City leaders can employ education for more than just growing their economy

social-media-sliderOne area where education doesn’t have to make its case is in its power to foster economic growth in urban areas. Cities can attract human capital and foreign direct investment by positioning themselves as global hubs for higher education, skills, talent, knowledge and innovation. Take the megacity of Shanghai, China, as an example, which has access to over 100,000 graduates, and has doubled the proportion of college educated labour force in a decade. Similarly, Stanford University has reportedly had significant global economic impact: 18,000 firms created by its alumni are based in urban areas in its home state of California.

But cities are about more than infrastructure, clean air and economic growth. People, and more people every day, live there. The goal on Cities in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda aims to make them “inclusive and sustainable”. It says nothing about making them built up metropolises.

One of the major challenges cities face is that they house many people working in vulnerable informal employment. In 2013, domestic workers, homebased workers and street vendors accounted for about one-third of urban employment in India, for example; street vendors alone accounted for 15% of the urban workforce in South Africa. Since education is inextricably tied to employment prospects, it is a vital partner in fostering more inclusive economies. Our latest GEM Report, for instance, showed that 39% fewer workers from poorer backgrounds would be in low paying informal work and in working poverty if they attained the same education level as workers from richer backgrounds.

city-1Making cities inclusive goes beyond the provision of decent work opportunities, of course. Many city residents, including migrants, slum dwellers and refugees are denied access to vital services, including public education.   The PLACE chapter in our Report details the extent of the problem, showing that more than one-third of urban residents in lower income countries live in slums or shanty towns in city centres or urban peripheries. These are often characterized by poor access to basic services, including education, and especially to education that is publicly provided.  Similarly, by late 2014, 6 out of 10 refugees lived in urban areas, many of whom do not go to school. In Turkey, for example, only 30% of refugees in urban areas are enrolled in school.  In addition, migrants to cities looking for employment face challenges such as discrimination, language barriers, unemployment and exploitation in the informal economy.

Education for these people is important not just because it is their right, but also because it can provide support to dwellers who lack official documents to their name, and are invisible to state services. Here, lifelong learning, teaching not just through school, but in non-formal education settings, and through into adulthood, is important. Many migrants and refugees are youth and adults also desperately in need of a greater understanding of the rights they can call on. Curitiba recognised the benefit of this approach, and used retired buses as mobile training centres. Buses were also sent on certain days to slums to teach adults basic literacy skills, combining literacy studies with health education.

city2Making this step change will require us to train urban planners to better understand local needs. They need training in how to treat cities as living organisms, not just as a group of buildings and houses. They need to learn to approach planning in a different way, and in a way that will involve going out and talking to people about their needs, and engaging more with those who live in the field. This is why the indicator for SDG 11 on cities is disappointing as it says nothing about education or other critical basic services, but hones the focus straight back to housing.

Better training for city leaders is not just important for urban planning in general, but also for integrated urban planning that addresses education. We should make the most of this, by helping with better exchanges of knowledge between city leaders. It would be a shame if a lack of capacity held us back from our ambitions.



  1. People mostly turn towards city just to make money. There are numbers of labor class who are uneducated, the organization or employer should try to provide the skills and education opportunity to them.

  2. Very nice blog indeed. People really need to understand the importance of education. It’s just not for the sake of degree but to be independent. City leaders should understand that more educated people would not only help in growing economy but will make the city standout with highest literacy rate. Come join Satshri Technologies where we have the same vision of imparting education. We believe everyone can learn. Come to us and feel the difference. We provide the best internships in the tricity. You can check us at

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