Interregional and international affairs

Large cities of five countries: Report on the BRICS colloquium

Large cities of five countries: Report on the BRICS colloquium
How has modern technology changed city governance? Can a general urban development plan be developed online? How can large cities agree on development plans with their neighbouring suburbs for the next 25 years? BRICS experts and city government representatives met to discuss these and many other issues.


Academics and city government officials from Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa met in Moscow to discuss the development of large cities, issues they face and ways of resolving them. Participants in the BRICS+ City Lab II colloquium decided to create an online platform, continue working together and publish the materials presented at the event and use them to devise recommendations for municipal authorities in large cities.

The event was organised by the Moscow Government, the Moscow State University of Administration, the Institute for Urban Economy and representatives of a number of research centres from Russia, South Africa and China.

The subtle details of governance

The colloquium was devoted to adaptive and transformative governance in large cities. What does this mean? Imagine you need to manage a city of millions, and not simply ensure order, but develop its huge structure. But in a constantly changing world, plans made today may become obsolete tomorrow. This means that there is a need to promptly adapt to new challenges. A modern city is also at the confluence of multiple and at times contradicting interests, which must also be taken into account. As one of the participants in the colloquium, Professor Patrick Heller from Brown University (USA), said, “effective governance in today’s world means that all social institutions, including city residents, have to be part of the urban agenda. The authorities must receive constant feedback and adjust their policies accordingly.”

How can this be done? During the three days of the colloquium, participants shared the experiences of their respective cities.

Of course, BRICS cities differ greatly. Urgent challenges that large cities in Brazil and India face (for example, slum neighbourhoods) may be unknown for cities like Moscow. At the same time, some urban governance issues are relevant to all, such as architectural planning, public transit and government-to-people interaction. The colloquium focused on the experience of dealing with these issues in Moscow, Shanghai, Sao Paulo and Johannesburg. In addition, there is another feature shared by all these cities: they are the core of large metropolitan areas with close economic and social ties with the city but without a common governance system. This presents another challenge in terms of urban governance.

Using technology and information to promote adaptive governance, develop complex metropolitan areas and promote territorial development in large cities were the most discussed topics during the colloquium, with a separate roundtable on each of these subjects.

Tech-savvy Moscow

Moscow has experienced a digital revolution in recent years. Foreign guests are often amazed by the multiple possibilities and services that Moscow residents have long since gotten used to. For example, Wi-Fi is ubiquitous and free. In just a few years, Moscow moved from introducing separate innovations to creating technology contours for entire industries.

All this was mentioned in a presentation by Yevgeny Kozlov, Deputy Chief of Staff to the Moscow Mayor, who was the keynote speaker at the first roundtable discussion. He emphasised that not only has technology provided the Moscow Government with effective tools, it has also enabled it to adopt a new governance mind-set based on the principles of openness, engagement and user-friendliness. Today, the main principle for Smart Moscow is to promote partnership between residents and the city government, including by offering convenient services.

The TOGETHER! city solutions system brings together a number of online platforms to give Moscow residents a say in government processes and allow them to contribute to city governance. The most famous and popular services are: the Our City service for filing complaints, the Active Citizen online referendum platform and the crowdsourcing platform 

With the TOGETHER! city solutions system, every resident of this city of 12 million can offer proposals, act and get involved in city governance, while the Moscow Government can receive feedback, adjust its actions and help. The system features tools that are available to anyone, can interact with each other, are integrated in the city government work and can help resolve actual challenges.

Colloquium participants visited situation rooms of the Healthcare Department and the Road Traffic Organisation Centre to gain an insight into the technological capabilities of adaptive governance in Moscow. In the Healthcare Department’s situation room, visitors saw how the Unified Medical Information and Analysis System works. Among other things, it can be used to schedule doctor’s appointments online. By monitoring road traffic in Moscow and controlling traffic lights, the smart traffic management system, implemented by the Road Traffic Organisation Centre, helps the city improve road traffic and breathe a little easier for the first time in the many years since the car boom began.

Foreign guests also provided a number of examples of smart solutions that could be of interest to Moscow. Brazilian experts and officials presented the Gestaourbana online platform for territorial development planning. This platform was initially intended to monitor land use by having people submit information on unused land plots. The next stage in the platform’s development consisted of gathering proposals on how these and other territories can be used. Later on, developers joined the process by proposing their own ideas or supporting those put forward by local residents and implementing them. This solution is a source of new information for city authorities to be taken into account when developing territorial development plans.

Agglomeration as a trend

Another roundtable discussion focused on governing complex city agglomerations. Agglomeration trends – a process whereby large cities spill into neighbouring territories – are becoming increasingly important for urban development in today’s world. The lack of a common governance structure is a recurring and important issue in this area, since metropolitan areas and their neighbouring suburbs often fall under different government units, which forces them to coordinate action with each other, and sometimes with higher government officials. For example, Moscow (a separate Russian region) or Shanghai (a directly-controlled municipality in China) can make their development plans independently, while in Brazil’s Sao Paulo, city authorities have to coordinate their actions with state authorities. This leads to decision-making errors, which undermines the potential advantages offered by large cities.

Professor Tu Qiyu from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences presented the Shanghai 2040 strategic plan, which he helped develop. This is truly a unique project. Few cities in the world plan their development 25 years in advance. In addition, Shanghai has prepared a single plan covering eight independent municipalities, which means that the overall development strategy is not being imposed from the top, but results from the willingness of these municipalities to work together and agree on their plans.

Russia’s experience in this area has so far been modest. The metropolitan area includes two regions, Moscow and the Moscow Region, which effectively cooperate on specific issues, such as transport. In general, as Moscow expert Ivan Kuryachy pointed out, there is a growing need in Russia to review its approaches to managing large agglomerations with a view to creating an integrated system for supporting and developing major cities. Incidentally, agglomeration development will be the main topic of the upcoming Moscow Urban Forum, which is an indication that Moscow attaches great importance to this topic. The colloquium featured a presentation on the 2017 Moscow Urban Forum, and members of the forum’s research team were able to exchange views with BRICS+ City Lab participants.

Moscow Central Ring and freedom corridors

A separate roundtable discussion was organised to discuss territorial development. The introduction of new urban development practices promotes socially-oriented approaches to spatial evolution. Balancing population and resources, developing a polycentric model, ensuring that the interests of both investors and the city community are taken into account: these are the objectives authorities face in all large cities.

At this roundtable, Moscow presented the Moscow Central Ring and the programme to renovate former industrial sites as an example of synergy between urban development and transport solutions. After all, the Moscow Central Ring covers an important part of the so-called “rust belt,” and serves not just as another metro line, but as a transport artery that will revive former industrial zones. South African experts presented a similar project called “freedom corridors,” a network of high-speed bus routes linking Johannesburg to its key suburbs and driving development in adjacent territories.

Pavel Akimov from the Higher School of Economics National Research University made a presentation on advocate planning, a promising new area of urban development. The expert started by recalling that in every city, there are groups with opposing interests, which inevitably leads to conflict in terms of urban development. These conflicts should be identified and understood, so that clear mechanisms for resolving them can be developed. By making urban planning a competitive process, while ensuring independent expertise (this is what advocate planning is all about) this will make decision making even more balanced, and urban development sustainable, democratic and fair.

Commenting on the diversity of subjects raised during the colloquium, one of its initiators, Professor John Philipp Harrison from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, compared the presentations to pieces of a puzzle that has yet to be put together. “Of course, Moscow could be interested in a number of projects: they cannot be copy-and-pasted, but should be analysed and adapted, taking into account the specific nature of the city,” Yevgeny Kozlov, Deputy Chief of Staff to the Moscow Mayor, said.

Plans for the future

The colloquium participants decided to set up the BRICS+ City Lab online platform so that the international interdisciplinary expert group can continue working together. In addition, experts agreed to publish materials presented at the event and draft recommendations for governments of large cities.

BRICS City Lab is an international research community that brings together experts and city government officials from BRICS countries. Its first colloquium, BRICS City Lab I, was held in November 2015 in Shanghai.

The project is aimed at developing City Labs and promoting cooperation among major middle-income cities in BRICS and other countries (BRICS+). The aim of these labs is to study best global practices and develop innovative solutions in city governance, as well as to coordinate theory (the academic community) and practice (city officials).

By working together, laboratories could potentially form a transnational expert network as a platform for dialogue and the exchange of experience among the leading BRICS+ cities, as well as provide independent quality analysis to city governments.

Taking part in the BRICS+ City Lab colloquium were the Moscow Government, the Institute for Urban Economy, the Moscow Architectural Institute, the Vysokovsky Graduate School of Urbanism at the Higher School of Economics National Research University, the Skolkovo Centre for Urban Studies (SUrbC), the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (China), the University of Sao Paulo (Brazil), the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa), the Centre for Policy Research (India) and others.