Urban Age Conference: Day 2 Review

The second and final day of the Urban Age conference brought a welcome degree of variation and nuance to the themes of Day 1. Big names Richard Sennett, Richard Rogers, Enrique Penalosa, Bjarke Ingels and Joan Clos, were all on hand to delve further into the implications of the ‘Electric City’- conversations that today focused more on citizen capacities, sustainability, and emerging cities.

Once again, for in-depth essays and thought pieces visit here, and get a great visualisation of the data informing the Electric City debate here.

Some keys ideas from Day 2:

1. Technologies should not be a substitute for the urbanist’s judgement.

Famed urban sociologist Richard Sennett warned against the ‘stupefying smart city’ and argued for the need to preserve citizens’ chance to develop urban skills. The ability to deal with ambiguity, complexity and chaos can become compromised if technologies facilitate our every move. Technology should not be prescriptive, but enabling. Sennett stated that he “loves getting lost” in cities. and argued for the cognitive benefits of strangers and navigating unpredictability.

2. We cannot develop “street smarts” if we do not have streets.

Dynamic and walkable streets remain one of the most vital pieces of the city.  The horizontal values of the city should continue to receive attention as buildings go up. The messy and unpredictable city street serves as the classroom for the urban citizen. Virtual spaces often preclude spontaneous and serendipitous meetings and, as architect Richard Rogers noted “fundamentally, people have to changed- they still want to be together and near to each other”- the city provides spaces for this, which technology cannot facilitate in the same way.

3. Who is served by ‘smart city’ technologies?

 Much ‘smart city’ technology is developed for, and marketed to, the administrative enterprises of a city- those enterprises which seek to manage and control the city at a macro scale. Technological tools should also be focused on the everyday citizens themselves- allowing not only for a smart system, but smart citizens too. As Saskia Sassen noted: “smartness in the smart city should be in the people, not in the technology”.

4. The agency of the individual.

One of the day’s favourite quotes came from Ayesha Khanna: “Citizens are not just passive individuals to which technology just happens”. An interactive and contingent relationship exists between people and the city, and technologies should acknowledge this two-way dynamic. The idea of designers as translators was well received. People will always enact their preferences on formal designs- creating paths were there are none- and designers should invest their efforts into understanding how people want to use their city spaces.

5. Sustainability and equity are inextricably linked.

Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota and one of the most popular speakers at the conference, argued for potential of informed planning in emerging cities. He noted that any city that takes equity seriously must acknowledge that dedicated bus lanes are the most equitable use of road space- although this strategy might initially prove unpopular with a car-dependent citizenry. Emerging cities might indeed hold an advantage in developing sustainably as new large infrastructure projects or planning policies can shape cities at the most basic level.

6. City leaders need to take a stand. 

The conference’s last session saw current and former mayors and deputy mayors from Barcelona, London, Washington D.C. and Stockholm discussing the opportunities and perils of city governance. While London’s deputy mayor argued that government’s operational apparatus has not kept paced with technological change, Joan Clos, former mayor of Barcelona, spoke of the need for mayors to stand up and take decisions which reflect their long-term strategic visions for their cities.

Urban leaders need to adopt strong positions and accept responsibility for their visions. Clos, now Executive Director of the UN Human Settlements Programme, also drew attention to those underlying realities which inform how cities develop: “When I ask mayors in sub-Saharan Africa what their biggest problem is, they don’t says slums- they say youth unemployment”.

Bjarke Ingels explains his concept of ‘hedonistic sustainability’, whereby sustainability increases quality of life

As with any event of this brevity and scope, there were perhaps more questions raised than answers arrived at. What is clear this that technology can aid the city both at the macro- and micro-level for a variety of purposes.

But technology remains a tool, not an end in itself. There exists a dynamic and unpredictable relationship between the city and its citizens, at times productive, at times destructive, and technology should serve to enable this relationship rather than prescribe it. Uses of technology in cities will always evolve from intended first uses and forms of use should be allowed to evolve. Physical forms and space should not be neglected in this discussion as they continue to fundamentally shape the urban experience and provide the forum in which technologic solutions are enacted.

A crucial question is how technological solutions can be leveraged differently to serve the different developmental needs of cities the world over.