Curiosity breeds development
The former secondee shares the serendipitous turn of events that brought her to Asia, how starting the Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund made her stay, and why she is drawn to the low-key.
Alexandra Vogl is an only child, who belongs to a large extended family with many cousins, and yet she was the first one to go to university.
The urban development specialist, under the South Asia Urban Development and Water Division (SAUW), hails from a small city tucked in the mountains outside of Vienna, Austria. Even before she speaks, there is something noticeably different with her. It could be the haircut, or the androgynous clothes at times, or even the atypical layout of her curriculum vitae. No, it is when she tells her story that the observation is confirmed—there is curiosity intermingled with the soft, breathless quality of her voice. It becomes more apparent as she recalls the inspiration behind her decision to become an urban planner. “My grandpa worked in the city administration. I would visit him regularly at city hall and he would explain to me what they were doing, so I think maybe that was the influence. I was always interested in how systems worked.”
In Vienna, where she studied a combined bachelor and master’s degree in urban and regional planning at the Technical University, this curiosity also led her to take a one-year exchange program in Venice. One professor there, who had worked a lot in Africa, opened her awareness to the “concept of development and the countries that are still developing,” she says.
During another postgraduate degree at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, where she worked alongside star-architect instructors like Zaha Hadid, Wolf Prix, Patrik Schumacher, and Eric Owen Moss, the experience ingrained in her the importance of having buildings that provide a purpose to the city, and not simply serve as a stand-alone landmark.
Alexandra went on to work for different government-owned companies such as the Berlin Business Development Corporation, the Center for Innovation and Technology (Vienna), and TINA Vienna Urban Technologies and Strategies. This exposed her to supporting the growth of creative industries in Berlin, as well as real estate development; while in Vienna, she stimulated urban innovation and fostered technology clusters for biotechnology and life sciences, and implemented projects on sustainable urban development. She also established Vienna’s smart city agency, before the concept became the buzzword it is today.
Due to her widespread urban work, she was asked to promote an opportunity for a secondment in ADB. The weekend after she did, she realized that it looked interesting, and applied. The evening she was slotted for an interview, it so happened that she was also asked to be in a conference panel that morning where ADB was also in the same line-up. She got the job.
For Alexandra, being in ADB and Asia brought her to the essence of urban development. The trappings of technologies are well and good, but “it is just one part”. “We should look at how we can make a city more livable.” In the same way, she prefers to travel to destinations that have character and are laidback, always curious about the spots that get overlooked.
“Being in this region gives me more gratitude, or more passion actually, because this is about the real need of people... Here you help people in getting a better livelihood.”
Urban Development Specialist
South Asia Urban Development and Water Division
You mentioned that you were asked to share a terms of reference (TOR) for a secondment to ADB to your network, but you also became interested. What attracted you to the TOR?
Alex: At that time I was the managing director for TINA Vienna, the Smart City Vienna Agency. We worked on supporting cities through their urban strategies using urban technologies, and we often saw that these cities lacked the kind of investment to implement infrastructure. With ADB and the TOR, I felt I could combine both, supporting strategies, new innovations, and also bringing along the financing part. That was one thing I found interesting; and the other one was finding an opportunity to work in Asia, a region I didn’t know before. I’ve mainly worked in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but I’ve never worked in Asia. I knew this was a dynamic region and for me, this is where I could learn and where I can grow. It was a great opportunity.
It’s been six years after. Do you feel that you made the right decision coming to ADB? How do you find Asia?
Alex: In the beginning when I was with RSDD [the former SDCC or Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department—ed.] I was always treated like a staff, which I very much appreciated. My director gave me several responsibilities and the way he acted made me feel that I was part of the team. I was, for instance, negotiating the Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund. Quite early also my director then said, ‘We would like to keep you if you want to apply for a staff position,’ which I did. And since we started to negotiate for the trust fund, I wanted to be a part of the implementation of the trust fund.
I liked ADB and the working environment, and I also liked living in Asia. There was no plan to stay. It just happened.
Your career revolved around exciting aspects of urban development, such as smart cities, urban innovation, and creative industries, which are not the norm in Asia. Wasn’t this quite the change for you?
Alex: Here the excitement is much more! You see the city and you see the many basic needs to be addressed to improve people’s quality of life. There’s much need for basic infrastructure like water supply, sanitation, and urban transport. Also I think the cities here can benefit from my European experience, since they are much quicker in taking up newer opportunities and they can learn from the failures of our development the past 50 years. Here in Asia that kind of development, I feel, happens within 10 years. It’s much faster and it’s much more flexible.
For me, being in this region gives me more gratitude, or more passion actually, because this is about the real need of people. Who cares if there is one creative company more or less? Here you help people in getting a better livelihood.
What projects are you currently working on?
Alex: I’m working on a new project in Nepal. It’s a continuation of what has been done for several years, supporting small towns with water supply infrastructure, which I very much like because it’s kind of a bottom-up approach. Communities are forming water users’ associations to create the water supply for their towns. It’s an inclusive approach with subsidized water connection fees for the poor and with women being part of the management team and in leadership roles. Previously, it was focused mainly on water supply and now for the new project we will include more sanitation infrastructure. Supporting proper sanitation not only helps in the development of the town, it also improves health and the environment. It’s really important to do and there needs to be more training and awareness-raising among the communities.
In Bangladesh I’m also processing a new project to enhance growth potential and improve the investment environment of the Dhaka and Khulna city regions through an integrated development approach. In these city regions, rapid urbanization has fueled fast growth and a demand for urban infrastructure and services since the development of urban infrastructure has not kept pace. The project will provide key urban infrastructure with focus on connectivity and local economic development by supporting key investments for urban roads, sewerage, and solid waste management. The project will also strengthen institutional capacity for effective urban planning, project preparation, and sustainable service delivery.
Another project I had, the Urban Governance and Infrastructure Improvement Project, was just delegated to the resident mission. I’ve been working on this since I joined SAUW. The project follows a performance-based approach to improving municipal governance while addressing the infrastructure gap in secondary towns. Towns have to achieve certain governance criteria to receive investment funds and the decision about priority infrastructure is made with community participation. My first mission for ADB, while I was still on a secondment, was to Bangladesh for this project. I always appreciated the concept of integrated urban development and suddenly I was the one responsible for it.
Are there other aspects of urban planning that you like?
Alex: Urban resilience is close to my heart, not only because that is the topic I started with in ADB. It’s strengthening the resilience not only against climate change but overall. Urban resilience is the capacity of cities to function, so that the people living and working in cities – particularly the poor and vulnerable – survive and thrive no matter what shocks and stresses they encounter. There is no single action that will make a city resilient. Resilience is instead achieved through a number of actions, including hard and soft components, building upon each other over time. The city’s decision-makers often find it difficult to look beyond current challenges, particularly when change is unpredictable. Therefore, planning process should begin by addressing current needs and bringing future scenarios into current decision-making. This includes tapping into local expertise, building leadership and local actions, and focusing on vulnerable communities.
Urban governance is a topic I am also very interested in. What does it help if we build infrastructure and yet the cities can’t operate and maintain what has been built? There has to be community participation in decision-making, urban development control, financial sustainability and accountability, as well as inclusiveness and transparency of local administration. Take for example a solid waste management project – while building the infrastructure components is essential, proper operation and community awareness are also crucial.
It seems you have a tendency for behavior in cities, not just the infrastructure. Do you think changing mindsets is harder to do than building infrastructure?
Alex: Maybe it’s harder, definitely it is important. People have to feel responsible for their city and they need to have opportunities to participate in making their city a better place. If we build new drains, but people are dumping garbage inside, either because they are not aware or don’t care about the problem or the cause, or because there is no solid waste management in place, the drains will be blocked and the built infrastructure will not work effectively. That’s why urban projects usually include a capacity development component.
My experience is our clients are very much aware about this, and it has always been clear to me that ADB is working for our clients and that they are the experts in their country knowing about local structures, needs, and solutions. As an ADB project officer, I see my role in listening carefully to our clients’ needs and provide the best support possible.
If not development, what would you rather be doing?
Alex: There are several options. Either I would be a medical doctor specializing on alternative medicine, an organic farmer, or someone in the travel industry. I think I would be an excellent travel agent. I like traveling but even more I like finding out nice local hidden spots and making trip arrangements for friends.
Have you explored the Philippines? If yes, what are the hidden gems you’d recommend?
Alex: I think in Manila, of course, it’s not a hidden gem, but going to Intramuros, watching the sun set at the Bayleaf Hotel rooftop with a drink is something I enjoy. Another gem, which is now getting less hidden, is TOYO eatery. Its name is Tagalog for soy sauce but could also mean ‘crazy’. Opened in Makati in 2016, chef Jordy Navarra and his excellent team serves a modern interpretation of Filipino dishes and they just won Asia's 50 Best Restaurants’ One to Watch award. In the Philippines overall, Siargao is a place I like because of the laidback atmosphere. I also like going on a car trip up north, exploring the countryside whether Baguio, Cordilleras, or Pagudpud. Overall I enjoy exploring small places with local atmosphere.