Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, at the High-Level Round Table on Sustainable Floating Cities, in New York today:
What a thought-provoking way to end one’s afternoon here at the United Nations Headquarters — the very first Round Table on Sustainable Floating Cities. It is not every day that I am asked to speak on topics as unusual and innovative as floating cities. I am delighted to learn how you are pushing our thinking on this topic and opening our eyes to potential solutions for a more sustainable future.
I commend the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and its leadership, Maimunah Mohd Sharif and Victor Kisob, for convening this group of leading visionaries, innovators, explorers, marine engineers and scientists. I also want to thank the co-convenors who helped to make this unique day possible: Marc Collins Chen, the CEO of OCEANIX; Professor Nicholas Makris of the MIT Center for Ocean Engineering; and Richard Wiese, President of the Explorers Club.
This round table shows how different the world in which the United Nations is operating is from when this institution was founded in 1945. Today’s diverse urban areas face new and growing threats — not least climate change and growing inequality. Our approaches to development and environmental sustainability in cities need a serious retooling to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. This is why the Secretary-General and I have encouraged United Nations entities to take on frontier issues.
This need to explore frontier issues also applies to cities, which are often our testing ground for new ideas and solutions. We live in a time when we cannot continue building cities the way New York or Nairobi were built. We must build cities with solutions for low‑emission development — scaling safe and electric‑powered public transport solutions and changing the grid on which cities rely to clean energy solutions. We must build cities for people, not cars. And we must build cities knowing that they will be on the frontlines of climate‑related risks — from rising sea levels to storms.
Floating cities can be part of our new arsenal of tools. For example, because of climate change, cities are increasingly at risk of flooding. In Bangkok, the ground on which some parts of the city stands is sinking by around two centimetres every year, according to some estimates, while sea levels in the Gulf of Thailand are rising.
Growing urban populations are also increasingly pushing people closer to the water. In Lagos, the urban poor have responded to the lack of land and a growing population by living in floating villages on the outskirts of town. And in Singapore, land is so scarce that the city has, through land reclamation, expanded its size by almost a quarter since its independence in 1965.
The challenges facing these and other cities are daunting, but not insurmountable. We will, however, need new tools and approaches to address the challenges we will face in the coming decades. And Sustainable Floating Cities give us an opportunity to reimagine how we build, live, work and play. Cities such as Seattle, Jakarta and Mexico City have made way for houseboats and floating markets for some time. The relationship of these communities with the water they live on highlights how water is integral to cities.
A thriving city has a symbiotic relationship with its water. And as our climate and water ecosystems are changing, the way our cities relate to water needs to change, too. So, today, we are looking at a different type of floating city — a different type of scale. Floating cities are a means of ensuring climate resilience, as buildings can rise along with the sea. And when entire floating communities are designed from scratch, they can be designed as climate‑neutral from the onset. Why not use the abundant wind and water to cover all of their electricity needs?
Floating cities could also experiment with ways to grow their food right on their doorstep — for example through hydroponics and sustainable aquaculture. A floating dairy farm is even being constructed in Rotterdam. As experimentation with floating cities moves forward, there is also an opportunity to design them in a manner that fits local needs. From traditional houseboat communities to high‑tech experiments, there are many examples to learn from.
We are gathered here because we share a commitment to a better urban future. And everyone here — Governments at all levels, the private sector, academia, scientists, civil society and the United Nations — has an important part to play in realizing that commitment.
A profound reality of modern society is that no country, institution or individual can solve today’s complex challenges alone. Global challenges that affect all of us — including poverty, climate change, social unrest, disease outbreaks and mass movements of refugees and migrants — underline the urgency of partnership. Despite growing evidence of the power of collaborative relationships, a serious disconnect persists.
The entry point for collaboration is sometimes unclear, leading to partner fatigue and lost opportunity. In addition, hotspot innovation hubs are sprouting in specific locations, but not everywhere. If not carefully navigated, this will exacerbate inequalities, rather than bridge them. To explore the potential of floating cities, we need to prioritize new partnerships.
For example, innovators, researchers and private sector leaders can develop the technologies that allow floating cities and buildings to be constructed in a manner that is sustainable, resilient and liveable. Governments can create an environment and incentives for innovation to thrive. And local authorities can facilitate the construction of pilot projects. They can work with architects, engineers and stakeholders to identify where floating buildings and communities are a useful element of urban and climate planning.
For the United Nations, I see a role not only in convening such a diverse range of stakeholders, but also in working with cities around the world to ensure that those that could most benefit from this discussion have access to the necessary skills, knowledge and resources. That is why I am heartened UN-Habitat has taken such a bold step to by providing this forum to share cutting-edge ideas, inform policy, inspire collective action and explore concrete ways to replicate and scale innovations.
In conclusion, I would like to leave you with three thoughts to advance the objectives of this Roundtable: First, I urge you to consider this forum as just the start of your development of a new brain trust of leading thinkers and practitioners to fully explore and increase the understanding of the opportunities Sustainable Floating Cities offer to solve the pressing challenges faced by coastal urban areas. I look forward to an update on this.
Second, I encourage you to join and support UN-Habitat on their intention to create a platform to co-create breakthrough innovations for a better urban future and environmentally sustainable human settlements. Let us work together to elevate, scale and replicate the most innovative solutions.
Third and finally, I urge you to contribute your solutions — developed today and in the days ahead — to the Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit in September. We are calling on all innovators — from Government agencies to United Nations hubs and entrepreneurs to develop climate solutions. Climate change is the most pressing issue of our time and there is no shortage of innovative solutions. We must provide the spaces and scale up support for those solutions to make a real impact in the lives of people. Thank you.