Institutional capabilities towards urban equality: lessons from knowledge translations processes from the know project

Cociña, Camila (2019). 'Institutional capabilities towards urban equality: lessons from knowledge translations processes from the KNOW project' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


Building pathways towards urban equality is a main challenge for cities globally, with manifestations and implications that vary across local contexts. Three-quarters of cities are now more unequal than in 1996. Inequality directly impacts the ability of cities to deliver prosperity and resilience to all their citizens. Addressing urban equality has slowly become a priority for institutions at different scales, including international agencies, as manifested by its inclusion as a key issue in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the UN’s New Urban Agenda (NUA).

The Knowledge in Action for Urban Equality (KNOW) research project is a response to this growing challenge and examines the role of knowledge co-production in building pathways to urban equality. In KNOW, urban equality is approached as a multidimensional experience for urban dwellers, encompassing access to income and services, recognition of diverse social identities, and inclusion in decision-making processes that affect them (from Fraser, 1995; Young, 1990; Allen & Frediani, 2013; Levy, 2015; Levy and Davila, 2018). One of the key focus of KNOW is the examination of how institutions (government, civic and private) are able to translate knowledge into practices that addresses the reproduction of urban inequalities. In this panel, project partners from Bangalore, Kampala and Havana will reflect on how their KNOW research activities are interrogating the capabilities of institutions to translate knowledge into practices, and their potential implications building pathways to urban equality.

Apart from enabling comparative thinking and reflection across these three contexts, this panel aims to explore the usefulness of the concept ‘institutional capabilities’ as a framework to contribute to current debates on implementation of global urban agendas. Understood from a development perspective, and based on the seminal work of Amartya Sen, a capability approach is defined as one with focus on people’s ability and opportunity to achieve the things that they value. Sen’s work has been applied in a variety of ways and purposes, which includes the exploration of the capabilities of groups and collectives. Rather than focusing on the capabilities of people, this panel proposes the use of the capability approach to focus on the conditions and attributes of institutions to enable knowledge translation that builds pathways towards urban equality. We understand translation as the process in which different forms of knowledges, shaped by research and practices, inform, influence and transform each other.

This panel will also dialogue with existing literature exploring the interaction between knowledge production and institutional changes. Palmer et al sustain that building a capable state is a prerequisite for rights-based sustainable development, understanding a capable state as “one where intergovernmental arrangements do not falter or fragment at the point of service delivery (…) is the very antithesis of the neo-liberal logic of service provision, and is instead the foundation of a progressive rights-based settlement agenda” (Palmer et al, 2017:5). To this respect, it would be important to look back to some of the lessons from institutionalisation of gender (Eyben and Turquet, 2013; Halford and Leonard, 2001; Levy, 1998) to learn from the conflictive processes of institutionalising marginalised positions, and to explore what are the institutional capabilities to address social change.

Drawing on the notion of Strategic Action Planning (Levy, 2007), one could consider that in order to build pathways to urban equality, the main capabilities that a knowledge translation process should support are those that facilitate the creation of synergies between actors, have a multiplying effect, enhance agency of citizens, expand their room for manoeuvre (Safier, 2002; Levy, 2015), building capacities locally and regionally. If these attributes are approached as institutional aspirations, a capability approach would emphasize the need to investigate the practices, abilities and opportunities institutions have to pursue these valued institutional capabilities. In terms of practices, it would be necessary to understand the routines, initiatives, strategies and tactics of institutions, interrogating them and the different ways of translating knowledge into practice. For example, a university might focus on building pathways for urban equality by helping staff to translate their research into public engagement initiatives; a municipal government might focus on using information produced about informal settlements to produce neighbourhood plans; an informal network of street traders might decide to use its knowledge about trading to improve the physical conditions of market place where members of the network sell their goods. Then, a capability lens would require interrogating the ‘conversion factors’ shaping the ability and opportunity of institutions to convert these ‘knowledge translation practices’ into achieved institutional aspirations. The conversion factors of institutions involve their access and control of various assets (i.e. political, social, human, financial), as well as wider institutional context where they are situated. Such institutional context is shaped by (formal and informal) relations with other institutions as well as urban policy/planning arrangements. Finally, a capability approach would require positioning these processes in wider social, economic, environmental and political trends affecting urban inequality.

This panel argues that urban planning provides a rich setting to explore institutional capabilities to translate knowledge in ways that build pathways to urban equality, as it “represents a privileged site to assess the translation of an ethos of inquiry into the political field of practice, intervention and engagement” (Bhan et al, 2018:8). To support and research these processes, it is indispensable to understand the arenas in which marginalised forms of knowledge co-production are incorporated to planning research and practice. The cases of Bangalore, Kampala and Havana will provide rich examples of ongoing engagements in the city with groups and knowledges that usually remain at the margin of the urban debates. In the process of implementing global agendas of urban equality, unequal social dynamics can only be transformed if relations and geographies of power in knowledge production and circulation, as well as the spaces of translation of those knowledges, are challenged.

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