Geun Hyeong Yim, the CEO of CityNet, recently had an interview with The Leader, a monthly magazine featuring interviews with political leaders, aiming to help create a clean political environment. During the interview, Mr. Yim emphasized the role of CityNet in the era of COVID-19, as a city-to-city network with a long history in the Asia-Pacific region. Although all meetings have shifted to contact-free over the past months, Mr. Yim mentioned that CityNet has been putting effort into promoting best practices and urban solutions through online lectures, publications, and mailing to accommodate the new obstacles. He looks forward to more actively establishing regional-level city cooperation and city diplomacy through CityNet Secretariat.
The full interview translation can be found below.
Please tell us how you feel about your inauguration and the importance of CityNet in the era of COVID-19.
GY: Until last year, I was the Ambassador of International Relations at Seoul Metropolitan Government, which made me realize the importance of city diplomacy and led me to my present post after retirement as a civil servant for more than four decades. I feel all the more responsible as I was inaugurated in the era of COVID-19, during which the role of city-to-city cooperation has become more significant than ever.
As COVID-19 was spreading in the Asia-Pacific region, I realized there was no control tower in the Asia-Pacific region, while WHO acted as one for the world. At that time, the Korean Epidemic Prevention Model was being spotlighted, and among the Korean cities, Seoul had made itself the most successful example. I came up with the idea of collaborating with Seoul, the president city of CityNet, to respond to our regional problem. Since the early stages of epidemic outbreak, we have tried to involve CityNet by taking an active role in our collective response to COVID-19. As one of the city-to-city organizations in the Asia-Pacific region with a long history and strong network, we considered it obvious that CityNet needed to play a significant role in helping alleviate the regional disaster situation.
Introduction of CityNet, its role, and program
GY: As you can assume by its name, CityNet is a city-to-city network. In 1987, based on the Yokohama Declaration (Declaration of Promotion of Cooperation between Local Governments and NGOs for Development of Human Settlements adopted at the First Asia-Pacific Conference held in 1982 under the sponsorship of UNESCAP and UN-HABITAT), CityNet was established jointly by UNESCAP, UNDP, and UN-HABITAT. For this reason, CityNet has a long history and a strong authority in urban diplomacy of the region. It is not by coincidence that CityNet, with both its history and network, was able to effectively respond to disaster situations, such as COVID-19.
One of the most important roles of CityNet is to take the lead in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. Achieving the SDGs is the biggest common objective of the international society, striving to implement 17 main goals and 169 policy targets before 2030, including universal values, global environmental issues, and economic social issues. To implement the SDGs in different targets, which were set by the UN while Mr. Ban Ki-Moon was serving as its Secretary-General, it is important to come up with appropriate solutions according to specific regional conditions. CityNet is leading implementation of SDGs in cities through its unique program called the “Urban SDG Knowledge Platform”. The platform was established in 2016 jointly by CityNet, UNESCAP, and Seoul Metropolitan Government. The Urban SDG Knowledge Platform creates an atmosphere for communication, introduces specific urban policies for targeted SDGs and goes as far as to recommend know-hows regarding budget, manpower, stakeholders, period and etc.
Another important role of CityNet is, of course, its facilitating role in capacity building training and technology transfer. CityNet has been cooperating with various regional partner organizations to implement these projects. Firstly, the Seoul Human Resources Development Institute (SHRDC) provides capacity building training programs related to transportation and smart cities. Next, the Kuala Regional Education Center, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, conducts training programs on the theme of infrastructure and low-carbon city development once or twice a year. Thirdly, the Housing and Urban Development Corporation, Limited, located in Delhi, India, handles annual training projects regarding the supply of affordable housing for middle and low-income groups. Lastly, Think City, located in Penang, Malaysia, offers online webinar series on urban resilience and, in addition, provides a platform designed for local governments and CityNet member organizations to explore and build up opportunities for multilateral cooperation. Furthermore, I think that we need to develop projects that have business value and can be linked to business models in conjunction with domestic and foreign aid agencies.
What are the difficulties CityNet is facing and what are their solutions?
GY: The UN predicts that more than 70% of the world’s population will reside in cities by 2050. Furthermore, according to the Asia-Pacific People’s Forum on Sustainable Development, hosted by the UN in 2019, the role of local governments is becoming more important, as more than 65% of the SDGs are to be implemented in cities. Considering less than 10 years are left until the year 2030, closer cooperation among cities and related organizations seems to become more important.
However, most of cities in our region do not seem to properly understand the need and importance of city-to-city cooperation. I think it is also the role of CityNet to help people realize its importance.
In other words, I think that CityNet’s exposure to both the national and international scenes has not been adequate. Since CityNet moved to Seoul from Yokohama, Japan in 2013, not many local governments in Korea have been able to make the best use of it. Therefore, expanding membership to the Korean local governments should be its priority. Equally important is its external expansion. Currently, there are around 170 CityNet members, of which 110 are cities. Strenuous efforts need to be made to bring as many Asia-Pacific cities as possible to its members. Among others, cities of China, the biggest country in Asia should be prime targets of CityNet’s outreach activities and if possible, cities in Oceania need to be considered as potential members as well. Furthermore, I expect that cities in North Korea, where no one has stepped in yet, will get enormous benefits if they open up to the outside world through international organizations like CityNet and participate in international exchanges. No doubt, their access to CityNet cannot fail to contribute to the reduction of tension in the region.
As Seoul City is your president city, don’t you have any difficulties due to the absence of the previous mayor Park Won-soon?
GY: As the mayor of Seoul is the president of CityNet, it is needless to say that his absence works against CityNet activities. In an effort to assure its member cities, CityNet Secretariat immediately informed its members of upcoming political agendas in Seoul and Seoul Metropolitan Government has been asked to express its firm will to continuously act as the president city under the leadership of the acting mayor, Seo Jeong-hyup.
CityNet holds its Congress every four year, and the next Congress will be held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I hope that the newly elected mayor of Seoul would be able to attend the Congress, greet other mayors, and have a productive conversation with them on various cooperative measures in the region.
As we hit the era of COVID-19, all activities turned to be contact-free. Do you have any difficulties regarding this?
GY: Since the main function of CityNet is to facilitate networking, efficiency decreases if activities must be untact. With this weakness in mind, however, we are making efforts to make up for its deficiencies through various activities like online lectures, publications, mailing, etc.
For example, CityNet hosted its first webinar series in April, named “Consultation Series on Rapid Responses on COVID-19” to share information on the current situation and cities’ responses to the disease. The first webinar dealt with the cases of Seoul, Taipei, and Yokohama. In May, the second webinar highlighted an interview with Mr. Cho In-dong, Deputy Mayor for Planning & Coordination, and Mr. Na Baeg-ju, Director-General of Civil Health Bureau, with the goal to introduce to viewers measures and methods currently taken by Seoul Metropolitan Government in fighting against COVID-19. June’s webinar handled the issue of Business Continuity Plans in the pandemic era from social, economic, political, and health perspectives, while sharing the cases of Tokyo, Iloilo, and Colombo. The fourth webinar touched upon the importance of utilizing data in dealing with COVID-19, in collaboration with Habitat Forum (INHAF), an NGO from India.
Other than these, CityNet has organized three webinars on strengthening leadership quality on climate change and has participated in about five webinars together with partner organizations to share the current COVID-19 situation in the Asia-Pacific region. CityNet also published a special edition on local responses and measures to COVID-19. The publication showcased the cases of around 10 cities, such as Seoul, Suwon, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, etc. Currently, CityNet is conducting surveys and interviews with CityNet members under the theme of “CityNet COVID-19 Impact Assessment and Pandemic Preparedness Research.”
Will the new Biden era have any impact on CityNet in its effort to finance the projects, including its relations with domestic and foreign funding agencies?
GY: Overall, the Biden era, which will put emphasis on the return of multilateralism, is expected to be more positive to our activities. In particular, I hope that CityNet, the regional champion in localizing SDGs, can further its cooperation with the European Union, one of the main global agents in implementing SDGs all across the world, through collaborative execution of regional projects.
In fact, CityNet was recently granted support twice for programs from the European Union. The first one was the European Union World Cities’ project, which was implemented in the fiscal year of 2017/2018. The project was planned to establish a long-term city-to-city cooperation program among 8 cities, 4 from Europe and 4 from Korea. The project aimed at establishing an implementation plan for eco-friendly technology and smart city policies through cooperation. The second one was conducted in January this year as a project to learn best practices and policies for energy efficiency of the metropolitan government building in Barcelona to compare and analyze them with those of Korea.
Paralleled with its effort to get financial support from multilateral organizations, CityNet is also looking for opportunities to implement SDGs through KOICA. KOICA was established in April 1991 as a specialized foreign aid agency. Its mission is twofold: to promote friendly, cooperative relations as well as mutual exchanges between Korea and developing countries, and to contribute to overall international cooperation by assisting developing countries’ economic and social development. In other words, KOICA’s mission is in line with CityNet’s major objective, which is focused on the localization of SDGs.
I believe these projects are expected to gain momentum in the Biden era. I also hope that CityNet will work closely with the Korean government, as the basis of the Korean government’s New Deal policy coincides with CityNet’s project orientation.
Finally, do you have any other comments in mind?
GY: I would like to add that ultimately, we can seek to resolve various issues related to North Korea through multilateral institutes such as CityNet.
The current CityNet member cities can be divided into two groups: one group where the mayor is appointed and the other where the mayor is elected by popular vote. Generally speaking, in our organization, elected mayors tend to be active. On the other hand, I sometimes witness that even appointed mayors will be more positive and active according to the will of the central government. In other words, two different types of leadership coexist in CityNet and work together in the name of regional urban diplomacy.
If you ask me to characterize CityNet in terms of top-down or bottom-up criteria, I should say that bottom-up is more appropriate notion for guiding its overall activities, as CityNet is, by nature, an organization without political color. In the work of CityNet, we tend to make decisions from the bottom up, regardless of the political orientation of our members.
In that regard, I hope that CityNet can play a role in bringing North Korean cities to urban cooperation. Starting from non-political issues that North Korean cities want to resolve such as those of environment, transportation, water and sewage, and air pollution, the areas of cooperation could expand into a higher political level. I believe that this approach is in line with the South Korean government’s North Korea policy. For example, if Seoul Metropolitan Government is willing to provide technical cooperation with North Korean cities, perhaps as a pilot project, to improve the water quality of the Taedong River, and North Korean cities wish to learn from Seoul’s experience, then CityNet can provide a platform for discussing their common projects.