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ICSU at Habitat III: Science, cities and visualization

At Habitat III, the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, ICSU was one of three organizations running Habitat X Change, a space dedicated to promoting science and data visualization as partners for the urban future. The space quickly became the focal point for a vibrant community of conference participants interested in the science-policy interface.

Habitat III took place in Quito, Ecuador from 17-20 October. The New Urban Agenda (NUA), which is intended to guide urbanization policies at the national level through 2030,  was adopted by UN member states at the end of the conference. Habitat X Change was co-organized by the International Council for Science (ICSU), along with Future Earth and the Potsdam University of Applied Sciences.

Over the course of six days, a total of 17 events took place in Habitat X Change – with each organization taking the lead to coordinate and deliver their own series of events. The thematic tracks were Cities and Science (ICSU); the Anthropocene: an Urban Planet (Future Earth) and Data and Visualization (Potsdam). This permitted the ICSU community to increase its presence and visibility in Habitat, especially since Habitat X Change was able to accommodate several side events that had not been selected for the official programme.

Thanks to the central location of the pavilion and successful outreach efforts, the events in Habitat X Change were well attended. Feedback from the audience was very positive, with many participants emphasizing the engaging and high-quality programming.

“Many of the events were ground-breaking and stimulating” – a participating scientist

“I thought it was great that post-Quito processes to improve the science-policy interface were discussed in concrete ways.” – one participant

In the ICSU track Cities and Science, the Urban Health and Wellbeing programme coordinated a successful event on healthy cities. The two other events were on the science-policy-practice nexus, including one developed in partnership with the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

Habitat X Change also became a gathering place for everyone interested in science for the future of urbanization to meet, discover new ideas and try out new technologies. For example, an installation built by the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam showcased several data visualizations on three different cities: Cape Town, Bogota and Singapore, allowing visitors to discover the different ways these cities are developing. A virtual reality experience on Brazilian favelas allowed visitors to test this new technology which will become a crucial tool to build empathy around global challenges such as climate change and sustainable development. Future Earth launched Anthropocene, a new magazine dedicated to solutions-based journalism on building a sustainable human age.

Habitat X Change was also the go-to place at Habitat III to learn about the value of data visualization as a policy tool for cities. Dozens of stunning visualizations dealing with issues ranging from urban density to housing and natural disasters were showcased as part of the results of a global competition coordinated by Potsdam and the Future Earth Media Lab. More than 100 visualizations created by researchers, journalists and students around the world were submitted, and are available from The idea of the project is that some of the most daunting challenges facing cities today are also the most complex. That makes them especially difficult for policymakers and urban planners to understand, and visualizations can reveal insight, patterns, trends that would not be ‘seen’ otherwise.

ICSU co-organized two press conferences and provided overall communications support to many of the partner events, in particular Future Earth’s launch of the Anthropocene magazine in Habitat X Change and at a side event in partnership with Guardian and Citiscope. Habitat X Change demonstrated the value of strategic collaboration at such high-level events and that as coalition the three organizations were able to build much higher engagement than if present separately.

ICSU also engaged its members by making a call for nominations ahead of Habitat III for early career scientists to attend, and four researchers from the Middle East, Asia and the Americas were part of the ICSU delegation at the conference.

For more photos from Habitat X Change, see our Flickr set.

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