Urban Age Conference: Day 1 Review

8 hours, 30 speakers and 1 ministerial gate-crash later, Day 1 of this year’s Urban Age Conference is over. Themed around the idea of the Electric City, the conference is bringing together urban thinkers, academics, practitioners and politicians over 2 days in East London, to explore how technology can serve urbanity and urbanisation the world over.

The comprehensive line-up of speakers spanned the globe as well as fields of expertise- all sharing their visions of how technology can facilitate a more liveable, equitable and efficient city. As Urban Age founder Rickey Burdett put it: the conference is seeking to speak about smart cities, without resorting the idea to a reductive catchphrase. The 2-day event also serves as a platform to link “people with capital and no ideas to people with ideas and no capital”.

Day 1’s focus was clean energy, transport, space and place.

But first. British Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson made a surprise visit to the conference- perhaps confirming the political and economic clout of the ‘tech city’ development in East London. The pair took the opportunity to affirm their ambitions for London to become Europe’s tech capital, and to announce in this development in East London, just minutes away from where the conference is being held.

Despite the rousing assertions of both politicians, and the flurry of excitement surrounding the announcement, immediate concerns over the design of the development were raised, with Burdett swiftly noting that help would be available to the mayor to improve on the architectural vision of the project. The development’s integration with the thriving street spaces around the site, the appropriateness of an investment of this size in times of austerity, as well as the project’s contribution to the public realm, have all been brought into question from respondents both within and outside of the conference. These concerns are often echoed by urbanists around the world in response to large-scale investments of this kind.

Nevertheless, Cameron and Johnson set a strong precedent for the day to come: a commitment to technological innovation, the potential of such innovation to contribute to economic well-being of cities and nations, and a concern for dedicated spaces in the city to serve this process. Have a look at some of the key data informing this commitment here. For a great in-depth account of some of the key themes and ideas, have a look at the conference newspaper and related essays here.

Some of the overarching ideas and concerns from today’s sessions:

1. Technology as tool. Crucial emphasis is placed on the idea that technology is not a solution in itself, but rather provides the means to enable solution-driven innovation from the real solution: people. Technology can even serve to mask problems, rather than address the underlying causes. Technology is not an end in itself.

2. Resilience. Today’s cities- both developed and developing- need to invest in forms of resilience. From physical elements that will stand the test of time, to infrastructure systems which will continue to function in times of crisis- a large number of cities around the world are prone to future shocks and should build resilience into their urban fabric. Technology is often key to ensuring and supporting resilience- from economic transformations to social supports.

3. Ownership. In the process of technological advancement and investment, the trusteeship of the city should be placed in the hands of the citizen. Citizen engagement and buy-in is crucial to scale up innovative ideas and ensure their longevity.

4. The green/clean economy is, as Bruce Katz put it, “not the cartoon demonised by the right” but a significant, diverse and disproportionately productive economy. The development of this economy demands to be taken seriously.

5. Physical forms + cultural norms to support technological systems. For technological solutions to be scaled up and implemented successfully, cities need to lay the infrastructural foundations as well as the cultural. Desired changes in the way we travel, work and live in the city will not occur without strong cultural buy-ins.

6. Institutions and leadership at the city-level are key. Numerous examples of city governments and local institutions taking the lead over from national government in setting the pace for technological innovation and successful implementation. The need for a strong strategic vision is crucial- and can often be provided by strong mayoral leadership.

7. Future City planning. From electric car-sharing schemes, to e-bikes, to adaptable living spaces and attempts to bring the city into the office- imaginative futures is a key exercise in unlocking the potential of technologies in cities.

8. Time for action= now. Cities and urban systems can become locked in to specific path dependencies which can be very hard to break from. This dependency can be a good thing, but only if the initial inputs are the right ones. If cities can act before innovations become politically unfeasible, improvements to urban life are more likely. The longer we wait, the more damaging and costly to the world’s urban citizens.

The conference continues tomorrow with a focus on culture and innovation, designing places for the digital age, an urban response to climate change, and urban leadership. Remember to catch the live stream here and to follow FCT live coverage of the event here.

Images: Paul Clarke for LSE Urban Age