Stakeholder Engagement to reduce Multi-hazard Risk in Tomorrow’s Cities: multi-scale and relational engagement for impact

A group of people in Nepal sat down having a discussion
Marina Apgar, Teresa Armijos, Victoria Chengo, Giuseppe Forino, Adriana Mejia, Mieke Snijder, Dharam Uprety & Cemre Zekiroglu

Photo: SIAS

A central assumption of the Tomorrow’s Cities theory of change is that reducing disaster risk for marginalised populations living in future cities requires that we co-produce interdisciplinary research on multi-hazard risk with a broad range of stakeholders. At the outset, we identified short and long term outcomes for specific stakeholder groups: increased capacity of decision makers in cities to create policies, plans and budgets that prioritise and resource risk sensitive development that considers marginalisation; greater value placed on multi-hazard; and marginalisation sensitive approaches by, and strengthened partnerships, connectedness and dialogue, between all organisations involved in urban disaster risk reduction, as well as the private sector recognising multi-hazard risk in decision making and communities and civil society organisations advocating for pro-poor risk sensitive urban development.

But how are we working with these stakeholders in practice? How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted our ability to engage? And what are we learning about what works and what doesn’t?

The Tomorrow’s Cities Hub is large and complex, including about 180 members embedded across four cities, spanning multiple disciplines and engaging through diverse instructional affiliations in the cities and in the UK (universities, research institutes and civil society organisations). As a network, we have the potential to connect with many stakeholders, using both formal and informal processes, through research and other activities, and explicitly through the Hub work but also as part of other parallel or linked initiatives Hub members are involved in. The Hub’s MEL team have been tracking engagement activities through systematically collecting data on the number and type in each of our four cities. Often, however, monitoring data is kept in the back office, is used solely to report to the funder and not to inform our practice. In line with our commitment to learning, the cross-Hub MEL team presented their monitoring data in an all-Hub webinar on March 11, providing the first opportunity to fully appreciate the shape that stakeholder engagement is taking in the midst of the real challenge of Covid-19.

Victoria Chengo  presented progress with stakeholder engagement in Nairobi, including analysis of the type, levels, and frequency of the engagements. While most interaction has been virtual due to Covid-19, a wide range of disciplinary and inter-disciplinary research meetings (including internal, cross-city & Hub-wide), policy and community dialogues aimed at co-creating knowledge and understanding risk, network, partnership and capacity building events and trainings, as well participation at regional and global webinars and conferences were successfully implemented. Engagement is building legitimacy around the vision of the Hub among key city stakeholders and decision-making bodies linked to disaster risk reduction in Nairobi, and stimulating awareness and demand towards understanding risk through engaging with city-led plans and local communities. Victoria shared a key emerging lesson from these interactions is the acknowledgement that the process of change includes two-way traffic, involving communication and knowledge flows, both from the ground/local levels to the policy levels and vice versa. 

Cemre Zekiroğlu from Tomorrow's Istanbul shared data from engagements with the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality and the Beylikdüzü local municipality, a range of relevant government institutions, the media, academics and a large number of professional bodies (planners, engineers, architects). Most interactions have been virtual over the last year and supplemented with a newsletter that is shared with more than 30 stakeholders (including departments of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Ministries based in Ankara, and Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects) to provide ongoing updates on research conducted. Cemre also shared learning captured through after-action reviews of each engagement activity that highlights the need to build trust to be an honest broker, particularly given the political tensions that exist between stakeholders involved in risk governance in Turkey.  

Teresa Armijos and Adriana Mejia presented experiences of stakeholder engagement in Quito, including a range of institutions (e.g., City Councils of Quito and Cayambe and their departments, and the Quito Museums Foundation), local communities in San Luis de Miravalle and Laderas de San Francisco, high schools of Quito, as well as professionals and associations (e.g. architects, designers, artists, musicians, actors). Interactions have been both virtual and in-person and include Participatory Action Research activities using art-based methods, citizen science activities around water management, and the co-creation of a digital platform to engage local communities and communicate risk in Quito. The signing of agreements with different stakeholders has also allowed Tomorrow's Quito to exchange information and generate spaces of interaction. Teresa and Adriana highlighted the huge amount of work and stakeholder engagement activities that the Tomorrow's Quito team has done so far, with over 300 moments of engagement registered, and the importance of tracking them as a way to measure impacts and to improve future steps of the Hub.

Dharam Uprety from Kathmandu team shared data on facilitated engagement at three levels in Kathmandu: (i) in the local case study site of Khokana, engagement is mainly with the Ward Disaster Management Committee (WDMC) which has been reformed as per the Municipal level DRRM Act 2019 and now has 17 members, including decision makers and representation from multiple stakeholder groups comprises of women, poor, different caste and ethnicity making inclusive decision making committee at local; (ii) at the municipal level in Lalitpur the focus is on risk sensitive land use planning and includes approximately 30 people from the disaster risk ecosystem represent multiple agencies; (iii) at a national level, formation of a steering committee including nine federal agencies linked to national disaster risk management and urban planning. While Covid-19 has slowed down face to face engagement in early 2020, as restrictions have eased in recent months the team has been able to resume face-to-face engagement with multiple workshops that are helping further refine engagement plans.

About 40 participants from across the Hub community attended the webinar. Following the city presentations, we reflected on what we are learning about stakeholder engagement across the four cities, through discussions in small groups. We share here the key themes that emerged and identify opportunities to respond to three central challenges raised.

Who are we are engaging with?

As evidenced through the city presentations there is a broad range of stakeholders the city teams are engaging with, ranging from local communities and marginalised populations within them, the public in general, museums, schools and students, to city planners, academics, professional associations, policy makers and civil society actors. These stakeholders represent the people and groups whose interests and activities affect and are affected by the issue of multi-hazard risk governance and urban planning - the central focus of Tomorrow’s Cities research.

The groups discussed ways in which we can further classify stakeholders as either being directly engaged (and benefiting) or being secondary stakeholders who are indirectly engaged. As several groups also highlighted, given the multi-scale design of the project we can further classify stakeholders across three levels: (i) in specific locations in the city where we work with marginalised people and decision makers; (ii) at city-wide level which includes municipal actors and; (iii) at the national level. These levels are not mutually exclusive, and in our engagement plans we see a particular emphasis in creating opportunities to support collaboration across these levels as central to planning risk out of future urban development. Mapping our current engagements onto a typology of stakeholders across scales will help us to learn across city context specificity and build more explicit cross-scale engagement strategies.

Who is still missing?

In critically reflecting on our work thus far, participants highlighted two stakeholder groups that are central to achieving impact and are less visible in our activities to date.

The private sector is central to urban development, while it may be a silent stakeholder we should appreciate it as one that has considerable power over the future trajectory of urban development. As a sector, it includes a wide range of different stakeholders, for example the flower industry in Cayambe, a case study site in Quito, as they can be directly affected by natural hazards and at the same time, but also have the capacities to mitigate the impact of some of them, or the insurance sector in Istanbul and Kathmandu for developing a risk transfer mechanism, or housing developers and investors in all cities. We concluded that the private sector is both affected by natural hazards, but also plays an important role in reducing risks for marginalised urban populations. We reflected on our own lack of confidence as researchers in engaging with this powerful actor, and how we may feel challenged to move beyond our comfort zone of working with communities, or policy makers and the public. We also wondered if and how the private sector values what our research has to offer?

The second stakeholder grouping we identified as needing greater emphasis in our engagement plans is the organised civil society sector such as NGOs and community based organisations that are directly involved in distaste risk reduction both in terms of responding to disasters and creating space for the voice and agency of marginalised populations. Across the cities, we are to varying degrees engaging with this sector which is more active in some contexts than others. We acknowledged, however, across cities that there is room to be more intentional and explicit in how we engage with them.

How are we facilitating engagement?

A central theme emerging from the conversation around how we engage stakeholders was the idea that engagement is a two-way street and requires active engagement of stakeholders within the implementation process. This active and dynamic view recognises that stakeholders may be part of the whole research process – for example, when we receive data from a particular stakeholder, we then ensure that the findings of the research process are fed back to them and help them in promoting a proactive change for disaster risk reduction. The terms co-production and co-creation of knowledge emerged from our discussions – moving us beyond standard ‘research into use’ linear approaches to engagement, and considering engagement alongside discussions about participatory methodologies. Further distinguishing these two domains of engagement will be helpful to future planning.

We reflected on how building rapport and trust is central to our engagement with stakeholders. This requires use of both formal and informal spaces for interaction, face to face and virtual. For some, Tomorrow’s Cities creates a platform for networking across stakeholders – such that trust is built also between them – referred to as a ‘community of practice’ approach in Nairobi and an ‘urban laboratory’ (Urban Lab) in Quito.  In Quito, the team has also developed a web platform to provide relevant information about multiple hazards in the city to the general public in an accessible and engaging way and show the development of interactions between the society and the local environment across time.

How might stakeholder engagement contribute to movement along our impact pathways?

In discussing how engagement supports impact we highlighted that impact can only be understood in context – each city faces different forms of multi-hazard risk and specific drivers of urban development which is governed through historical and situated institutional and political relationships. Given this context specificity, what stakeholder engagement allows in these early phases of the project is to gain a greater understanding of the needs of critical actors in urban risk management, and to do so in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ensuring that the work we do enables more inclusive, gender sensitive and pro-poor solutions at different scales, requires a matching of our approach to the demands of city stakeholders today, and so knowing the demands become a building block for our impact strategies. Specifically, engaging policy makers helps us learn about real policy scenarios, moving away from the policy on paper view to understanding situated policy in practice as an entry point to achieving real and measurable change.

Beyond gaining understanding of stakeholder needs for interdisciplinary and multi-hazard risk research, participants also highlighted the Hub’s role in facilitating negotiation among and between stakeholders to support shifts in the decision-making system as a whole – to achieve the desired outcome of shifting the culture of risk more broadly - understanding our role as network facilitators. This network facilitation role also creates opportunity to ensure linkages across levels – from the local to the city to the national. To support this facilitation role, engagement in the early phases was thought to build legitimacy across a wide range of stakeholders to strengthen our convening power to bring distinct and potentially conflicted perspectives into conversation as honest brokers.

In particular at the community engagement level, we noted the need to start with increasing community capacity through co-creating knowledge to support community-focused understanding of risk reduction and related actions. This community level impact pathway emphasises engagement in knowledge co-production through the research process.

What challenges motivate our future practice?

In our reflections on our practice thus far, several ongoing challenges were surfaced that can focus our attention on how to build upon learning from early engagement:

  1. First, ethical considerations for stakeholder engagement should inform our engagement strategies. Early practice is evidencing how engaging with marginalised communities is not straightforward, and ethical and associated methodological conundrums abound. Deep contextual understanding of perceptions of us as researchers as well as the lived experience of disasters and disaster risk that marginalised and less powerful people bring is a necessary starting point. Individual and collective reflexivity of hub members is one response that we are supporting through explicit work on our ethics and safeguarding policy.
  2. The relational aspects of engagement is appreciated as perhaps the most important and so considering how the two way street of engagement is further enabled relates to the second challenge raised around being genuine in building relationships that will solidify opportunities for impact now and through future work. In response to this challenge we must collectively centre the facilitation role we play and the associated mindset required – engagement is not simply about sharing our findings, it is about bringing others into co-productive relationships.
  3. A third challenge relates to designing appropriate evaluation research to help us make sense of if and how our attempts at engagement are supporting change, or, indeed, if they are not. Evaluating engagement and the complex relational processes of change it can support is not served by a simple baseline/endline evaluation design, but rather, requires that we identify the causal mechanisms through which we think engagement might contribute to change, and then design evaluation research to empirically test if and how they works in reality. The next phase of hub impact evaluation design offers a directly opportunity to respond to this challenge.

Photo: Albert Koch, Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)