Innovation Programme
Incubating fresh thinking and approaches to urban challenges, particularly in rapidly-urbanising cities



Innovation for Transformation


The Cities Alliance Innovation Programme aims to incubate fresh thinking and approaches to urban challenges, particularly in rapidly urbanising cities.

Through the programme, Cities Alliance provides seed funding for projects as well as access to networking and learning that helps grantees transform their cities and communities. It is a flexible instrument designed for new and non-traditional partners, especially in those cities and communities that are typically left behind.

With its thematic approach, the programme is also designed to promote comparisons between different approaches to solving a specific problem or challenge. It enables Cities Alliance to analyse the different project experiences, identify best practices and lessons learned, and disseminate them at the global level.

The Innovation Programme is an evolution of the Cities Alliance's Catalytic Fund, marking its transition into a truly innovative, flexible funding window.


Approach to Innovation


Within the programme, innovation refers to the development of concepts, products and processes that are either new in absolute terms or a novelty in their application and adaptation to a different context.

Innovation is not an end in itself, but is part of longer term change. In other words, innovation has to be able to create societal value and should trigger longer term impacts in order to generate a catalytic effect. The ultimate goal is for an innovation to be institutionalised, scaled and replicated.

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Innovation Projects 


Since its launch in 2011, the Innovation Programme has funded 41 innovative projects in 35 countries, disbursing over USD 6 million in grant funding. It has issued five thematic calls for proposals: Adaptation to Climate ChangeSecure TenureMigration, Know Your City, and Youth and the City, and one open call.

These projects have catalysed urban transformation processes, created partnerships among urban development actors, and leveraged funding. Some are being scaled up within a country or integrated into national policies.




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Without innovation there is no way we can overcome the challenges of our times.
António Guterres, UN Secretary-General

Stronger Partnerships: Local Innovations for New Climate Realities in Cities (2020)


Climate change is increasingly affecting cities in a variety of ways: among the impacts are an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as heatwaves or heavy rains, causing landslides and flooding. The urban poor, being in the frontline of impacts and disproportionally affected by climate change, need to be enabled to implement actions to cope with these impacts, while taking advantage of the benefits and opportunities brought by such interventions. With a focus on communities in informal settlements, this initiative aims to bridge this gap by supporting the urban poor to prepare for climate change impacts, while creating opportunities to improve their living conditions and fully enjoy the right to the city.


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Secure Tenure in African Cities: Micro Funds for Community Innovation (2019)


Achieving tenure security, land and property rights in informal urban settlements remains one of the most persistent, intractable development challenges today. The situation is particularly acute in Africa, which is experiencing very high population growth rates, notably in its small and medium-sized cities.

Urban poor individuals and communities are essential actors in strengthening tenure security, and small-scale, short-term incremental solutions can be key to improving tenure security and housing conditions, and to city-building. This approach is at the heart of our Secure Tenure in African Cities initiative.

The Call addressed the connection between the issue of land tenure, Africa’s growing young population, and its capacity to innovate and deploy modern technologies. It was funded by Cities Alliance member, Omidyar Network.

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Photo by: Pamoja Trust


Migration and the Inclusive City (2015)


Through its work, the Cities Alliance recognises migration as an integral part of the development challenges shaping patterns of urban growth as well as the economic, social and cultural vibrancy of cities. The flow of money, knowledge and ideas between destination and origin cities can catalyse innovation and development at both ends, potentially making migrants key players in city growth, resilience and sustainability.

With this call for proposals, the Cities Alliance sought innovation in policy responses and practical approaches that increase spatial, social and economic inclusion by also extending to migrants the rights to the city: Access to land, services, opportunity, as well as to an urban citizenship.

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Photo by: Oxfam


Know Your City: Information for Transformation (2014)


The choice of the theme Know Your City for the 2014 Call for Proposals reflects the Cities Alliance’s strong conviction that a better knowledge of cities – and innovative ways of doing so – can bring the city government and its citizens together and help them engage with each other, build trust, share information, and improve accountability. These actions, in turn, support good governance and inclusive planning processes.


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Photo by: SafetiPin


Youth and the City (2012)


For the first time, the 2012 Call featured a specific theme: “Youth and the City: Challenges of and Visions for Demographic Change.” The theme built on the Cities Alliance's efforts to integrate gender and youth in its work programme.

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Photo by: Enda ECOPOP


Open Call/Slum Upgrading (2011)


For the first Catalytic Fund call in 2011, objectives and activities of the proposed projects were required to be within the mandate and scope defined by the Cities Alliance Charter: Strengthening and promoting the role of cities in poverty reduction and in sustainable urban development.

The call aimed to attract projects in line with these objectives, such as a slum upgrading programme, ones that promoted strategies and policies designed to manage urban development, or knowledge activities aimed at sharing experiences on inclusive cities.

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We see innovation as the development of concepts, products and processes that are either new in absolute terms or a novelty in their application and adaptation to a different context.
Cities Alliance Secretariat


Field surveying, Beirut, 2017 (Migration CfP)


Many of our funded projects demonstrate a long-lasting impact beyond project closure as their approaches were upscaled or institutionalised. Others changed government policy in the long run, led to follow-up funding, or became the starting point for new programmes. Here are some examples:


Promoting scale


Promoting Scale

A number of Innovation Programme projects were sufficiently successful to have been replicated and upscaled to other areas.

Creating safer communities in Bogotá, Delhi, and Nairobi: Based on successful pilot projects in Bogotá, Delhi, and Nairobi funded by the Cities Alliance, SafetiPin received follow-up funding from several donors (UN Women, the Asia Foundation, and The Secretary of Women Bogotá). SafetiPin has since upscaled and replicated the safety audits by conducting a second phase and expanding into new cities and countries. And in response to the safety audits, the municipality of Delhi improved over 70 per cent of the dark spots identified by SafetiPin.


Improving local government accountability in La Paz, Bolivia: An online platform that allows residents to send real-time feedback on municipal services improved the accountability and service delivery of the municipal government significantly. The municipality is currently planning to expand the tool into other neighbourhoods.

Watch a video summarizing the project.


Increasing citizen awareness of rights and services in Guinea-Bissau: The NGO ESSOR introduced one-stop shops that have made it easier for residents of underprivileged neighbourhoods to access information on basic services and to contact local authorities. Their success enabled the organisation to secure follow-up funding from the European Union, allowing project activities to continue and additional one-stop shops to be created.

Watch a video summarizing the project.






Some Innovation Programme project activities or tools have been taken up and institutionalised by communities and local governments and are continuing to transform many cities.



Placing youth at the centre of neighbourhood rehabilitation in Dalifort-Foirail, Senegal: Youth were mobilised towards rehabilitation of their neighbourhood and trained through community development projects. Many of the established structures and positions have been integrated into the municipality’s social work, such as the community security guards and a youth office, which are now run and financed by the local authority.


Improving public safety in Lima, Peru, and Guatemala City: Citizen collectives formed in Lima continue with the project activities of informing their communities on public safety. Similarly, the capacities of the reporting platform on public transportation safety were transferred to local authorities in Guatemala City through a cooperation agreement after project closure.


Centres for youth employment in Nouakchott, Mauritania: With Cities Alliance funding, the NGO GRET pioneered a systematic approach to youth employment by establishing one-stop centres and cooperation with local authorities, companies, and civil society organisations. The centres were so successful that the concept was integrated into a Mauritanian government national vocational training programme for youth.



Influencing Policy

Influencing Policy

Through close engagement with authorities, Innovation Programme projects influence local and national policies over the long term.



Making the case for incremental tenure in South Africa: An Innovation Programme project developed a practical regional booklet demonstrating the need for incremental tenure in slum upgrading processes and which influences policy makers’ thinking today.


Data platforms for advocacy and planning in India and the West Bank: Open data sets established by Innovation Programme projects in East Jerusalem and India remain accessible to the public beyond project closure and continue to inform advocacy work and influence decision-making processes.

Watch a video summarizing the project in India and the West Bank.


Using evidence to advocate against forced evictions in Myanmar: Mapping activities of informal settlements and the related advocacy activities have played a significant role in influencing the government to refrain from the practice of forced evictions.

Watch a video summarizing the project.



Capacity Building & Empowerment


Capacity Building & Empowerment

Trainings, awareness raising and advocacy campaigns were some of the activities deployed by Innovation Programme projects to promote long-lasting changes.


Enterprise to empower domestic workers in Bangladesh: through job matching, rights awareness, training, and advocacy work, CityWorks takes a four-pillar approach to ensuring rights and opportunities for domestic migrant workers in Bangladesh. Implemented by Oxfam, the approach combines setting up of a social development company while promoting larger, structural changes by engaging active citizens to negotiate for more accountable governments.


Training of migrant community paralegals in Nigeria: the Community Legal Support Initiative provided support for slum communities that were largely populated by migrants and immigrants to organise and gather data, and then engage with policymakers and government agencies to build a more inclusive Lagos. The project also provided training and support for a network of migrant community-based paralegals in Lagos slums so they can provide grassroots legal services to migrants.


Building capacities of youth, local governments, and NGOs in Chad: the social and economic integration young people in the Walia, Dembé, Chagoua and N'djari neighbourhoods in N'Djamena was improved through the implementation of socio-educational, training and professional integration and capacity building schemes of community organisations in these areas.


Shifting Systems


Shifting Systems

Through collaboration and coordination with diverse stakeholders, some Innovation Programme projects developed inclusive and holistic approaches to urban challenges.



Innovative partnership of slum dwellers, planning schools and local authorities on inclusive informal settlement mapping and upgrading in Kenya, Namibia, Uganda, and Zambia: different communities have gained valuable IT, community organisation and mapping skills and better understand the importance of advocating for their rights. The next generation of urban planners is learning “hands-on” the concept of promoting inclusive cities. Authorities, in turn, are showing greater understanding and appreciation for participatory urban planning.


First multi-stakeholder coordination on integration of involuntarily returned migrants in Guatemala: representatives from different sectors who are directly related to migration and social inclusion, including the public and private sectors, academia, and civil society were brought together to improve the effectiveness and results of their actions aimed at integrating deported migrants into the labour market and local economy in Guatemala.

Watch a video summarizing the project.


Urban taskforce from different city sectors to develop inclusive policy responses and city initiatives for migrant inclusion in Italy: urban actors were gathered together to co-plan community development initiatives involving both long-term residents and newcomers in Bologna. An online and offline communication campaign to change the narrative on migrants and showcase the positive impact migration can have on a community was also a key component of the project.



Building on Innovation


Building on Innovation

The Innovation Programme establishes partnerships that open doors to new projects or programmes.



Catalysing a Country Programme in Liberia: A grant to the municipality of Monrovia to improve their municipal data collection system in 2014 was an essential starting point for the fully-fledged Liberia Country Programme with USD 13 million funding from UK-Charity Comic Relief, the European Union, and the World Bank.


Laying the foundations for a potential Country Programme in Sierra Leone: Building on the successful experience in Liberia, the Cities Alliance has started discussions with Comic Relief about a potential Country Programme in Sierra Leone. From 2013 to 2015, Comic Relief was partner of an Innovation Programme project which supported the empowerment of Sierra Leone’s young slum dwellers and is now seeking to re-engage with the Cities Alliance.


Empowering slum dwellers in Nigeria: The Collaborative Media Advocacy Platform (CMAP) is empowering Nigeria’s slum dwellers through community radio and media training to raise their voices and engage with the local government. CMAP has become a central partner for informing the Cities Alliance’s expanding work on forced evictions. The Cities Alliance has supported CMAP in applying for further funding possibilities and is looking to leverage its network, tools and experiences for a long-term engagement in the country.

Watch a video summarizing the project.


Without innovation there is no way we can overcome the challenges of our times.
António Guterres, UN Secretary-General

Stories and insights                                                                                                                                                                                 

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Tackling Climate Change in Kampala's Informal Settlements


For the Bwaise community, poor solid waste disposal practices are exacerbating flooding as waste clogs drains in the community. When it rains, the dilapidated and makeshift shelters that make up the majority of homes in the community are often immersed in the floodwater. This story tells how Tree Adoption Uganda, with funding from Cities Alliance, is responding to poor disposal of garbage in Bwaise.

View of a township in South Africa

What if you bought a new home — but you don’t have the papers to prove it?


In this Blog post, Jessica Robey and Illana Melzer of 71point4 share insights on how a Transaction Support Centre is helping households in South Africa obtaining their title deeds.

Photo by: Pamoja Trust
Photo by: Pamoja Trust
Helping Informal Communities Realize Tenure Security: The Social Tenure Domain Model

Our grantee Pamoja Trust shares insight into an innovative, pro-poor, gender- and youth- responsive tool for inclusive, sustainable, and strong urban communities.


Talking Transformation: Blockchains and Housing Ladders


Kecia Rust (CAHF) and Illana Melzer (71Point4) talk about the housing market in South Africa and present how the Transaction Support Centre is assisting lower income property owners with title deed and other property-related problems.

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Photo by: Democracy Development Programme & ASONET


Migration and Shaping the Inclusive City: the Case of Durban, South Africa


This Cities Alliance Catalytic Fund project applies a gendered lens to analyse the rise of xenophobia in Durban by creating a platform for migrant women to voice their experiences and explore challenges faced by migrant groups in the city.




Lessons learned from our initiatives


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Do You Know Your City? Results from collaborative data initiatives to drive innovation in cities



This publication aims to contribute to the debate on data and cities by highlighting 11 innovative data initiatives that represent diversity in implementing organisation,
contexts, policy sectors and approaches for data collection and use. It highlights common characteristics and challenges that we hope will inspire other local actors to explore new ways of using data and information to get to know and transform our cities.

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Youth and the City: Lessons From 13 Innovative Projects Funded by the Cities Alliance Catalytic Fund and the UN-Habitat Youth Fund


Youth accounts for a significant portion of the world’s population. Working from the assumption that young people create a “demographic dividend” with important contributions to their communities, Cities Alliance and UN-Habitat took advantage of a unique opportunity to learn from leaders of youth city development projects from diverse urban contexts. Both organisations have established funding mechanisms to support innovative city development projects led by and/or focused on young people.

This publication  highlights lessons learned from six of the Youth and the City projects, as well as six additional UN-Habitat projects.