Re-imagining Cities in the 21st Century: A Conversation (Part 2)

 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. 

Read Re-Imagining the Cities in the 21st Century: A Conversation  Part 1 here.

Rashiq Fataar: I think re-imagining is linked to transformation and once you do re-imagine, you go on a transformation process and I suppose in Brazilian cities, the World Cup being one of them, is one of those actual transformations that’s taken place hence why it’s so contentious. 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 need 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?

Mathieu Lefevre: 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.

RF: The Summit has speakers that are different kinds of speakers representing different kinds of organisations so Its not just government. How important is it to have that mix and to get multidisciplinary views on these conversations?

ML:  That is part of our DNA as an organisation. We’ve always encouraged input from across sectors. Cities are not built by one sector, cities that function well are cities where the collaboration and partnership process works. This requires modesty, openness and curiosity about what others are doing.

RF: I’m very interested in your opening panel which combines my favourite architects and some great academics. Do you find that it’s important to make the types of conversation challenging and make sure that they are critical about the current state of cities. How do you make sure that there’s value in these conversations and there’s not just broad agreement on a topic, how do you include some challenging voices?

ML: You’re absolutely right, the last thing we want is for the New Cities Summit or any conversation to be an agreement fest for western elites. If everyone agrees then we know that we’re not having a useful conversation.

RF: I think that’s also very positive, since we could have these conversations where everyone agrees what we may already know e.g. that more people should use public transport. I think the topics and conversation should provide spaces of tension that’s necessary.

ML: Yes, another important discussion will center around the interaction between technology and the city. This panel is called “Beyond the Smart City”, to analyze why this term might be overused. It’s time to sit down and evaluate the tremendous potential of technology, whilst also assessing its potential drawbacks, and to talk about the real intersection between technology and the city.

RF: I was wondering what the links were between research and summits because I’ve seen that the New Cities Foundation also does research. Do you think that summits can feed into research so that the outcomes can become more tangible? Perhaps the research projects of an organisation are inspired by the summits themselves?

ML: Our capacity for research is modest compared to some of the other organisations we work with. I hope that the summit is useful to ground research in a sort of concrete conversation so certainly that’s one of our aims.

RF: As you mention, the  summit itself is a learning experience for practitioners, professionals and those working in different cities besides the speakers that have been announced who do you expect to be attending? How have you structured this as a learning experience that’s really valuable to those who attend?

ML: We expect that around 800 people will attend and judging from past events there’s a really great mix of sectors. There are people from the non-profit world, philanthropy, civic organisations and from the media. I would think that 40% of our participants will be from the US. A bit more than half will be from all over of the world. We take great pride in the way we structure the event and it’s carefully curated so that panels are sharp and speakers are well prepared. They’re carefully selected as a group of next generation urban leaders, we try and focus our panels on up and coming leaders. Many of our participants meet each other and make connections, weaving the connective tissue of a lasting community.

RF: To put you on the spot, which speaker are you personally most excited to meet?

ML: That’s very tough, you are putting me on the spot. This year, I’m excited to meet all our participants. I’m very excited to meet the founder of Strawberry Energy from Serbia that provides people with a place to recharge their mobile devices through solar powered installations and a chance for a serendipitous encounter with a fellow urbanite. I’m also excited to meet  Meenu Vadera from India who runs an organisation that provides transportation for women. I’m very excited to see Geoffrey West who was at our first event and to meet the Mayor of Compton. Dallas Speakers such as the Chief of Police to tell us about some of their innovations in security and the CEO of Bombardier Transportation. There are many speakers, 90 in total.

Read more information on the topics and speakers for the New Cities Summit this year here.