right to make decisions of their own. While there is categorization of barriers but these barriers do not have defined boundaries which collectively impact the role of international agencies/ consultants to make their efforts forward. Also, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, probably because of the multiple and context-specific origins of barriers present in different forms of governance procedures defined by different countries.

    2 DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2350

  4. The role of International organizations, agencies and consultants cannot be ignored in the rehabilitation after disasters and sustainable development of cities. They have ambitious goals but they have moderate governance capacity. Similarly, orchestrators seek to mobilize other non state actors and trans governmental networks.

    Within the domain of global Climate Governance, the biggest dilemma is the absence of GOVERNANCE architecture which is more inclined towards the notion of a “regime complex for climate change. For Example, the Nationally determined Contributions (NDC)agreed by nations of the world to commit to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. But there is no mechanism which ensures the applicability of committed actions by the nations, rather the applicability of NDC’s is left at the behest of individual nations. In addition the non state actors are assumed to take up the role of global watch dog in the aftermath of Paris Agreement. Similarly energy production , the usage, and consumption of energy is a huge sector which has to decide the efforts of countries towards climate resilient cities. Unfortunately, the Global Energy governance at the global level is also fragmented. If one sees literature, he would find that global energy governance organizations were setup to secure the interests of those nations which established them. Their interest mainly revolved around energy supply, energy production at home and also defined investments trends in less developed countries who banked on technology and finance from the developed countries. Similar dichotomy is present in the agenda of many multinational and intergovernmental stakeholders which is best explained by the zero sum game when only one entity benefits from the vulnerability of the other. Furthermore, while the orchestrators such as UNFCC seek to identify and engage the intermediaries whose goals align with that of orchestrators such as environmental NGOs, business, indigenous people, women, trade unions, local governments, science and technology communities, there is possible conflict as some non-state actors seek to roll back regulations for their own benefits. Also, some non-state actors prefer to seek insider status while others demand radical, systemic change in the host governments.

    I would like to conclude here that amid numerous issues at the national level and the global level vis a vis implementation of climate change agenda in cities , there is horizontal fragmentation in the institutional interplay of institutions at the global level. But the cities are more vulnerable because of the lack of interplay between the climate governance at the global level and the national level specifically in the context of developing countries. This area demands more action to uplift the developing countries through their capacity building in policy formulation and implementation of projects aligned with UN’s sustainable development goals.

  5. Welcome to our new online debate on “orchestration” of urban policy aimed at reducing risk and climate change effects!

    1. Dear Gonzalo
      First of all, I consider that we need to separate the process from the outcomes. So if the question is related to the process, my answer is “yes”, but if the question is geared towards the outcomes then I would rather consider that at the moment is a “no”.

      Achieving the outcomes is beyond the capacities of “international orchestrators”, reducing climate-related risks at any city is tied to local capacities and political decisions taken also at the local level.

      I would suggest considering the process as a long-term planning that embraces the following:

      a.- Raising Public Awareness
      b.- Fostering Stakeholders Engagement
      c.- Promote Agreements and Partnerships for project implementation
      d.- Develop Capacity Building programs that connect sicence-based evidence with decision-making
      e.- Implement Pilot-Testing Projects
      f.- Build a robust Monitoring & Evaluation & Learning Institution to manage data, technology and local know-how
      g.- Embed Change Management within Government Institutions at all levels
      h.- Lead Political Advocacy and Committments in the long-term (beyond government periods)

      International orchestrators hardly embrace all these topics, they would rather focus on one or two of these, that´s one of the reasons for not being able to get expected targets (climate risk reduction)


      PhD Jorge Diaz

  6. Thank you @mharis1234, Ilan and Peni for your thoughts. This starts with an interesting controversy about the very notion of cities. This discussion should perhaps also invite us to make explicit the notion of city governance.

  7. Hello everyone,
    The opening remarks have just been posted—read the arguments proposed by the panelists!
    What do you think? You are all invited to participate in the debate by posting comments and voting on the motion!

  8. I firmly support the statement that cities are deliberately targeted to server only those rich who are trying to save there investments. When we consider climate change as an global challenge its resolution must be having equal emphasis on all cities both urban and rural. The clear differentiation done in leveraging funding and support to only select few cities won’t work. A whole if society approach means all existing inequalities, vulnerabilities, injustice needs an holistic resolution. Considering the number of people living in cities as well as its contribution in terms of financial growth is purforth as an strong argument but in process we are forgetting the subordinate cities that provides mega cities the crucial support in its smooth running. There needs to be an equity in our actions not just favouring some and neglecting any other. Global organizations, consultants and targeted actions are concentrated on select few cities but in process we are not addressing the key challenge as its the local actions at all levels that are the main stay of these processes. Without local citizens participation nothing can happen and that needs an holistic approach with due consideration of local aspirations and ambitious. Involving every city with its existing risk assessment as well as mutual partnership and Cooperation among all could only the way forward.

  9. I find it interesting that Lorenzo argues that “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.” Is the DRR problem related to the role of orchestrators or to the lack of implementation? if the latter, are orchestrators part of the problem or part of the solution?

  10. There is a statement in the moderator’s opening remarks I would like to pick up on, even though it is not directly linked to the debate’s central question of whether “orchestrators” truly help cities reduce climate risks, namely: “[…] proponents argue, transnational actors help build a common language and identify comparative indicators.”

    This implies that transnational actors steer the definition of this common language and standards related to “what is climate or disaster resilience” and “what is regarded as sustainable, good practice” etc. Which, in this reading, points at a question on international distribution of power and power relations.

The question of who decides on standards, indicators and common language reminds me of the notion of “nature’s contributions to people” (NCP), which was put forward in 2018 as an alternative to “ecosystem services”. “Ecosystem services” is a term coined and developed in Western research. This definition of nature providing services to humans, however, does not align with perceptions and realities outside the Western world. Therefore, NCP was introduced as a more inclusive term acknowledging indigenous and local knowledge and the cultural aspects of the human-nature relation(1). A similar reflection could be made about the term “resilience” for example. Does the notion of resilience align with how non-Western communities conceptualise and perceive this systems’ attribute?
    With this, I aim to exemplify that language and standards are tied to a worldview and a dominance of certain forms of knowledge. Mostly Western scientific knowledge, that is. This is not to say that they aren’t valuable and to a certain degree desirable to guide urban development and adaptation, but that they should be applied with consideration of context and allow for more flexible application in practice.

    Ref. (1)

  11. An interesting point raised in the debate is what types of actions orchestration efforts should target. Cities with deficits in their adaptive capacity can benefit from orchestration efforts to address such deficits. Lorenzo provides an example of how multiple small cities have been helped through orchestration efforts to develop climate change adaptation plans. Adaptive capacity, however, can be viewed as just one component of vulnerability. In contrast to Lorenzo’s view that orchestration efforts can help cities, Craig suggests that orchestrators often do not address deep-rooted structural vulnerabilities and do not “truly” help cities manage climate-related risks. These contrasting views raise the question if orchestration efforts that only target cities with limited adaptive capacities and develop solutions to increase them are sufficient, or if orchestration efforts should also address pre-existing structural vulnerabilities, such as the lack of affordable housing?

    Taking the stance that there is a need for orchestration efforts to address structural vulnerabilities leads to the subsequent question of whether existing orchestration networks can achieve this? Craig’s view is that the goals of existing orchestration networks are not aligned to focus on the mitigation of such vulnerabilities. Lorenzo also shares his experience that policymakers often do not implement guidelines, tools, and frameworks developed by orchestrators; however, if this is the case, can orchestrators help cities target even more challenging policies to address structural vulnerabilities? The actions of orchestrators can also be constrained by government policy, as pointed out by mharris1234.

    Gonzalo asks: “are orchestrators part of the problem or part of the solution?”. Perhaps if they are part of the problem, then in some cases, “orchestrator networks” and their goals can be redesigned to help cities address structural vulnerabilities. Craig shares his experience that there are different forms of “orchestrator networks”. Given this diversity, then some “orchestrator” network models might already be more suited to help cities build their adaptive capacities, as well as help them to reduce structural vulnerabilities?

    In summary: there is a need to clarify further if orchestrator efforts should address structural vulnerabilities and if existing orchestration governance networks can achieve this. Are there any examples of such attempts? If not, is it possible to redesign existing orchestrator networks to address structural vulnerabilities and help cities address them, or should structural vulnerabilities only be resolved through interactions between cities and government policy levels without external intervention?

  12. Thank you MLootens for your comment. It is true that language plays a crucial role here. We have adressed the issue of representations, power and meanings in previous debates in this platform (see them on the menu above). A question we can ask now is: What is the role of orchestrators in definying and pursuing the use of certain concepts (resilience, adaptation, adaptive capacities, green infrastructure, etc.)? What do you think or what do you know about this?

    1. Given the uneven dynamic between non-governmental organisations and/or international consultancies on the one side, and cities on the other, these groups of ‘orchestrators’ can have an important influence in steering the definition and application of specific concepts and related standards. 

      Non-governmental organisations have their agenda to which cities need to subscribe in order to partner with these organisation. This puts these organisations in a position to steer both the way cities view and relate to concepts such as resilience, adaptive capacity etc. and their actions in these fields. For example, cities applying to join the Resilient Cities Network need to put in place a permanent Office of Resilience (1). This puts resilience as a dedicated department in local governance structure, thus putting it very explicitly on the agenda. Alternatively, resilience could be integrated as a recurrent thematic or item within all existing departments and influence how the city’s performance is evaluated. The question is not whether one is better than the other. But it points out how the Resilient Cities Network will be shaping governance in certain cities (namely members and aspiring members)

      Relating to the role of international consultancies, I think it is interesting that both Lorenzo and Craig both point at the development of new tools – and, I would argue, with that: new standards and (interpretations of) definitions – in their rebuttal remarks. Lorenzo points out that these tools developed within a specific framework, can be adopted by cities that might not have the opportunity to engage directly with ‘orchestrators’. When this is the case, these tools and thus the frameworks, definitions, and language that come with them have expanding effects on cities globally. Simultaneously Craig points out that these tools create “[…] new systems, cultures, and capabilities whose applications are difficult to predict and/or control”. I would agree that there are many unknowns to the application of tools outside the context they were developed in, including the (mis)interpretation and (mis)use of new language and concept.

  13. Thank you, Maria, for your thoughts on structural vulnerabilities. I also wonder: is lack of capacity among cities the rationale to invite orchestrators to act on structural vulnerabilities? Or is it the other way around: Decision-makers minimize capacities among cities because they want to reduce the size and scope of the State. Then they need external orchestrators to fill the gap that they created. Research shows that this gap often leads to structural vulnerabilities such as lack of affordable housing, lack of urban planning, lack of welfare solutions, etc. So, what is causing these structural vulnerabilities? Are orchestrators complicit in the creation and recreation of risk or the right stakeholders to prevent it? What do you think Maria?

  14. Gonzalo, thank you for the thoughtful question concerning what leads to deep-rooted structural vulnerabilities in the first instance. I think issues such as the lack of affordable housing and urban planning result from failure of long-term governance processes directed by the State.

    A risk exists that cities might use orchestrators to develop short-term solutions rather than address structural vulnerabilities through more complex policy measures. Furthermore, if cities bring in orchestrators to fill in existing resource gaps, such efforts might not necessarily result in the overall reduction of risks vulnerable residents face. For example, if a city only uses orchestrators to develop flood alleviation schemes to protect high-value assets, and this has always been the status quo rather than reducing flood risk to vulnerable groups, over time, flooding of homes can make housing more unaffordable and contribute to this structural vulnerability.

    While orchestrators can be complicit in the creation of risk, their efforts can also be constrained by the scope of work they can conduct and what resources are available to them. If orchestrators attempt to change existing practices and to address structural vulnerabilities, this can create conflict if the State does not support such efforts and has only brought in orchestrators to provide specific measures to reduce short-term risks rather than to address deep-rooted vulnerabilities. In some cases, orchestrators can help cities reduce structural vulnerabilities, for example, if they provide resources to alleviate flood risk to vulnerable groups and protect them from increased costs due to flooding of their assets. Such efforts, however, can be more challenging for orchestrators to implement and they might not always have the incentive to do so. Furthermore, higher-level governance processes can contribute to structural vulnerabilities, which can counter efforts made by orchestrators to address them. For example, while efforts of orchestrators can help to reduce the costs vulnerable residents face from flooding of their assets, other governance processes that contribute to the lack of affordable housing in a city can counter the overall efforts made by orchestrators to help cities address this structural vulnerability, with housing still becoming more unaffordable over time.

    1. Maria, I think you touch upon an important item that was already mentioned earlier in this discussion by mharis1234, namely the barriers to implementing structural solutions, of which the limited scope of influence of the ‘orchestrators’ is an important one.

      As Craig explained well in his opening remarks, there are different models of city networks, different modi operandi of consultancies, different relations between “orchestrators” and the context they work in. However, consultancies usually have specific and well-defined assignments, which often do not allow much room to expand beyond these limits, even if that would mean building more long-term, systemic solutions. As I argued before, non-governmental organisations have their agenda, focus-areas and expertise, meaning that here again there are limits to their contribution to systemic change in their partner/member cities. The same goes for donor-driven city-networks. 

      The limited scope of influence of ‘orchestrators’ is of course only a part of the existing barriers for ‘orchestrators’ to help cities reduce climate-related risks. In his opening remarks, Lorenzo mentioned the lack of uptake of reports, guidelines, tools, and frameworks developed by ‘orchestrators’ by policy makers as an other barrier. I would be interested to know if other practitioners have experience with this and could unravel this barrier further in the discussion below.

  15. Maria raises interesting arguments about instances where orchestrators can contribute to reduce structural vulnerabilities, as much as examples where they can reproduce injustices or inequalities that perpetuate them. Should we then asume that orchestrators are like any other tool, an instrument that can be used for good or bad causes depending on the user’s ethical stances? Is the presence of orchestrators in urban governance morally neutral?

    Thank you Ilan for the links to pertinent articles that can help us grasp the nunances in the concepts we are using here!

  16. Thank you, OD, debaters, and “commenters”, for yet another great online debate! For this debate, I am going to take the side of the proponent and for many of same reasons argued in the opening remarks.

    First, I will not deny that the same elite capitalist transnational interests driving political cronyism in cities also drive much of the international “orchestration” referred to in this debate. However, as has been previously stated, with the tide of contentious and counter-productive corporate influence on international urban production, so too comes the flotsam of social justice oriented and activist “orchestrators”. Sometimes as staff to corporate actors or international institutions (read UN-Habitat or ICLEI for example). These organizations provide not only job opportunities and professional recognition for those individuals taking a socially just stance, but also points of entry (access) to influence global discourse however nominal.

    The entry point for international social justice-oriented practitioners has played a crucial role in steering the global conversation towards transformative, equity-based, and anti-poverty policies on local and international scales. Perhaps uninterested politicians and bureaucrats manipulate or give lip-service to sometimes lofty concepts like resilience, but they do it. They are responding to threats to their power source just as the international organizations are. To paraphrase Saul Alinsky – get the politician to say what you want, who cares whether they agree or believe or why; once they say it, they will begin to justify it, and then once they justify their statements, they might start acting like it’s their idea.

    So, I think that the opportunity to be an “orchestrator” is open to whoever wants to take it.

    Democratic accountability of these actors has been raised. A legitimate concern. But in many urban contexts, political institutions are not accountable to urban inhabitants. This is felt most intensely by the most vulnerable. International “orchestrators” can provide a legitimization to civic actors fighting for a voice in urban co-production. The same is true for bureaucratic employees working to influence local policy from within institutional structures. Ambitious and imposed international policy can provide some wiggle room to positively influence policy and maybe even action.

    The very fact that we are having this debate on an international academic platform is indicative of the power socially just approaches to DRR, vulnerability reduction and adaptation have leveraged over the past fifty years. The opening argument provides a great example of how professional activists succeeded in integrating themselves and influencing the international process of “orchestration”. As a result, they have built power for themselves and for those people most vulnerable to the climate crisis. Yes, the international “orchestration” phenomena must be criticized, attacked, and influenced by those fighting for social justice as community activists, volunteering professional allies, civic organizations, local or regional bureaucrats, consultants, academics, and others. This can happen from within the “orchestration” community, or from without.

    Better a shoddy “orchestration” platform to be critiqued and co-opted for building social justice than none at all. As a result, those who once were outsider radical activists are employed to consult and influence global to local policy. Throughout history and in many contexts today much of this work has been and is radicalized if not criminalized.

  17. In response to Gonzalo’s question about whether the presence of orchestrators is morally neutral, the short answer is no.

    Being able to appreciate the ethical position of any organization requires a high degree of transparency. Orchestration, as a form of indirect governance whereby an orchestrator steers a target through an intermediary, inherently poses challenges for transparency. While all orchestrators call for greater transparency from their members – through the publication of plans or the disclosure of data – they do not always apply the same transparency standards to their own governance. Thus, establishing where a city-network falls on the ethical spectrum is a herculean task for any city. The only cities for whom this determination is facilitated is for cities which are themselves orchestrators. Cities like New York and Toronto have benefited from their mayors occupying key positions within C40 and the Global Covenant of Mayors. Orchestrator cities help define the “shared language” and are given more leeway in how they interpret it. So, orchestrators are not fair or unfair, but rather more fair for some cities and less fair for others.

    This links back to the question of whether international orchestrators contribute to local capacity building or simply create new forms of economic and political dependency (Chu, 2018). The value of international organizations is based on the idea that knowledge is transferable. Yet, building local capacity requires that cities be supported in their efforts to reinterpret, appropriate, and adapt the ideas proposed by orchestrators. Unfortunately, there have been examples of non-orchestrator cities not being allowed to join, or worse having their memberships revoked, after questioning the ideas or methodologies of orchestrators (See Roberts et al. 2020). The tendency to protect definitions and methodologies tends to be more common when orchestrators not only set the standard but also get paid to verify compliance. This raises questions about whether there is really a need for “resilience” or “sustainability” or whether these concepts are simply creating a need for new consulting services. If the concept cannot be questioned, it raises a red flag. Cities which are reliant on funds from orchestrators to implement risk reduction measures may not be in a position to question problem definitions or proposed solutions. Waiting to see whether these organizations act ethically before engaging may not be a viable option. Perhaps one way for cities to test the waters is to see to what extent orchestrators are open to allowing them to challenge their definitions before agreeing to engage.

    Chu, E. (2018). Transnational Support for Urban Climate Adaptation: Emerging Forms of Agency and Dependency. Global Environmental Politics, 18(3), 25-46. doi:10.1162/glep_a_00467

    Roberts, D., Douwes, J., Sutherland, C., & Sim, V. (2020). Durban’s 100 Resilient Cities journey: governing resilience from within. Environment and Urbanization, 32(2), 547-568.

  18. I am impressed by the comments raised by Steffen and Lisa. Reading Steffen, I found myself thinking: “of course, it is better to have a space for positive influence than not having one at all!”

    But then came Lisa with her arguments about the control of narratives and concepts and I shifted towards thinking: “If that space is manipulated by stakeholders trying to defend their own status, then it is better not to have such a space in the first place.”

    So, I believe this boils down to “what is that space used for? Are orchestrators using their influence, status and power in the right or the wrong way?” It seems then, that the question at this stage is more about “What are the values guiding orchestrators?”.

    But this is a tricky question too. As most people working in the disasters, humanitarian and climate change fields know, these sectors are full of well-intentioned people. But these morally guided individuals sometimes work within systems that not always prioritize their own values. So, are we talking about the moral worth of individuals (consultants, for instance) or institutions? Tricky, I think. But what do YOU think?

  19. In reply to Gonzallo’s questions: “What are the values guiding orchestrators?”

    Studying how institutional orchestrators decide to allocate funding and other resources such as human capital can indicate their values. The wider climate change adaptation literature shows that climate adaptation funding models at an international level often do not lead to funding prioritized solely on vulnerability and recipient needs, and that allocation decisions can also be made based on political economy factors (Ex: Doshi and Garschagen, 2020; Robinson and Dornan, 2017; Weiler et. al., 2018).

    While city orchestrators can provide human resources, they do not necessarily provide funding for climate change adaptation initiatives but rather connect cities with funding institutions that distribute such aid. Therefore, I think there is a need to focus not only on the values of orchestrators working for cities and their employees, but also to examine the values and priorities of higher-level institutions that city orchestrators cooperate with, such as development banks and donors. The values of these actors also influence the priorities set to provide climate change adaptation aid to cities.

    Doshi, D. and Garschagen, M., 2020. Understanding adaptation finance allocation: Which factors enable or constrain vulnerable countries to access funding?. Sustainability, 12(10), p.4308.

    Robinson, S.A. and Dornan, M., 2017. International financing for climate change adaptation in small island developing states. Regional Environmental Change, 17(4), pp.1103-1115.

    Weiler, F., Klöck, C. and Dornan, M., 2018. Vulnerability, good governance, or donor interests? The allocation of aid for climate change adaptation. World Development, 104, pp.65-77.

  20. Maria raises a pertinent point: the way resources are allocated provides a perspective on what the orchestrators’ priorities are. It gives us an idea of how governance systems work. But again, I see important here to distinguish between how the orchestration system works and the values and objectives of individuals working within the system. It seems to me (but this remains to be confirmed) that there is a gap between the intentions of individuals and the overall impact of the orchestration governance system. Do we have evidence about this gap?

  21. In response to Gonzalo’s question: is there evidence of a gap between the intentions of individuals and the overall impact of the orchestration governance system?

    I am not sure since the debate has not provided evidence to answer this question. The Durban case study shared by Lisa illustrates that tensions can exist between the values of practitioners working for cities and orchestrators but did not discuss whether such tensions exist between the objectives of professionals working for orchestrators and orchestrator institutions. Furthermore, even if there is a gap between intentions, the examples given have not shown that these tensions have led to redesigning existing governance models.

    The discussion, therefore, has not illustrated that if the focus of orchestrator institutions is perhaps not in all cases to help cities to “truly” mitigate climate change risks, professionals working for them challenge such practices. A further point to make is that institutional goals might not be clearly visible to employees working for an orchestrator institution. In the case of orchestrator networks, multiple organizations with multiple goals and priorities can shape decision-making processes and ascertaining their values might not be a simple process. In some instances, practitioners working within orchestrator networks themselves might not be aware of the goals of these complex networks. While Lisa suggested that orchestrators might not have transparent processes, perhaps this also makes the values of such networks challenging to ascertain even for their employees?

  22. Thank you Mlootens and Maria for your replies to my question. It seems increasingly clear that to answer the question “Do orchestrators tryly help cities reduce risk?” we must first try to answer the question “what are the values behind the orchestrators’ actions?” According to Chelleri, the responsibility for “addressing vulnerability is now in the hands of cities.” Orchestrators simply offer “supporting mechanisms to reduce risks — from investments, to social impact-driven tools, to ecosystems’ health and services-driven instruments.” But are these mechanisms and instruments morally neutral? What is their impact on determining agendas and funding priorities? What concepts and narratives are involved in these mechanisms?

    If we accept that agency cannot be dissociated from moral worth, the issue is less one of the “performance” of orchestrators and more one of the “values” motivating them. But as Maria points out, we don’t have clear evidence beyond priorities set on budgets and narratives on policy documents. This evidence is perhaps not enough to assess intentions. This seems to open the door for a research agenda. Isn’t it?

  23. Is there evidence of a gap between the intentions of individuals and the overall impact of the orchestration governance system?

    Yes. All international organizations suffer from inefficient behaviours. I agree with Gonzalo that intention is key. In other words, the question is: Are gaps between stated values and actions intentional or inadvertent? Barnett and Finnemore (2012) propose that international organizations, like all bureaucracies, may be plagued by the following pathologies:

    – Irrational rationalization – when the means become the focus rather than the ends,
    – Bureaucratic universalism – when the focus on universal knowledge makes organizations inattentive to local specificities,
    – Normalization of deviance – when exceptional actions, deviating from core values, are mistaken for normal, acceptable actions,
    – Organizational insulation – when there is a lack of attention given to feedback on performance or performance is hard to measure, and
    – Cultural contestation – when conflicting worldviews are resolved hierarchically, thus losing the benefits of synergies.

    I believe there is much evidence of these pathologies limiting the ability of orchestrators to truly help cities reduce their vulnerability to climate risks. As mentioned by Craig in his rebuttal, the focus on metrics and data formatted to attract investors is a form of irrational rationalization. While data allows investors to invest in less climate-risky assets it does not reduce climate-related risks. It may, in fact, increase the number of assets which are considered unworthy of investment. For cities, compiling all this data may siphon limited resources away from the implementation of locally specific actions which might have a greater impact. Organizational insulation is rampant in disaster risk reduction and adaptation because vulnerability and adaptive capacity are particularly tricky concepts to measure. So, while Lorenzo draws his optimism from the increase in public debates on climate resilience, equity, and justice, I question this as a measure of progress.
    Determining whether inefficient behaviours are going unnoticed, are being purposefully maintained, or are simply hard to resolve, is no simple task. It requires finding evidence of individuals trying to overcome these obstacles or actively maintaining them. I have found that it is useful to ask: Who stands to gain (or lose) from these ineffective behaviours? Is there any evidence of efforts to overcome the gaps between values and impacts? Have these been met with resistance? Who is resisting and why?

    Barnett, M., & Finnemore, M. (2012). International Organizations as Bureaucraties. In Rules for the World (pp. 16-44): Cornell University Press.

  24. Greetings to everyone,

    I don’t believe that we can answer this question by saying no or yes. Depending on the content of the help, the answer may be positioned between the edges of the yes and no arrows. To have a fair discussion about international agencies’ help, we should evaluate their effectiveness from various aspects of disaster risk reduction. Here I would like to discuss concerns which resonate with me; “timely help”. In my opinion, part of the meaning of “truly help” lies in “timely help .”In an era where every action can determine the extent of climate-related risks in cities, international orchestras should timely find problems and responses to minimize these risks. In some instances, they achieve a timely resolution (e.g., framework and guidelines), and in others, they do not.

    As a first point, I would like to emphasize the imbalance of power (especially implementation power) between national and international agencies in relation to climate change. This imbalance of power is not new to us; several international conferences have been held to develop frameworks, guidelines, and instructions to reduce climate-related risk and urge every country’s leaders to act. What has been accomplished regarding action so far? The leaders have publicly applauded the result of the international results and framework, but they continued to act in accordance with their own country’s benefits, which has a short and temporary run benefit since climate change affects cities or any human settlements throughout the world. Consequently, the climate-related risk is worsened by the actions of politicians or through their lack of understanding of the global benefit.

    On the other side of the story, the international agencies do not have the authority to question nations that disregard DRR guidelines. It is also difficult to make effective changes by making only concern statements to the countries that do not collaborate and implement international frameworks to reduce the risk of climate change. The leaders of countries should think outside their national borders (internationally) to survive global warming and implement disaster risk reduction within their national borders (nationally). In this way, there is more chance to not waste the efforts of international organizations. In other words, to prevent global warming from reaching its worst-case scenario, we must plan globally and act locally with global benefit in mind.

    To answer the question, it is also necessary to determine whether the reports produced by international consultants are fully transparent in terms of the activities of all participating countries. Some international organizations are dependent upon the financial support of some nations to operate and keep employing their staff. This may raise some questions. For example, does this financial support have an effect on the content of the report or even on the actions of international orchestrators? Or, are the international institutes being unbiased in reporting the truth about who is/is not moving toward reducing these negative effects? Whether you answer yes or no to these questions, the complicated situation will not be easily resolved because there are times when international organizations have to teeter on the edge of survival to ensure that they can play a positive role in this complex situation.

    It should be noted that tiptoeing can sometimes imply a sense of silent concern. The reason I emphasize the silent concern is that there are some problems that we are aware of but are not willing to discuss because we do not want to be too bold, and this silence can hinder “timely help”. For instance, even though disasters are not natural, it has taken a relatively long time for organizations with the ability to act to acknowledge this publicly. Some international organizations have long recognized that disaster has been rooted in social inequity, but they were careful to speak out when the time was right.

    On the other hand, I also believe the existence of international orchestras in disaster studies is vital to reduce the risk. A lack of these orchestras could have resulted in more loss due to global warming. Although some of them lack the authority to take action, they have developed comprehensive frameworks and guidelines and increased public awareness about the issues. Therefore, their efforts provide the greatest hope for change.

    Every idea of this discussion is admirable. Thank you for creating this online debate to discuss the issues we have in mind.

  25. Ok. Now that we have found both advantages and disadvantages in orchestrators’ roles, what do these results mean? Do they mean that orchestrators are imperfect entities that need to be fixed? or do they mean that their role should be eliminated or reduced? Should we try to improve ochestrators’ agency or to eliminate it altogether?

  26. I believe that there is an urgent need for international agencies’ roles to be stronger, and it is necessary to give them more power since the framework and planning they developed are beneficial globally. In my opinion, the current imbalance of power between national and international agencies could interfere with the execution of plans that international agencies have prepared. Furthermore, the international agencies, on behalf of those who are not in power, should have the authority to monitor the activities that exacerbate global warming and prevent them in the event of negative consequences to all nations.

  27. In reply to H.Meh:

    One argument that can be adopted is that if orchestrators receive more resources and decision-making power, they will make further efforts to help cities reduce climate-related risks. This is the common agenda used to support orchestration efforts, but it does not explore the option of allocating more resources directly to cities rather than through intermediary institutions. A perspective that more progress can be made to reduce climate-related risks through funneling more resources to orchestrators also does not indicate a need to redesign orchestration governance structures. It also does not suggest that in some cases, governance structures in cities, for example, those contributing to poor urban planning practices, can also be redesigned if they fail to protect vulnerable groups from climate change. Therefore, it does not suggest that existing mechanisms can be replaced with more value-based approaches.

    I support the view that most institutions are imperfect entities and that their governance structures need to be transparent, examined through ongoing processes, and improved over time. These issues cannot be addressed by only directing more resources to orchestrator agencies and providing them with more power but can only be resolved by closely examining their existing practices, their flaws, and potential opportunities to improve them. In extreme cases, institutions may have to be eliminated if they are not effective in driving climate change risk reduction, and there is a need to establish mechanisms to judge when such failure can exist rather than using the default assumption that existing governance structures work or will work if they are provided with more resources. As Lisa kindly points out, international organizations can have multiple inefficiencies. Institutional inefficiencies, however, can also exist in local governance institutions and therefore, governance structures in cities should also be closely examined to identify their potential flaws.

    In brief, there is a need to evaluate the governance of orchestrator networks, their potential inefficiencies, opportunities to improve them to deliver more value. Furthermore, the existing design of local city institutions, should also be evaluated and changes should be made if such structures do not ultimately protect urban residents. Such an approach can help to eliminate wasted resources due to ineffective governance mechanisms rather than only focusing on the need to provide ineffective institutions with more resources such as funding.

  28. “Climate change adaptation presents a paradox: climate change is a global risk, yet vulnerability is locally experienced. Effective adaptation therefore depends on understanding the local context of vulnerability, which requires deliberative and participatory approaches to adaptation policy-making. But, how can local inclusiveness be achieved in the context of global environmental risk, and what sorts of institutions are needed?” (Ayers, 2011, p. 62).

    There is a second paradox that exists and that has been addressed by this debate: many individual and group actors within global to local institutions (state/political, not-for-profit/ngo, and for-profit/corporate) enjoy the complicated role of both having the responsibility to resolve climate vulnerability while at the same time drawing personal and collective benefit from the drivers of climate change itself, as well as exclusion, and poverty.

    The debate asks if orchestrators “truly help cities reduce climate related risks”. Our debate organizers have set the classic natural-hazards trap for us. By asking about climate related risks, despite the repeated acknowledgement of the socio-political drivers of risk, there remains this magnetic allure that draws towards the discussion of natural hazards. The debaters and commentators have done well to resist this by discussing power dynamics, organizational efficiencies, and funding priorities. And so, to return to the question, are climate related risks being reduced. And if yes, can international orchestrators take some credit. In the spirit of the debate, I will hold to my earlier stance of “yes!”, so as not to end with the obvious “well, it depends”.

    First, the question is not whether international orchestrators are driving climate risk. To this question, I would also argue on the “yea” side. But that is not the question. So, my first argument stands that there are many international actors, individual and collective, who have had a significant impact on both human exposure to natural hazards and the socio-political drivers of vulnerability. There are good guys and bad guys – and as we have previously observed, sometimes they work for the same institution. Using the term “strategic urbanisms” recent research has taken a more nuanced tack in analyzing how different agendas and interests interact in urban policy development, rather than assume a single homogeneic agenda (see for example Chu et al., 2017). That individuals working towards a socially just and transformative urban agenda have any impact at all is impressive enough. This task, often framed as a struggle, is sisyphean.

    The debate question uses the word “truly”. This is tricky. Climate change impacts felt by those most vulnerable urban inhabitants are increasing. The natural hazard. Depending on the city, life is improving for some and getting worse for others. There is a constant flux. A development deficit. Socio-political contexts are also constantly changing as are human cultures. My second argument touches on the word “truly” to mean “really”, rather than to mean the sum total of risk reduction linked to these three variables outweighs the sum total of the increased risks. I am no statistician and statistics cannot measure these latter variables (another debate!). However, what I am arguing is that international orchestrators are having a positive impact on all these variables: climate change mitigation; reduced exposure to natural hazards; and transforming socio-political environments.

    This is the baby and bathwater dilemma.

    Which introduces the second, reform or revolution dilemma.

    Also, the third, change from the outside or change from the inside.

    Where can social and environmental justice activists have the biggest impact? In public institutions, political parties, social movements, academia, NGOs, international corporate and political organizations or elsewhere? These are linked to the earlier points on ethics and values and touch on the individual positions people take when they engage in this field. I will close by thanking the organizers, debaters and commentators for the rich discussions and arguments that touched on these issues and more. I had better get back to writing my thesis now😉.

    Ayers, J. (2011). Resolving the Adaptation Paradox: Exploring the Potential for Deliberative Adaptation Policy-Making in Bangladesh. Global Environmental Politics, 11(1), 62–88.

    Chu, E., Anguelovski, I., & Roberts, D. (2017). Climate adaptation as strategic urbanism: assessing opportunities and uncertainties for equity and inclusive development in cities. Cities, 60, 378–387.

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