New Cities Summit: A holistic view on city growth and progress for all

Waste recyclers

The first annual New Cities Summit took place in Paris in May this year, and drew city leaders, researchers, and various thinkers from all around the world. During three days, we discussed the diverse challenges that are arising from the rapid urbanization, how cities can find sustainable solutions to these challenges, and how the citizens’ quality of life can be increased in the cities of tomorrow. A common understanding is that when addressing the urban future, ICT with its ability to connect people and ideas is one enabler of new innovative solutions. This is also one of the reasons that Ericsson had a strong presence at the event, with the CEO Hans Vestberg as one of the speakers.

Having such a large number of global leaders – mayors, minsters, CEOs, and so on – in the same room, many discussions did of course have a slightly top-down view of things. Topics such as cross-industry collaborations, private-public partnerships, infrastructure plans, e-governance, and smart city development dominated several of the discussions. These areas are of course all very important to consider when building better cities, but still very intangible and difficult to grasp. What are we are talking about here? And how will they materialize from the people’s point of view?

New cities summit - Paris

Listening to the presentations during the panel sessions and talking to delegates in-between the sessions gives a strong feeling that even if we can define common challenges for all cities the solutions are always dependent on each city’s presupposition. This might be geographic location, heritage, local environmental issues, local informal society structures, culture and political systems. Presuppositions that make each and every city unique and thus the way to address and implement solutions different. Another take-away was that it is vital to have a holistic view of all challenges since they might be interdependent of each other (i.e. addressing public safety issues most often comes before spending resources on public parks and market places).

A couple of inspiring presentations took a bottom-up perspective and illustrated citizen-level initiatives. One example is the talk from Bharati Chaturvedi about one of the Chintan projects; informal waste pickers in Delhi collecting garbage at doorsteps. This project shows how the capabilities of the informal sector can be better utilized by, in this case, introducing practices and structures to recognize and value the environmental contribution of the waste pickers. Through this appreciation, their empowerment and self-esteem as well as chances of having a safe livelihood and equal rights are significantly increased. Another example is Enrique Lomnitz presentation of the Isla Urbana rainwater harvesting, which picks up on the consciousness about water in certain areas of Mexico City. This project shows how communities through collaborative action can develop sustainable systems, and directly involve community leaders as well as train local workers.

The two examples highlight the importance of shifting perspectives to fully understand the city challenges, and the opportunities that different solutions can bring. On a more concrete level, they demonstrate the impact of locally developed initiatives, and the need for governments to allow for them to happen and to spread. Civic participation, engagement, and collaboration are fundamentals to develop solutions that have a true and lasting effect, but they will have a hard time to emerge without the partnership and support from governments and businesses. We think it is here that ICT services (and user experience) can find one important way of contributing to the necessary holistic view of cities and the challenges they face. To help city leaders better make use of the citizen engagement and creativity, and to help citizens better understand what their city really need. To create an inclusive, transparent and effective city that values everyone’s contribution.

In one of our projects this year, we are studying the diversity of challenges in large cities. In this work we see the understanding of different perspectives, and the stimulation of a positive dialogue between city leaders and citizens as a key aspect when addressing the challenges. As we move forward in the project, this blog will be updated with more information and thoughts on the topic.

Written by Mikael Anneroth and Marcus Nyberg.
Top photo by Mackenzie, licensed under creative commons license, found on flickr.

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