Jaime Lerner (1937, 2021) helped during his years in office the city of Curitiba strive amidst a struggling country (Brazil).
He was aware that the fate of our cities is not written anywhere: the would languish, flourish or collapse. What is indeed written, and documented, and nonetheless it is a matter of common sense, is that all cities possess a principal asset to face whatever challenge (environmental, social or economic) they confront: people. And through people there comes ideas. And if we add talent to good ideas they will be likely to materialize in projects of entrepreneurship. Now, let’s add a minimum of infrastructures, services and access to capital and we will have economic development and employment, and through them, taxes and good public services. And thanks to the public services we have better education (more talented people), equal opportunities, more safety and better quality of life. It all begins, then, by the city: its people and its ideas.
There are many examples of cities that, like Lerner’s Curitiba, have inverted the overall trend and have turned into poles of economic growth, even in the midst of a hard blowing economic wind.
In the book ‘Seizing our destiny’, edited by the Intelligent Community Forum we can find some good examples. Quebec City (Canada), Austin (Texas, EE.UU), Oulu (Finlandia) o Taichung City (Taiwan) are some of these cities. Although each of them has defined their own and unique strategy, a common pattern, formed by four main traits, can be observed:
- a distinguished role of local or regional universities as talent and skills suppliers, in some cases even promoting their own start-up incubators
- important broadband deployments, by means of either fiber optics or wireless networks, often fueled by public administrations
- access to capital sources other than traditional banks, through venture capital funds and/or private business angels
- a high level of implication on the part of local and regional institutions, sponsoring and fueling the strategy and as facilitators and co-funders of its implementation
Being a smart city in the sense of efficiency is not sufficient. The strategy must be broadened to encircle ideas, talent, capital, infrastructures, services and regulations that facilitate and stimulate wealth creation. Entrepreneurs, universities, talent, capital and public administrations must be compromised with the future of the community.
Cities can not stand still watching the misaligned or erratic strategies of countries in fields as energy, economy or environment. The mayors that understand that cities have to seize their future in their own hands and embark in brave innovation strategies will be the mayors that, in exchange of governing this new “world of cities”, will be in a better position to handle, to their citizens, the keys to their own destiny. It’s not the worst of legacies, after all.
Jaime Lerner, architect, planner and former mayor of Curitiba (Brazil), coined the term urban acupuncture to define the planning and execution of small urban interventions capable of healing the complex organism that a city is.
If it is true that we live the era of cities, then mayors will be more influential in the coming years in the global governance arena. The combined success of cities and political influence of mayors reflect the fact that cities, nowadays, are an engine of economic growth and source opportunities to contribute to the solution of a great portion of the problems that challenge our societies.
Well planned and managed, cities can guarantee development, environmental sustainability, social cohesion and democratic improvement. The critical mass of talent, capital and people that a city holds is a unique combination that countries can not afford to waste. In the era of globalization and technification, cities are becoming world global players, an extended, internet version of the ancient greek “polis”. Polis 2.0.
Widely accepted as incubators of technological innovation (already in 1969 Jane Jacobs explained how innovation blossomed in cities, even towards the rural world!), nowadays cities are starting to appear as the incubators of democratic innovation: open data, transparency, open place making, and a new urban activism are pushing our system towards new paths. Local politics offers closeness and pragmatism, whereas federal politics appears distant and ideology-biased. As Benjamin Barber puts it: ‘there is not a right wing or left wing way to fix a sewer.’ In our continent, the European Union, a region-oriented by nature institution, began to count on cities to move forward, being Horizon 2020 innovation program a good example of this change in strategy.
Horizon 2020 innovation program specifically asked cities to have a horizontal, smart strategy for year 2020. Today we know that London is the capital of finance, that Barcelona is the mobile capital, that Amsterdam wants to be recognized by its open innovation capabilities or that Medellin is on its path to leave behind a tough past of drugs and conflicts.
Europe has also asked specifically regions to establish “Smart specialization strategies” for year 2020. Paradoxically, nobody is aware of the strategy that Europe has set as a global actor. And from the side of the member states, no great news about national strategies either, beyond austerity. We are still waiting for an official report explaining what we as countries want to be in the future. An urgent matter, since the absence of it coexists with an awkward relationship between cities and countries. The pursue of “smartness” and competitiveness by cities is finding serious obstacles on the part of countries. In Spain, for instance, cities deal with the burden of an evident regulatory chaos in the electric market and, specifically, in the renewables energy sector, cities face with an arguably policy in liberalization of telecommunications (Spain is one of the last countries in broadband access), and cities struggle with non-deserved restrictions to debt. If we account for the percentage of deficit and debt in the hands of municipalities as compared with other administrations, cities are the more austere and well behaved institutions, according to commonly accepted Eurostat statistics.
Another brilliant statement from Jaime Lerner is that “cities are the solution, and not the problem”. So acting on cities is a smart strategy to help heal the world from some of its most acute threats. In a mental pirouette, it would be like scaling the term urban acupuncture into global acupuncture, acting on specific spots of the globe (cities), to heal the planet from illnesses such as poverty, unsustainability, violence… Instead, states are reversing this line of thought and imposing on cities harder restrictions and barriers. It is what Benjamin Barber calls “raising cities, disfunctional states”. Or, what common sense would define as a gigantic missed opportunity.
This article is published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
Photo by Juliana Kozoski on Unsplash