Transdisciplinary Co-production as a Tool for Advancing SDGs Implementation at the City Level

2021-01-29 14:36:07 sisd 44

Mistra Urban Futures, an international research centre, is undertaking a comparative project to monitor and analyse the implementation of the SDGs, with a particular focus on SDG 11 and other aspects of the Goals that relate to urban issues in seven cities: Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Gothenburg, Kisumu, Malmö, Sheffield, and Shimla. The project started in mid-2017 and will run until December 2019. The project follows a transdisciplinary knowledge co-production approach, by closely involving academics and NGO representatives with city officials. Given the experiences gathered from this approach, we submit the project itself as a practice.

Objective of the practice

The aims of the project are to analyse how cities are engaging with, interpreting and implementing the New Urban Agenda and the urban related Sustainable Development Goals. The project is also working with the cities to support their understanding and implementation of these global initiatives and to facilitate cross-city learning, comparison and interaction among the seven participating cities as well as with other cities beyond the project. We take Agenda 2030 and its SDGs as a holistic approach that addresses all dimensions of sustainability, and we therefore work with all SDGs and targets relevant for urban areas but with a particular focus on the urban goal, SDG 11.

We have set up co-production partnerships in each of the cities between academics and city officials, and in a few cities with civil society as well. This means that each city has a local research team working directly with city officials, using a variety of methods of engagement. Our research has shown that these partnerships can contribute to increasing awareness and engagement with the SDGs and contribute to achieving SDGs 11 and 17, in particular. The partnerships allow local researchers to have closer access and better understanding of the localisation of the SDGs in each city. In the cities where there was little engagement with the SDGs (which was the case in several of the cities when the project started in 2017), these partnerships have contributed to create awareness about the SDGs and to get discussions around them started within the municipalities. While the project cannot claim direct causality between our engagement with city officials and implementation of the SDGs, the formalisation of these partnerships in several cities has been followed by increased interest and commitment in localising them. The project has also served as a catalyst for multi-stakeholder events in several of the cities, as well as cross-city events with all participating cities, where local authorities meet and share best practices on SDGs localisation.

Key stakeholders and partnerships

Within our project, we have set up co-production partnerships in each of the case study cities between academics and city officials. In Buenos Aires the partnership also includes a civil society representative (CELS – Centre for Legal and Social Studies). In Shimla, the research team is represented by Nagrika, a social enterprise working on small and medium-size cities; Nagrika is collaborating with the Municipal Corporation of Shimla. These partnerships mean that in each case study the researchers-city officials team collaborate and co-produce the research.

Implementation of the Project/Activity

A general working methodology were defined at Mistra Urban Futures research centre at the inception of the project. Each city team then adapted that methodology to the interests and needs of the local level and has come up with a working strategy and agenda following the general methodology and deliverables. The researchers and the city officials across the seven cities also represent a trans-continental partnership with each other where they regularly share their experiences from diverse country and institutional contexts.

In Cape Town, for example, the researcher has been embedded into the City of Cape Town’s Organisational Policy and Planning Department (OPP), which means that she spends a percentage of her time at the City offices working with the OPP team on how the City can localise the SDGs and the NUA. Part of that work has included jointly arranging workshops with staff from different City departments to assess their awareness and interest in working with the SDGs. In Gothenburg, the researcher joins the monthly meetings of an SDGs working group at the City’s Executive Office. In Buenos Aires, the research team holds monthly meetings with the office in charge of implementing the SDGs (the General Directorate of Strategic Planning of Buenos Aires City Government). In Kisumu, the researcher has set up a working group to meet monthly with officials from Kisumu City and Kisumu County as well as meetings twice a year with national representatives from the Ministry of Devolution and Planning and the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. In Sheffield, the project has developed a national partnership with UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development and attracted additional funding to support national networking of UK local authorities working with the SDGs.

We have also set up monthly virtual conference calls with the international core research team (the academics in each city). Having an open and regular channel for the core research team to share progress in each case study city, discuss challenges and opportunities of localising the SDGs, has been critical for the project to run smoothly, maintain cohesion and coherence as one project. The regular virtual meetings have also contributed to sharing ideas and get inspiration from the processes in the different cities. All these experiences are then passed by each local researcher to their respective city counterparts.

In addition, we have planned 2 annual face-to-face cross-city sharing events involving at least one researcher and one city official. The first event took place in Cape Town in November 2018. During this meeting we planned a number of events to share each city’s experience in localising the SDGs, site visits as well as a meeting where we agreed on next steps. One of the agreements was setting up a city-to-city peer review process on the SDG localisation. The events in Cape Town contributed to enhancing trust and cohesion among the group of academics and practitioners and gave impetus to the work in each city. It also created new connections between city officials facilitating subsequent exchanges. The next event will take place in Sheffield in October 2019. These shared learning and network effects are valued highly by the city officials, not least on account of the bidirectional North - South interchanges.


The academics-city officials partnerships developed in the context of this project have had several positive outcomes. In the cities where there was little engagement with the SDGs (which was the case in several of the case study cities when the project started in mid 2017), these partnerships have contributed to create awareness about the agenda and to get discussions around it started within the municipalities. While the project cannot claim direct causality between our engagement with city officials and implementation of the agenda, the formalisation of these partnerships in several cities has been followed by increased interest and commitment in localising them.

In Sheffield, for instance, there has been little on-the-ground activity around the SDGs. Prior to working with the local research team, city partners in Sheffield were aware of, but not acting on implementing, these agendas. The absence of national guidance or priority-setting is one factor that has led to this situation. A consensus has now emerged between the research team and City Council officials around piloting and developing a policy evaluation tool using the SDG framework, with a particular focus on the co-benefits of infrastructure proposals that contribute to achieving SDG targets across multiple policy domains.

In Shimla, the Municipal Corporation had not started working with the SDGs in 2017 and in November 2018, the elected members of the Corporation unanimously signed a resolution committing to the SDGs, particularly the targets in SDG 11. The resolution acknowledges the knowledge partnership with Nagrika and the involvement in our international research project. The resolution is a reflection of municipal government's willingness and initiative to engage on global issues such as sustainable urban development.

In Kisumu, meetings between the research team and the Kenyan national agencies in charge of SDGs implementation led to Kisumu being selected as a pilot study on how cities in the country are localising the global agendas. Further, the SDGs have been mainstreamed within the 2018-2022 County Integrated Development Plan and captured in the Annual Development Plan for implementation by the various departments at the county. An SDG Unit has therefore been formed at the county and is being coordinated from the Directorate of Economic Planning and Development at the County.

In Cape Town, as a result of the research-city collaboration, Cape Town – a member of the 100 Resilient Cities network – has also started mapping the linkages between its draft Resilience Strategy and the SDGs with a view of localising the SDGs through the lens of resilience. In Buenos Aires, the researchers–city officials–civil society team has been jointly working on methodological definitions, actors’ mapping and the construction of local indicators. The first part of the joint work prioritised the adaptation to the city level of SDG 11 indicators, as well as those indicators linked to housing deficit, access to basic services and participatory processes of re-urbanisation and integration plans for city slums (involving SDGs 1, 6, 7, 11 and 16), and discussed definitions and measurements with other departments of Buenos Aires City Government.

Enabling factors and constraints

-- Enabling conditions:
• The research team is financed by Mistra Urban Futures with sufficient resources so that each researcher has sufficient time to dedicate to the local co-production work and the international comparative component.
• Each City has committed to dedicate time of City officials to participate in the project. This is an essential element for the co-production of knowledge at the local level but also for the cross-city sharing of experiences.
• Gradual increase in awareness of SDGs at regional and national platforms is lending greater acceptance, engagement and credibility to SDGs-related work at the local level.

Sustainability and replicability

Setting up such collaborations requires time, trust, flexibility and some economic resources. The local partnerships are easier to maintain but the aims and working plan need to be revisited once the initial objectives have been reached. This is important to maintain the engagement and a mutually beneficial relation.
The international component requires more resources to maintain the core research team but the resources do not have to be significant but sufficient to cover part of people’s times. Some resources for face-to-face meetings are important, particularly at the inception phase and at least half way through the project.


Addressing the SDGs requires co-ordinated and co-produced approaches. Our work suggests that universities can play important roles in generating debate and action around the SDGs in partnership with local authorities and other stakeholders. The examples previously mentioned show that these academic-civil society- city officials partnerships are not only contributing to advancing the localisation of the SDGs but also facilitating discussions between different departments within city administrations. Our work also highlights the need to work across both horizontal and vertical institutional boundaries and with a wide range of actors within and outside government, particularly to identify, access and analyse knowledge held in different places to generate strategic sustainable urban transformation processes. The cross-sectoral and cross-level work requires champions at the city level with the capacity to engage and empower a variety of actors and mobilise resources.

Adapting the SDGs to the local level is key to making the SDGs relevant and implementable at this level. National guidance on how to localise the SDGs and local and national political buy-in are crucial in this process. Yet, these have been limited in several of our case study cities and respective countries. Some municipalities have started working with the SDGs and have not awaited national guidance, such as Malmö, which was the first city in Sweden to commit (in 2015) to integrating Agenda 2030 into its planning and operations, with the ambition of using it, by 2020, as a framework for its municipal budget. However, smaller municipalities may not have the capacity to undertake a full localisation process. A top-down or mandatory approach for implementing the SDGs is not recommended. Rather what is needed is a set of guidelines and frameworks. Our project is enabling globacalisation of the SDGs where national support is limited by supporting international collaboration between local authorities as well as linking local initiatives to global discussions.

The cross-city sharing events that took place in Cape Town in 2018 served to create new links between city officials and to give impetus to the SDG work in many cities. City officials highlighted the importance of these exchanges to get inspiration from the different SDG localisation processes each city is undertaking. The project has shown that cities have similar challenges to adapt the SDGs to the city level, each the SDGs, despite the variety of contexts, and no matter where they are located or even the resources they have. This has proven the importance and value in South-North, North-North and South-South bidirectional exchanges where all share and learn from each other’s experiences.

The fact that the format is both transdisciplinary and heterogeneously international contributes to give legitimacy to the comparative and local processes, which can be a fundamental aspect for the city actors who want to spearhead momentum related to SDGs within their organisations. In addition, one of the values of the project is translating global discourse to local contexts in a locally-appropriate way which enables and empowers local partners to engage with the SDGs see them as valuable rather than as reporting burdens imposed by international and national levels.