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What Works: Local Solutions, Global Models For World Cities

  |   July 11, 2013    2:03 PM ET

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People-Powered Politics at the City Level: Searching for True Citizenship

Alessandra Orofino   |   May 21, 2013   11:54 AM ET

For the first time in human history, over half of the world's population live in urban areas. By 2050, that number is projected to reach 70 percent. And yet, cities face huge problems. They are responsible for almost 80 percent of the world's energy consumption and 67 percent of its greenhouse emissions. In 2005, one in three urban dwellers was living in slum conditions.

Precisely because of the magnitude of the problems they face, cities are increasingly emerging as the most fertile grounds for creating change. They are the laboratories in which many of the world's most intractable challenges -- including the challenge of reinventing the very fabric of our political lives -- will be solved.

Recognizing the fundamental importance of cities and city governments, organizations such as C40, the Global Cities Forum and the Mayor's Conference, have started to connect governmental institutions from large metropolitan centers around the world. Certain corporations have also been quick to understand the growing economic and political importance of cities: IBM, Cisco, GE and Siemens are just a few examples of large multinational companies that have launched Smart Cities initiatives in the last few years.

However, many large-scale organizing groups have not yet acknowledged that the world's power center has shifted to cities. People-powered politics is, in fact, changing the world we live in: groups like Avaaz, GetUp!, AllOut and MoveOn have inserted people-powered politics into national and transnational decision-making processes. These dynamic groups use a combination of online organizing and offline action to very successfully coordinate large numbers of people. They allow people to easily grasp and influence issues that are important to them. Such groups rely on small contributions from their members to operate, and are financially independent. Yet their model has not reached the world's urban centres and the decisions made at that level.

As cities become increasingly high-tech, the question of ethics remains unanswered. What kind of ethical model do we need in order to guide the development and application of such technology?

My hometown, Rio de Janeiro, is the perfect example of a city undergoing massive urban changes. The city is increasingly relying on technology and big data. Yet it is neglecting to include significant portions of its citizens in the decision-making process that will define its future. I co-founded Meu Rio in the belief that citizens need to organize themselves as intelligently, use technology as ubiquitously, and share knowledge as efficiently as the public and private institutions, in order to really participate in the definition of public policy at the city level. Examples of our work include in-person demonstrations at City Hall to prevent sudden, unilateral changes to the city's environmental code; saving a landmark neighborhood school from demolition through 24/7 webcam monitoring; and changing the Constitution to preclude officials convicted of corruption from occupying high-level positions in Rio's administration.

Today, only 18 months after we founded it, Meu Rio is mobilizing almost 100 thousand citizens of Rio -- one in 20 young people aged 20 to 29 is a member. We have brought people-powered politics to many aspects of city life. We have helped provide checks and balances to traditionally unaccountable institutions. We have pooled resources and ideas from citizens to help improve and simplify city life.

Now, I hope that citizens elsewhere will use open-source technology and adapt the Meu Rio model to the realities and challenges of their own cities. We need the C40 of citizens, not just city-governments. Civil society has to tackle the great challenge of developing a multi-metropolitan movement to provide checks and balances to both the private and public sectors.

Ultimately, we need to ensure that cities around the world will be designed and governed to serve the ones who really matter: us.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The New Cities Foundation, to mark the New Cities Summit in São Paolo, June 4-6, 2013. The summit highlights what works to solve the great urban challenges facing all cities. For more information on the New Cities Summit, click here

The Digitalization of Cities: Sketching a Future Urban Scenario

Carlo Ratti   |   May 9, 2013    3:24 PM ET

The recent history of urbanization has evolved quite contrary to common expectations. In the 1990s, scholars speculated about the impact of the ongoing digital revolution on the viability of cities. The mainstream view was that, as digital media and the Internet had killed distance, they would also kill cities. Technology writer George Gilder proclaimed that "cities are leftover baggage from the industrial era" and concluded that, due to the continued growth of personal computing, telecommunications and distributed production, "we are headed for the death of cities."

As it turned out, not only did they survive -- cities are now undergoing the largest scale of growth in human history, with more than 60 percent of the world expected to live in urban areas by 2020.

Yet, digitization has a profound effect on cities. Small and distributed computers have become an integral part of our lives. With the ubiquity of wireless connectivity, they now recombine with our physical environment. Information about urban conditions can be captured in real-time, processed, and fed back into cities, enabling new ways to monitor, understand, and impact them. These transformations are on their way to revolutionize urban life; from the analysis of traffic and energy consumption to citizen empowerment and participation.

We can illustrate this change with an analogy to the world of Formula One car racing. Until recently, success on the track had been primarily credited to the car's mechanics and the driver's capabilities. But then telemetry technology evolved and the car was transformed into a computer that could be monitored in real time by hundreds of sensors; it became "intelligent" and better able to respond to the driver's conditions, the car, and the race in general.

If cities are becoming like 'computers in the open air,' we can start to program them so that they become more sustainable, and cater better to our needs. The introduction of data flows and analytics can allow systems to synchronize better and improve their management in a top-down manner. At the same time, new technologies empower the somewhat chaotic, bottom-up processes of individual initiatives and citizen engagement through a new capacity to self organize. All this presents an opportunity for broad-based participation, at an unprecedented scale, in the shaping of urban life.

But how do we go about this? Cities are complex. Spaces and fluxes of people, vehicles, goods, resources and many other things overlap and interact; continuously giving shape to the concert we call the city. This complexity has played an important role in forging the multidisciplinary nature of the field of urban studies and planning as it evolved over time. Now, throw computers and data flows into the mix. While the opportunity at hand seems vast, it poses challenges as it calls for the development of new sets of skills and approaches so we could harness it in an optimal and sustainable way. For example, city hall employees need to learn about digitization and data analytics, while architects begin to design apps, and computer engineers find applications in urban scenarios for the development of new technologies while learning to adhere to measures of socioeconomic equity and public safety.

As the emerging fields in urbanism develop collaborative approaches, new methods of research and experimentation are also being introduced. Government organizations work with industry members and academic researchers together with city inhabitants toward the deployment of demo-projects in the city, outside the controlled environments of the office or the lab. Aside from enriching projects with real-world context, this stages an important public debate about the possible implications of different types of urban interventions.

From a practical standpoint, working in teams with such multitude of expertise and constituencies may sometimes yield merely incremental progress rather than new and unexpected ideas. However diverse a group is, the unexplored nature of this field of work suggests that some expertise will be lacking. More importantly, as Buckminster Fuller once stipulated: in a synergistic system the behavior of wholes is unpredicted by the behavior of parts. Inspired by this idea, when we began to develop projects at the Senseable City Lab, rather than piecing together solution around a problem, we decided to try the reverse. We begin by sketching a future urban scenario by identifying trajectories of technological and socio-cultural developments. Then we work back to figure out what problems and solutions might arise in such future scenario as well as what are the scientific and engineering grounding that needs to be in place for its realization.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The New Cities Foundation, to mark the New Cities Summit in São Paolo, June 4-6, 2013. The summit highlights what works to solve the great urban challenges facing all cities. For more information on the New Cities Summit, click here.

Designing Human Cities: Lessons Learned From Coworking

Eric van den Broek   |   May 1, 2013    6:09 PM ET

Designing human cities, workspaces, products or services should be the easiest thing human beings have to do. We are human after all! Still, reality proves to us every day that we are actually pretty bad at it.

Two and a half years ago, a friend of mine, my two brothers and I shared a common vision. It was time, we thought, to re-think the way people live and work. Technology enables us to work virtually anywhere anytime with anyone. In this context, what should work look like? Would we still need workspaces to carry out projects?

The conclusion we drew was that workspaces would not disappear. They would become central to innovation because they would enable collaboration and boost creativity. They would offer the social contacts and serendipity needed for projects to thrive, because a certain level of trust cannot be reached without offline encounters. They would be human workspaces, where people choose to go instead of being forced to go. We wanted to build such a workplace and realized we were not alone. We were part of a fascinating movement called coworking.

That's what we learned when building Mutinerie, a 400m2 Parisian coworking space.

Designing a coworking space is quite different from designing a city, but the framework we used when building Mutinerie applies well to cities. We came across this framework in 2011 in an article published by the Harvard Business Review and based on a research conducted by Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks. The core idea of their work is that spaces aiming for collaboration and innovation should find a balance between 3 main dimensions: the 3 P's, Proximity, Privacy and Permission.

Proximity, in their study, is not only about the physical distance between workers. It is also about "traffic patterns" between people. We wanted to identify and optimize these traffic patterns by placing shared resources strategically. The typical example in an office would be the water cooler, the coffee machine and the printer, where lots of innovations are born. At Mutinerie, we decided to put a café-like area right at the entrance of the space. The first message you get when you push the door is: this is not just about work. The gentle buzz of passionate discussions and music combined with a coffee smell creates proximity. It quickly became a meeting point for people, even outsiders, to exchange ideas. We also located meeting rooms and resident desks at the other end of the space so that people heading to their desks or for a meeting have to cross the open area and exchange a few words or signs with others.

Privacy, in a work environment, means being able to focus and having some private or semi-private spaces when you need them. At Mutinerie, we designed the space so that even if it's open-plan, no one can really see your screen when you work. While proximity is highly concentrated in the café area, the bright, open working space remains calm. Proximity is still here but at a lower level. We also added phone booths, a meeting room and a "cellar" area where the degree of intimacy allows for more private talks.

But Proximity and Privacy need to be balanced with Permission. This third 'P' might well be the least obvious one. All too often, it's overlooked by designers and architects. How can you make people feel that they can use and play with their environment as they wish? Places do speak. They send us messages all the time. A museum uses blank spaces to showcase artworks, letting each object tell a story. Libraries, with their shelves full of old books, tell us to focus and learn. Parks, with comfortable benches, tell you to take a break and relax... Details quickly make you understand what attitude is expected in different environments. We used these symbols at Mutinerie to structure the spaces in different areas. The library-like area, with a wooden floor, shelves and books make people be more silent and focus, whereas the cellar-like area communicates more energy and eccentricity. The furniture, made, for the most part, of up-cycled material or old things, tells you to think differently.

So, what's the "ideal" mix between the 3 Ps? We've learned, from building Mutinerie, that there is no ideal formula for how much proximity, privacy and permission you should put in a place. The right balance depends on the local culture, the degree of trust in the community, the level of equality between people and many other social aspects. This framework, like every good framework, is flexible enough to simply help you structure your thoughts when wanting to build human spaces without telling you what to do.

Today, a year after it opened, Mutinerie is a thriving ecosystem. Our space is now full and we host many events ranging from distribution of local food to conferences from TED speakers and ministers. We are now working on a coworking space in the countryside, looking for another space in Paris and working on an ambitious project to connect coworking spaces all around the planet, called Copass.

If we look at the big picture, things become even more impressive: the number of coworking spaces has been doubling for 6 years reaching 2,500 in February; there's an estimated 110,000 coworkers around the planet. Cities and countries are dealing with increasing complexity, but as difficult as it is, building human cities is worth it.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The New Cities Foundation, to mark the New Cities Summit in São Paolo, June 4-6, 2013. The summit highlights what works to solve the great urban challenges facing all cities.
For more information on the New Cities Summit, click here.

The Algorithmic City

Rand Hindi   |   April 23, 2013    5:00 PM ET

As a young professional living in Paris, I commute to work on a daily basis. If I'm lucky, my train will arrive less than 10 minutes late, at which point it will be so packed that I will be standing for 30 minutes, squeezed between people who obviously did not shower and felt like they absolutely needed to reach for the top handle bar above me. This happens in every city around the world, so somehow it must be a universal truth about urban living, right? Wrong.

Back in the old days, less than 10 percent of the world population lived in urban areas. That's what cities were designed to handle. Today, we reached 50 percent. By 2050, it will be 70 percent. Taking into account population growth, this means we will have 7 billion people living in cities in 2050, twice as much as today. Just imagine what morning traffic will feel like, or how unbearable public transportation will become. And we are not even talking about housing, energy, waste or food.

What we are experiencing here is an incapacity of existing cities to handle the growing number of people living in them. In other words, cities do not scale. The problem is that in virtually every case, inability to scale has led to failure. It happened to technology startups who could not handle their success. It happened to companies who could not ship enough products. And it will happen to cities.

Unfortunately, we cannot just take down cities and rebuild them, add more capacity in public transports, or create more physical space. The only thing we can do is become better at how we manage them. And the way we do it is simply by predicting what will happen!

This though, requires data. A lot of it. The more we measure what happens in our cities, the more we will be able to understand how they function, how they are impacted by various events, and how people interact with them. Once we understand this, we can build a model to predict future behavior, thus anticipating what will be needed and dramatically increasing the efficiency of existing infrastructures and services.

Let's take an example: predicting crime. How would we build such a model? One way would be to look at the history of crime in an area, and extrapolate from it. This approach is limited though, as crime patterns change, and cannot be observed until new crimes have been committed. This means the police will always be one step behind criminals. Fortunately, we can circumvent this by looking at what caused crimes in the first place, and using it in our models instead of just looking at past criminal records. This would allow police departments to intelligently dispatch their troops in places where crimes are most likely to happen, thereby preventing them from happening in the first place. This is called predictive policing and is already being tested in cities such as Los Angeles, with highly encouraging results.

What else can we predict? In theory, any event that is not random, provided we have enough data to model the context. Examples include passenger load in public transports, availability of parking spots, traffic jams, waste production, energy consumption and revenues of a shop in a specific street. These all share a common underlying principle: use context rather than history to predict behavior.

In themselves, each of these predictions could lead to amazing new products and services. The real power though comes from integrating everything together and modeling an entire city and its interactions with people. For instance, if you can predict where people will need to go tomorrow, then you can create optimal bus routes, minimizing time to destination and walking distance, taking into account predicted traffic, weather and garbage collection schedules. In this ideal system, all services would be optimal and available to citizens at anytime. We call this new way of designing cities "Algorithmic Urbanism".

Eventually, this will completely reverse the city-people interaction. People will no longer be constrained by cities, but rather, cities will adapt to people and to their changing habits. And this could happen today! We have the technology to do it, we have the data to model it, we have the talent to build it. All we need is for people to convince city operators, utility companies and governments to open their data so that more predictive models can be built, and cities efficiently managed.

If we can do that, if we can build this user-centered, algorithmic city, then and only then will we be able to sustain our growth and dramatically increase our quality of life.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The New Cities Foundation, to mark the New Cities Summit in São Paolo, June 4-6, 2013. The summit highlights what works to solve the great urban challenges facing all cities. For more information on the New Cities Summit, click here.