Dato' Maimunah Sharif, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UN Habitat

By Medha Basu

Women in GovTech 2018 Special Report.

How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

UN-Habitat is a 40-year-old organisation that started as a United Nations Centre for Human Settlements. Our mandate has evolved over the years, including with the adoption of the New Urban Agenda in Quito, Ecuador in 2016, in which UN-Habitat was given a focal point role in the implementation, monitoring and reporting of sustainable urbanisation issues.

What do I mean by urbanisation, you may ask? Urbanisation is a process to provide a better quality of life – either in the city or in the rural area. Whatever facilities that you have in a city, you should have the same in the rural area to reduce rural-urban migration. That’s what I mean by urbanisation – not building skyscrapers. In the context of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals, we were also given the mandate to implement SDG 11 – to make cities inclusive safe, resilient and sustainable.

Our HQ is in Nairobi, but for Asia, we have regional offices in Fukuoka, Bangkok and also a small office in Vietnam. Globally, we have a presence in 93 countries.

My role here is to lead this organisation, as its Executive Director. We just formulated our new vision to provide a better quality of life for all urbanising world. When I joined to UN-Habitat, I inherit an organisation with a lot of challenges, including financial challenges. I’m very happy to share with you – as a Malaysian and also as an Asian – that our financial situation is improving.

In terms of using technology, UN Habitat has been collaborating with the Swedish gaming studio Mojang and Microsoft since 2012 to develop an innovative community participation methodology that uses Minecraft to co-design public spaces. Minecraft is one of the world’s most popular video games (100+ million users), best imagined as a digital Lego or a simple 3D sketching tool that anyone can learn quickly. We have used the tool in more than 50 projects in 30 countries, including Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, Niger, Mexico, Peru, Nepal, Indonesia, India and Kosovo. To date, about 18,600 people have participated in the Minecraft project, and about 1.5 million people have benefited from the public spaces designed and upgraded using this technology powered participatory approach.

Our experiences show that using Minecraft is a fantastic way of engaging hard-to-reach groups, especially youth in participatory processes.

This year in October, in partnership with Colab, we launched the Sustainable Cities Consultation, an innovative online platform that will allow citizens of 5,570 cities in Brazil to provide feedback on the current state of their city. The results will help guide local authorities and decision makers to create public policies to respond to challenges of urbanization in an efficient and integrated way, from the perspective of the city inhabitants. We can already report that as of 1st November 2018, 4,200 citizens have already been engaged in 600 cities.

We are proud of this partnership with Colab, a citizen-to-government engagement platform that offers a social network for citizens, focused on issue reporting, urban improvement suggestions and public services evaluations, as well as participation in the decision-making process.

As far as internal management is concerned, last September, we launched the “SpeakUP” application, which aims to raise awareness on the prevention and prohibition of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. We provide a central repository for users to easily access the necessary information about the rules and regulations that govern this type of misconduct in the United Nations, including steps taken within the UN system to promote gender parity. We provide the necessary information on ways to report such behaviour, to whom and where. Employees can call or email a 24-hour hotline resource managed at UN Headquarters.

What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2018?

In January 2018 I moved to Nairobi, Kenya, to assume the position of Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). With my colleagues and the support of Member States, we embarked on the challenging, yet exciting and rewarding enterprise of reforming UN-Habitat, along four main components:

First is a reform of the governance and oversight architecture. The first time I met the UN Secretary General, he gave me six months to complete this reform.
Second, we are now undergoing a transformative change at UN-Habitat in terms of culture to rethink the (i) vision; (ii) impact; (iii) leadership; (iv) collaboration; (v) team; (vi) systems; and (vii) funding aspects of UN-Habitat.

The third one is that I am looking into an organisational restructuring to make the organisation lean and fit-for-purpose.

And the fourth is the formulation our Strategic Plan 2020-2025, which places frontier technologies and innovations for urban development, as a priority area of work.

We were successful in getting Member States to adopt a new governance framework. This is a historical moment for UN-Habitat considering that a new governance structure has been under discussion and negotiation for the past 14 years.

Equally, Member States (the UN-Habitat Committee of Permanent Representatives) endorsed the Strategic Plan 2020-2025 through which we have reshaped the strategic focus of the agency and positioned UN-Habitat well to be a center of excellence and innovation in a changing UN environment.

If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2018, what would it be?

Well, since the central theme of this year was the reform of UN-Habitat, I have the following pieces of advice for anyone involved in the reform of a major international development organisation:
  • Create a strong vision and build a common sense of purpose among staff around that vision;
  • Establish a plan very early on in the reform process and stick to it; and
  • If you are dealing with countries/Member States in your reform process, involve them fully. Establish trust and a sense of togetherness with them.
On a personal level, my advice is to be humble, always think positively and turn challenges into opportunities. When I started this job, I had no previous experience working in the UN and I just hit the ground running. All my experience was in Penang and in Malaysia as town planner and Mayor. I didn't apply for this job; I was handpicked by the UN. So I always say to myself that I believe that God sent me to the UN; there must be a reason why and I always think of a positive reason.

I came from a poor family and I know what poverty is all about - SDG1. I know what mobility is all about because I cycled to school. I know what gender inclusion is all about because I have been jeered when I cycled to school because I was poor. Now, in this role, I want to make change happen and give back to communities.

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2019?

In 2019, as far as technology is concerned, I am interested in everything related to frontier technologies and smart cities.

Frontier technologies are profoundly influencing the emergence of smart cities, how we build and manage our cities and human settlements, and how urban managers take more informed decisions. These currently include, among others: the internet of things, sensor networks, machine-to-machine communication, robotics, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, 3D printing, Geographic Information systems (GIS), remote sensing, autonomous unmanned vehicles, drones, blockchain, cryptographic computing, and big data processing and visualisation.

What are your priorities for 2019?

I would like to frame my priorities for 2019 in the context of the transformation of UN-Habitat that we started this year. In this regard, my new year resolutions for 2019 are:
  • To complete the reform process and get UN-Habitat to be more trusted, transparent, efficient and accountable;
  • To empower and enable UN-Habitat to be an Organization fully capable to deliver on its most crucial mandate – sustainable urban development;
  • To be a Centre of Excellence and Innovation on specialized matters on sustainable urban development; and
  • To refocus and align UN-Habitat to deliver on our next ambitious Strategic Plan 2020-2025.
What is one skill that has helped you the most throughout the course of your career?

If you allow me, I will mention two skills: listening and patience.

I think as a leader I must be visionary and treat my staff as a partner. I listen to people and also share with my people. I believe in top to bottom and also in bottom-up convergence of ideas in the centre. You cannot just listen; you have to make a decision, that's where leadership power comes in.

What advancements do you predict will happen in your field in the next ten years?

First, I would like to see that most people will have a shelter or housing in communities. At the city level, I foresee advancements in the areas of seamless and connected mobility as well as resource efficiency. At the Paris Peace Forum, I mentioned that this is not only the internet of things; now people talk about the internet of trust, creativity and innovation.

I foresee the emergence of smart cities that have transitioned to a fully circular economy with zero waste. You must have an integrated, holistic sustainable development plan connecting all as an ecosystem. We cannot just look at housing and waste separately.

And of course, gender mainstreaming is very close to my heart since my time as Mayor of Seberang Perai in Malaysia.

Coffee, yoga, music… what powers you through your day?

I would say coffee. But more important the passion I have for my job, to improve quality of life for all in a world that is increasingly urbanising, and the vitamin P (as in passion) I get out of it, powers me through my days.

Also my belief in myself keeps me going and give me the spirit and strength to go. And furthermore, I have a very good husband who has followed me to Nairobi and this has given me a good push to go further.