“If it didn’t already exist, WUF would need to be invented” – Interview with Ullrich Sierau, Lord Mayor of the City of Dortmund, Germany
Last Thursday, the tenth World Urban Forum came to a close in Abu Dhabi. “Cities of Opportunities – Connecting Culture and Innovation” was the forum’s theme, making for a week full of exchange and discussion on the various facets of sustainable urbanisation. URBANET spoke to the Lord Mayor of the German city of Dortmund on his key takeaways from the conference.
From your perspective as a mayor and city representative: what are the central discussions and key issues at WUF10?
Ullrich Sierau: This World Urban Forum is a lot about culture, interconnection, and innovation. A big topic is digitalisation – I talked to many people about its various aspects and also about the problems and challenges that come with it. We also discussed participation a lot, because it is getting more and more essential for steering processes.
It is quite interesting to see that, even if countries and cities are far away from each other, the topics that are being discussed are quite similar. One example for a common global topic is, how are we dealing with people who have to leave their homes? All around the world, cities face the question of how to accommodate to the needs of refugees. But, and this is another thing you learn from here, even if the problem is the same in many regions, the situations are still very different. Understanding this was one of the highlights for me.
Since WUF provides the opportunity for networking and peer exchange with other cities and the global urban community: what interesting concepts, ideas, and opportunities for new or deepened partnerships do you take home to Dortmund?
Ullrich Sierau: The Forum offers a very diverse programme. So, being here and being able to participate already means a lot. It is a quite a challenge to select the right sessions because there are so many interesting events running in parallel. I was a panellist several times and due to that I met a lot of people and had very interesting discussions.
If it didn’t already exist, WUF would need to be invented. It is particularly interesting that you can meet people from so many different continents and backgrounds. Yet, some encounters make you feel sad – when you see the problems other people and mayors have compared to the so-called problems we have in our city. This, actually, makes me humble.
For example, I met the mayor of Quelimane in Mozambique, a municipality that was hit by a storm and flooded twice in 2019. When I talked to him and learned about his challenges, I suddenly considered the challenges we have to cope with here relatively small. I was very impressed by him. And it is through WUF that we got to meet each other. I promised him that I would check how we could cooperate and see if we can send him technical and financial assistance to help rebuild the city and infrastructure. That is definitely an outcome of this World Urban Forum, which I would not have expected before.
Looking at WUF’s guiding theme “Connecting Culture & Innovation” – what can other cities learn from Dortmund’s experiences as European Capital of Culture?
Ullrich Sierau: We have been awarded a European Capital of Culture together with the whole Metropolis Ruhr region, and the city of Essen in the lead, in 2010. During that time, we realised that culture is an amalgam, especially if the region and the city is as diverse as ours.
If you have people from 180 different countries, as we have in Dortmund, then you are looking for means of integration, of how to bring them together. We have learned that an intercultural approach is very helpful, but also that if you assimilate people, they lose their identity. And if they lose their identity, they are not strong and thus cannot contribute their innovations to local society.
That is why we tell them to keep and preserve their culture, because it is an essential part of their identity. If people are feeling at home in Dortmund, within their identity, then they can contribute better to the transformation of the municipality. I shared this experience with a lot of people here at the Forum.
We had panel discussions where some participants said, “If somebody comes to us, he or she has to be integrated and assimilated into our culture.” And this is something that I consider to be very, very wrong. So we had quite intense discussions about that, and at the end people often agreed that the approach we are following in Dortmund is an interesting one. They said that perhaps they should reorganise their structures and campaigns, and perhaps have more respect for the cultures of the people coming to their countries and cities instead of asking them to just integrate into another culture.
Last but not least: what are your three personal highlights of this year’s WUF?
Ullrich Sierau: Overall, it was amazing to meet so many people from different countries, cultures, and professions and to be able to learn from them. That was my highlight number one.
My second highlight was a visit to the city administration of Abu Dhabi, which was organised by the German Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. They showed us their digitalisation and smart city strategy, and I must say that they are 10 to 20 years ahead of us. I was accompanied by Dortmund’s Chief of Innovation and Information, who is responsible for our digitalisation process. He had one ahead project about car parking to share that we are currently implementing. They were very interested in it, but in regard to all other issues they are far ahead of us. This was very motivating, and we expect to be able to learn a lot from them.
My third highlight was the visit to the Future Foundation in Dubai. We asked them if they would be interested in sharing their knowledge with us to foster the sustainable development of Dortmund. Such a cooperation would be a valuable addition to many of our projects and investments. So, we said to our colleagues from Dubai: “You have invited people to the United Arab Emirates. Now we are turning it the other way around and invite you to come to Dortmund or North Rhine-Westphalia. Could you imagine to come?”
And we realised that so far this had not really come to their minds. But through our conversations they said: “Okay, you’re right, perhaps we should move from here in order to not live in a kind of splendid isolation”. We invited a lot of people who are very innovative. It could be a good chance for them to bring their innovations to the market and through that develop new economic impulses for our economies.
We will definitely come back to the Emirates for the Expo 2020-2021. I am looking forward to that. I must confess that before WUF10, I was not aware that the Expo 2020-2021 will be such a huge milestone, not only for the Emirates, but for the world – this changed when I saw the model, when I learned about the projects that are going to be presented there. I am very happy to return next year.