Re-imagining Cities in the 21st Century: A Conversation (Part 1)


New Cities Summit Dallas 2014






Winspear Opera House in Dallas, Texas is the venue for the New Cities Summit 2014.

Mathieu Lefevre
is the Executive Director of the New Cities Foundation, a Swiss non-profit dedicated to incubating, promoting and scaling urban innovations. Our Director of Future Cape Town, Rashiq Fataar sits down with him to talk about the New Cities Summit that takes place in Dallas on June 17 – 19, under the theme “Re-imagining Cities: Transforming the 21st Century Metropolis.” Both directors discuss the importance of re-imagining cities in the 21st century and how we can learn from developed and developing cities alike.

Rashiq Fataar:  Let’s just start with the basics of when you’re picking a summit’s theme. Is there a reason why Re-imagining Cities cropped up and what is the process behind that?

Mathieu Lefevre: The Summit conversation is a global one and we try and get inspired by the venue and host city. I did not know Texas or Dallas at all. I came to Dallas with some of the preconceived notions that most people have about big Texan cities, and was struck by how Texans are trying to change their story and break some of those clichés. I was really impressed by their ability and desire to reinvent themselves. So the theme of re-imagining cities came from talking to people in Dallas, people like Mayor Rawlings, for example.  One of the taglines for the city is, “Have you been to Dallas lately?”. This theme of being new and reinventing yourself is very present in Dallas. It also applies to a lot of other cities around the world.

RF: Definitely, and it applies to Cape Town as this city aims to move beyond presenting its natural beauty and assets, towards a new narrative. That narrative spurred on by being the World Design Capital for 2014, and the city’s re-invention through design. I’m particularly interested in the global context of cities today.  How do we find a link between the crisis situation in many cities whether it’s in Ukraine or protests in Brazil, and this concept of re-imagining? Is re-imagining perhaps a contentious process and difficult process in itself?

ML: Often, ‘re-imagining’ sounds like it’s esoteric or a luxury. However, re-imagination is the foundation, the cornerstone of how you build your city. It also provokes us to ask, who is involved in the re-imagining? Is it driven by elites or is it open to citizens? Is it driven by business or is it driven by the city government? These are really important questions. We’re very familiar with the Brazilian unrest because we were there last year, literally on the eve of the start of the protests in São Paulo. The core reason for the largest protests in a decade is who is the city being re-imagined for? Who is doing the re-imagining? I hope those will lead us to an interesting debate.

RF: With regards to the summit, how do you find the balance between being a platform for academics and experts, and being some sort of voice for citizens who needs to be part of this re-imagining? Of course summits and conferences need to provide insight and thought leadership but, how do you find a balance between the two or is there no need for a balance?

ML: I think there is a need for a balance. The New Cities Summit is aimed at people whose main passion and professional occupation is around cities. It’s an event for thought leaders and professionals who work on cities. We carefully curate content and invite speakers and participants who are at the forefront of the many different aspects of re-imagining cities. The question of participation, who participates in the design and the management of the city, is a central one. We always aim to bring together global thought leaders with practitioners and innovators.

RF: How can cities in Africa learn from a summit like this? How do some of the speakers or workshops show that it is possible to have a conversation which is beneficial to both the developed and the developing world?

ML: I think that’s a great question. We work hard to assure diversity in the voices that are represented at the summit. This can be a challenge, as it’s hard to have people travel great distances and there’s a cost barrier. We try to overcome this however we can, because we believe that there are examples to be learned from cities that are in any context. There is a lot more going on in “developing countries” in terms of public participation. The innovation potential and real projects being run transcend those barriers. That’s what we’d like to promote – that you can learn from anybody, regardless of the city that they’re from.

Rashiq Fataar and Mathieu Lefevre continue their discussion around Re-imagining Cities in the 21st Century: A Conversation Part Two. Read more about the New Cities Summit here.