On 2 February 2021, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), in collaboration with the Government of Maharashtra, launched ‘Colaba Conversation’—Mumbai’s signature forum for discussing international policy issues affecting the city, the nation, and the world.
Held over two days and with 20 sessions of panels, conversations, and keynotes, the conference saw speakers from over 20 countries deliberate on issues of global cooperation. In keeping with ORF’s gender-first policy, 34 women experts comprised more than half of the 65 speakers from across the world. Participants included leaders from government, industry, media and civil society, and they deconstructed and debated the key themes in politics and policies that will be vital to the emergence of a new global order.
The conference theme—‘Creativity, Commerce and Communities in the Indo-Pacific’—was motivated by the growing importance of the region. The Indo-Pacific has now replaced the Asia-Pacific as the world’s primary theatre of geopolitics and geoeconomics, making India a primary stakeholder on strategic issues of the region.
Mumbai’s thriving international business centre, creative ecosystem and diverse communities made it an ideal venue for discussing emerging governance issues facing the global community. Named after ‘Kulaba’, one of the seven islands that created the archipelago of Mumbai, the Colaba Conversation served as a medium for multi-stakeholder engagement and dialogue.
Against the backdrop of an increasingly chaotic and contested world order, the discussions focused on globalised cities, green finance, digital governance, and para-diplomacy, with a particular cross-cutting focus on geoeconomics. Of course, this year, all conversations took place in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The focus on para-diplomacy explored the role of sub-national leaders and governments in shaping global developments by directly seeking perspectives from leaders on the changing role of states and cities in global, national and regional policymaking. A key takeaway from the discussions was that international coordination between cities has been catalysed because of the cooperation on climate adaptation and sustainability. This cooperation has provided new impetus for cities and sub-regions to engage with and learn from each other.
The focus on global cities examined how city governance, city planning, the allocation of resources, investments and financing, and gender-sensitive budgeting are being integrated with community engagement to build back not only better but together. The conversations also discussed how coastal cities are being designed and funded in the current geopolitical and geoeconomics context and whether there is a need for establishing a global policymaking forum for cities.
The focus on green finance explored the possibility of India defining its own ‘new green deal’. There are lessons that India can learn from other global cities. Mumbai’s application and admission to C-40, a global forum for cities working on sustainability, illustrates that cities can play a role in mitigation and adaptation in the run-up to COP-26. There are many global efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. But the conversations reminded us that much more needs to be done for the conservation of scarce and natural resources. Indeed, conservation is critical to overcoming the climate threat, but it is increasingly being left out in the global climate discourse.
The focus on digital governance explored the need to regulate new technologies and the role of digital multinationals in ensuring technology is human-centric and accountable, and creates livelihoods for workers. As the conversation progressed, it became clear that there is a demand for some form of regulatory control—even government supervision—on the new technologies and initiatives related to digitalisation. There is a global concern of widespread disruption and also a yearning that the new digital technologies be made available and accessible to all.
Besides the four pillar themes, the dialogue had sessions on geoeconomics, especially to explore the role of Mumbai compared to other financial centres in the region, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai and Shanghai. Mumbai’s rise in the Indo-Pacific region is intrinsically tied to India’s economic rise. Therefore, the rise of Mumbai’s global appeal is dependent on how intricately and effectively the central, state and city governments work with each other to put the hardware and software in place to attract talent, capital and technology. The city needs to capitalise on and channel the finances, technology and talent that are available in increasing measures. Sessions on trade, globalisation and multilateralism reiterated this guidance by calling for India to engage globally on economic issues with more fortitude and clarity. A conversation on the Arabian Sea with experts from the Gulf and East Africa, and a similar conversation on the Indo-Pacific with experts from the US, Australia, Japan and China, helped frame the importance of India, particularly Mumbai, in the geopolitics and geoeconomics of the region.
At the end, it became clear that rethinking a new global governance architecture will need both short-term responses guided by the evolving nature of the pandemic, and long-term ones that will be influenced more by fundamental shifts in global affairs.
We hope that the Colaba Conversation will continue to be a platform through which these developments are monitored by the international community.
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Preeti Lourdes John is Deputy Editor at ORF Mumbai. She oversees the centres longform publications. Preeti is an editor and editorial manager with extensive experience setting up ...Read More +