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Cities in globalization. Resilient and open source cities

Western societies, especially in southern Europe, are facing a double crisis: on the one hand, an abrupt economic downturn that, as a consequence of the austerity agenda adopted by the European Union to fight it, has not only been technically aggravated, but has produced the collateral effect of undermining the confidence of the people in their institutions. And cities are prepared and, in some extent they are already performing as such, to be a key actor in this double process of reconstructing our democracies and revitalizing our economies.

Resilient and open source cities

Western societies, especially in southern Europe, are facing a double crisis: on the one hand, an abrupt economic downturn that, as a consequence of the austerity agenda adopted by the European Union to fight it, has not only been technically aggravated, but has produced the collateral effect of undermining the confidence of the people in their institutions. This has led to a remarkable erosion of the legitimacy of otherwise solid public and private agents such as governments, politic parties, trade unions, banks, media, big companies, justice, etc.

What can we expect from cities?

This loss of legitimacy, alongside with the aforementioned economic and social problems, threatens the very foundations of our democracies and should be a primary concern for those who seek to renew our hibernated western societies to face the unstoppable challenges imposed by globalization, all without losing our identity of wide civil rights and strong democratic principles.

Cities are prepared and, in some extent they are already performing as such, to be a key actor in this double process of reconstructing our democracies and revitalizing our economies. We agree with Benjamin Barber when he asserts that cities, and the mayors that run them, offer the best new forces of good governance. Why cities? Cities already occupy the commanding heights of the global economy. They are home to more than half of the world’s population, a proportion which will continue to grow. They are the primary incubator of the cultural, social, and political innovations which shape our planet. And most importantly, they are unburdened with the issues of borders and sovereignty which hobble the capacity of nation-states to work with one another.

It is therefore no surprise that the European Union is beginning to approach cities to plan, design and define new policies to face the crisis. This is a completely new path whose symbolic value must not be minimized. Originally born as a pan-regional institution, the European Union has characterized by its strong support to regional policies and interests like mining, agriculture, fishing, etc. The enormous threat that globalization imposes on the European economies as a whole have led to the EU to turn to innovation as the only way in which the condition of economic growth (competitiveness) can be attained without unbearable social degradation. As Jane Jacobs cleverly explains, innovation, even towards the rural world, has historically blossomed in cities, and there is no reason to think that, in the most urbanized era of our history, it is going to happen otherwise.

Top urban thinkers such as Charles Landry realize that there is a major oportunity to recover the notion of the city-state, as opposed to the nation states, a logic consequence of the enormous value that cities provide to our societies, and their ability to sketch solutions for our most urgent concerns. If this is true, sooner than later the power relations between national governments and cities will have to be renegociated and re-balanced. In this re-balancing, cities should be empowered not only as a vehicle for policies’ implementation, but also as a ruling voice in crucial issues such as employment, fiscal policies, environment, energy, technology, health, education, infrastructures… and even diplomacy.

Cities innovating in politics

If we agree on the basics that new problems, such as those derived from globalization, require radical new approaches, then we should be able to agree on the principle that innovation should be the main axis to confront the new economic and democratic cycle.

It would be useful to understand which forms in cities this innovation may adopt. On the political side, for instance, cities are innovating both in macro and micro-politics.

At the micro scale, new paradigms of civic participation are been experienced in cities, many of them under the umbrella of what we can call city-making or, at an even smaller scale, place-making. This micro-scale participatory processes, and the new labs and institutions that host them, will be subject of a further treatment in this article.

On the macro side, the most important cities in Spain hosted in 2011 the “innovative” and spontaneous 15-M wave of political discontent, and New York witnessed the “Occupy Wall Street” protest movement. In Western countries, the 15-M has been one of the most relevant expression of discontent since the beginning of the crisis.

Although in 2013 the 15-M was on the verge of failing due to the lack of a political implementation, today, at the dawn of 2015 and with a series of political elections (local, regional and national) beginning in a few months, the political expression of 15-M (“Podemos” party), has irrupted on the political map as a fresh stream, whose positive consequences go far beyond their actual program, forcing traditional parties to double their bets on reforms towards equity and transparency.

So there is non-negligible flow of innovation in politics coming out of cities at this precise moment of times, originated symbolically in their central squares or plazas, and whose effects are spreading over their countries (the Arab spring is another example). Countries, shaped like the European institutions around regions, are not yet identifying cities as providers of solutions to the most acute problems of our societies (unemployment, climate change, demographic stagnation,…). In the worst case, country governments are directly attempting to prevent cities from finding successful ways out of the austerity labyrinth as is the case in Spain, whose government recently passed a bill that treats cities and city halls as minor institutions whose finances have to be supervised and whose policies reduced and kept to a minimum.

According to the Spanish government, cities’ field of action should reduce, in short, at ensuring that buses arrive on time and that streets are clean enough. Energy, education, innovation, employment or, in other words, the policies that really make citizens (not cities!!!) smarter and resilient to new crisis should be planned, designed and executed by institutions (regional, national and continental) with little or none contact with citizens. In the case of Spain, and maybe in the case of Greece too, the political articulation of the protests movements coming out of cities is making his way through most of the institutional layers (paradoxically, “Podemos” Spanish party will not directly run for city council elections, leaving its political space to other grassroot or so-called citizen platforms, like “Ganemos Madrid or Guanyem Barcelona”).

Greek national elections are scheduled for the end of January; Spanish national elections will be held next fall. We will be able to know, in a ten month timeframe, up to what extent exactly the political movements originated in Spanish and Greek cities are capable of infecting their respective countries with these new fresh politics.

Cities that empower children

Innovation in micro-politics (a.k.a. new ways of participation, probably beyond open government) is often linked to progress in fields such as technology, learning, social economy, or organizational culture… and is mostly and urban phenomenon. Cities, by themselves, have good probabilistic reasons for being innovative just by the natural product of size, density and heterogeneity. But, is there anything that can be done to improve or (better) multiply this background innovative pulse?

Cities in the global era seem to be desperately reinventing strategies to attract talented people, which is fine since heteregoneity (or diversity) is one the keys. But, at the same time, the “talent strategies” of cities should consider identifying and watering inside talent, as a matter of responsibility, of course, but also because identity is important. A wise mix between size, density, diversity and identity is what can make our city cast a unique light on the global map. Nurturing and capitalizing the talent of the local people might be the smartest and most responsible strategy. How many creative individuals in our cities underperform? How much talent around us is hidden, wasted or just frustrated?

Empowering people starts by acompanying and promoting their personal growth. By identifying those underperforming makers, thinkers or artists (“innovators” in the broadest of senses) and, even better, by being identified by those potentially creative people as “facilitators” of their professional, artistic, academic or personal development . Ronan Paddison describes how size, density and heterogeneity join to give birth to communities and how these communities, in turn, self-organize. Although Paddison’s work mainly focuses on the issues related to ethnic, social and neighborhood communities, we find interesting foundations to sketch the forming principles of a new urban community whose dynamism is important in this informational and global age: the community of innovators.

These communities of innovators go beyond of what Richard Florida calls “the creative classes”. Florida’s creative classes refer to the individuals that have skills in areas such as technology or arts and that often inhabit gentrified neighborhoods. However, this definition does not presume or imply any form of organization. The creative classes inhabit places and, indirectly, shapes them through their consumption, mobility or entertainment patterns, but do not necessarily engage as a community in civic action. They do not necessarily become a community unless something galvanizes them, and that “something” often takes the form of the so-called “new innovation hubs”. Not surprisingly, in the last years we are witnessing the birth of a new type of urban innovation hubs, shaping what Anthony Townsend calls “a planet of civic laboratories”.

Developing the shared economy, relearning how to make food, garments and robots, experimenting new forms of long-life education, tightening physical as well as virtual links amongst its members, these new innovation hubs are hosting some of the most radical expressions and ideas in politics, arts, science, culture and urbanism. If we are able to design those innovation hubs with accessibility and inclusion at the forefront, we will probably speed up the pace at which those new ideas permeate into society. And we will surely enlarge the skillset of the local population, improving their resilience and opportunities.

But, if we are serious about making of innovation a cultural change for good, then it’s a good idea to focus primarily on children. “Etopia Center for Arts and Technology” in Zaragoza (Spain) is named after one of the “fathers” of the smart city concept, William J. Mitchell, and nailed between two of the most populated working class districts of the city. Finding and provoking interactions between art and technology, encouraging both entrepreneurship and creativity are some of Etopia’s fields of action. Under the “Etopia Kids” program, children from the city and its area of influence meet there regularly to experiment with Scratch, Arduino, film making and robots. Last Christmas, 12 kids ranging from 9 to 13 years old from the “Zagales Hacklab” local community of young geeks organized an event on Minecraft. During one month they held physical and hangout meetings, negotiated logistics with Etopia’s staff, planned the program, built their on-line minecraft environment (including ad-hoc games), created the registration web, designed the “T-shirts” of the crew and, finally, produced the event, which was sold out with the participation of more than 50 other kids and their families.

Etopia seeks to attract researches, technologists and artists in residence from distant places, but this Minecraft self-organizing community of kids is a world-class example of investing in local people and of what we mean by empowering children.

A “talent strategy” based on cultivating home-grown talent also works for attracting external talent. Both need similar conditions and environments to boom. In his work “Space of flows”, professor Manuel Castells describes the ingredients that metropolitan innovation clusters need: strong R&D centers feeding industry with new developments, venture or risk capital to finance innovative projects and a high degree of social networking (probably enforced by physical proximity). Unfortunately, city authorities do not have access to most of the levers that trigger capital or R&D. But, by investing on local people they can activate home-grown creativity and by an intelligent urban planning they can reinforce it through density and diversity.

R&D, industry, talent, capital and social networking, all at the same place, are elements that alone, and with some luck, may end up producing a “silicon valley” in the United States or a “bangalore” in India: powerful economic clusters with limited civic or urban activism. But making cities that empower people and children can also be a viable strategy for cities in globalization, and maybe even more rewarding and sustainable in the long term.

Changes at work. The urban jiu-jitsu

We have addressed so far how cities are producing a new politics and are nurturing home-grown talent to tackle some of the threats that globalization poses. It’s about time to examine closer how this relates to changes in the global labour market.

Even social scientists do not agree on their interpretation of the effects that globalization causes over income distribution and polarization in cities. Saskia Sassen alerts against acute polarization as a consequence of globalization, while Chris Hamnett carefully refutes some of Sassen’s points about marginality, arguing that, instead, what is happening in western cities is a gradual shift upwards in terms of social position and opportunities. This thesis would essentially agree with the view expressed by Edward Glaeser in his work “The triumph of the city”, defining cities as our best creation and something that “makes us richer and smarter”. Undeniably, something works definitely well in cities that keeps attracting more and more people century after century (with the exception of the middle age ruralization period), something that has to do with what Glaeser and Hamnett have detected: the opportunities to live better.

The question of whether these opportunities effectively materialize is analyzed by Jesús Leal for the case of Madrid. He states that “the years of (…) economic growth permitted upward social mobility processes for a large part of the most disadvantaged households”. The young individuals from those households, when the recent crisis began, were in far better position to seek for opportunities than their ancestors, thanks to the inclusion of new generations into the Spanish education system and, especially, to the broad access to University. It is true that many skilled Spanish youngsters have had to look for technical jobs in central and northern Europe in the last few years, as true as the previous generations of Spanish workers that migrated to other European countries only to fulfill, in short, janitor and grape-picker positions. It is therefore evident that the new generation of workers are better prepared to face the present than the previous ones. But, how about the generations that fill our schools today? How will the labor market look like within ten or fifteen years from now? And what are the necessary structural changes that we can push forward now in education, for instance, so that these generations have the option to grasp some of the promising opportunities that those changes will unfold?

There is a continuous trend in labor income to represent a lower share of the overall income of families, a slope that is deepened during the periods of economic crisis. This trend is roughly similar in all the developed world, and is a symptom of substantial changes in the labor market deeply rooted in our social and economic system. The unstoppable technification of all sorts of disciplines and the easiness moving capital, goods and people are behind the causes of this continuous decline, that only during the relatively short periods of economic wellbeing is timidly masked.

In our western societies, the era we are leaving behind has been characterized by predictable professional careers, a certain security in terms of employment (the case of structural unemployment in southern European countries, especially Spain, would need a separate analysis) and a fair ability to comprehend how industries, processes and objects work. Unfortunately or not, this is not going to be the case anymore. As Daniel Innerarity brilliantly puts it, welcome to the ignorance society, where we can only dream to grasp an insignificant portion of the available knowledge. Tyler Cowen describes the new labor market highly polarized in two ends: those whose work compete against a computer or machine, here or in China, or those who actually complement computers, machines or robots, making them work better, programming them, repairing them, or even inventing them. Besides the obvious simplification, the theory meets rather well our daily observations, and its local implications are far more important and immediate than one might expect.

Cities must encourage a radical cultural shift in people minds, especially in the young generations, since global factories are not expected to knock on our western doors anymore. Young generations are digitally native, but being digital users will not suffice anymore. The ICT introduction in schools it is indeed necessary but still a rather shortsighted approach. Our kids need to be conscious that they can become creators and not only users, since an economy of users will not be able to resist future blows and, even in the periods of wellbeing, will be highly unbalanced and dependant. In other words, our kids should be taught to invent PCs, mobile phones, or robots, rather than merely taught to use them. And, in parallel, the sentiment of entrepreneurship must be fed. Entrepreneurship not in the sense of a capitalist access to money or power, but as an attitude to problem solving, as a resiliency tool, and as a real “global survival kit”.

Resilient cities. Turning global threats into local opportunities

The new industrial system articulates through what Manuel Castells calls in his book “The rise of the network society” a mix of local and global dynamics. The global component (technification and limitless, quasi-instant movements of goods and capital) are at work and its negative effects (precarious jobs, uncertainty) combined with their positive counterparts, such as the availability of cheaper, instant and abundant goods and services, can be detected locally. Today, with less spending capacity than our parents, or with intermittent access to jobs, we have paradoxically better access to education, goods, healthcare and culture.

If the global division of work into machine-replacable and machine-complementary posts holds true for the future, then ¿does that mean that under-employment is the fate of the work force of the future in western societies? It is difficult to know, but the case of Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines (part of the Paris metropolitan region) might be enlightening. As Pierre André, former president of Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines, a community part of Île-de-France, states it “we have witnessed that our workers in the automotive industry are being replaced by robots spread over factories all over the world. All right then, we will make sure that we program, manage and invent those robots from here”.

Struggling cities must therefore learn to practice a kind of urban jiu-jitsu (or urban resiliency), being able to read the present and quickly prepare for the future, shaping their economies with a mix of brave bets on specialization and cautious diversification strategies as the only viable opportunity to success.

Big corporations are much less innovative than they seem to a non-trained eye. Innovation often happens despite big corporations and sparks in new businesses fueled by ex-employees of companies that, combining top skills with a deep business knowledge, decide to part and implement their ideas on their own account. It is important that the city fosters these processes so these spin-offs can survive and succeed.

In her acclaimed book “The economy of cities”, Jane Jacobs cleverly explains the former process. Her understanding of the economic flows of a city implies that, only by means of innovation, cities can engine sustainable growth, since only innovation is able to create products and services to be exported and, consequently, finance decent life conditions for citizens, in the first place, and the capacity to develop new innovations, in second.

Where did industries go?

Talent, venture capital, knowledge and institutional support policies are essential in this process. However, new businesses, when their size increases, tend to abandon the city in what appears to be a mutual interest: they can get cheaper land to expand and better access to transport infrastructures, while cities avoid the disturbances of pollution, goods delivery and noise, and liberate urban land for higher revenue uses.

Following the path of factories, people have settled in the outskirts of cities, contributing to urban sprawl and emptying city downtowns from middle and working class households, key to their social and economic wellbeing.

Digital economy and the idea of urban innovation districts were promoted almost two decades ago by thinkers like Manuel Castells and Richard Florida as a viable replacement for manufacturing. After decades of industrial exodus, thanks to the digital economy and the urban “creative classes”, cities could turn again into production centers.

The last years show, however, that countries with a strong industry have resisted much better the strong blows of the crisis. We should consider what bringing manufacturing back to the cities means in 2015, and how it is related to the global and local dynamics that make for a strong industrial system.

“Made In The City”

Nowadays, industries still need large floor space to manufacture, storage and deliver great volumes of goods. However, ICT plays an increasingly significant role in industrial processes, and some of these technologies did not practically exist a decade ago, a decade in which ICT businesses have been on the spotlight as our society submerged in the era of Internet.

More than the industry of Internet, we can speak today of the “industry in the Internet era”. Electronics, communications and computer sciences are as important as mechanics in today’s industry. A good portion of the industry staff has no longer the need to be physically close to factories. Many manufacturing processes go beyond the actual factory activity, and in many cases, the size of the manufactured goods or its nature might allow them to be manufactured again inside cities. The return to cities (from the surroundings of techno-parks) of this skilled manufacturing workforce will have benefits in mobility and diversity, impacting positively on the quality of live and social cohesion of city downtowns.

New York is the city that, anchored in a supra-national strategy, is leading the global wave of urban manufacturing and turning it into tangible local benefits. It is extending the arena of local production to services and goods in areas such as food, energy, entertainment, arts, crafts and technology, involving in this process universities, startups incubators, big corporations, banks and public and private innovation hubs, such as the Pratt Center. In Spain, we have to mention the project of Barcelona to build a Fab Lab (Laboratory of Digital Fabrication) in every district.

Fablabs and startup incubators are two levers that city councils, as the unexpected institutional articulators of the urban innovations ecosystems, can use to foster the local response to globalization. Both infrastructures can act as citizen empowering mechanisms, fullfilling some of the roles that both Jane Jacobs and Manuel Castells in their studies about urban innovation dynamics have outlined, and therefore creating local knowledge and favoring local economy. Since high skilled workers support much better the blows of economic downturn, the “maker” or “DIY” movement is extremely important as a way to increase the opportunities of individuals, craftsmen and small companies. Not surprisingly, many urban innovation hubs carry out programs related to the “maker” movement, under the belief that a resilient city should seek to increase the technical skills of their communities.

From craftmanship to citizenship

We have treated the subject of how a new politics is blossoming in cities in response to the “austerity years”. We discussed afterwards some of the traits of globalization, such as technification or the deep changes on the labor market, and what effects those traits can have on our societies. We have also outlined some strategies that cities may have to turn those challenges into local opportunities, such as nurturing local talent, or re-industrializing cities through urban manufacturing and “makers”. Let’s close the loop by talking about open source cities.

Richard Sennett has made a significant contribution to the link between craftsmanship and citizenship. It is by means of the activities of recycling, repairing and reconfiguring, that people can seize objects, master technologies and, ultimately, innovate upon. It is certainly the open source nature of things and processes that binds this re-appropriation to an enhanced, new civic participation.

A new paradigm of civic participation can be achieved if institutions were able to engage people in city making. Narrowing the divide between people and institutions is something that concerns everyone of us, a priority as important as making our societies more cohesive, inclusive and economically vibrant. Again, the double challenge of “jobs and democracy”. However, in order to effectively engage people in shaping city services and places, we must make sure that they perceive some value in exchange. There are many tools that help communities and individuals perceive value through innovation and, at the same time, provide value to the city and enhance its social, public and economic life. The common trait we want to highlight about these tools is their open source nature. Whether it’s software/apps, hardware, data, networks, processes or buildings, the open source characteristic lowers the barriers to participation (accessibility), makes the tools understandable, allows reconfiguration and, ultimately, binds the success of the projects to the community of users and contributors.

Although still at a low scale, cities and companies are starting to perceive also the value that these exchanges provide, making open innovation a two way process. As Ronan Paddison puts it when describing civic processes of urban renewal projects, community participation, not only proves to be mutually beneficial to the community and the city council in terms of legitimacy, but as a bonus, it leads to a better product. The same holds true for open innovation processes. Therefore, openness is a characteristic that may lead to win-win situations in city making processes, lowering access barriers and allowing citizens, institutions and companies to actually engage in cooperation innovative processes that may ultimately lead to increase local competitiveness.

The “Art of city making” as Charles Landry beautifully puts it, may no longer be a top-down activity like in poorly democratic societies, neither the result of frustrating grass root processes. In order to seize the full potential that cities have in terms of new ideas for politics and economics, “open” cooperation environments between the different agents must be constructed and fueled.

Open source cities, by encouraging these new enhanced participation processes, by fostering open innovation in new “civic laboratories”, by strengthening local economy promoting the creation and growing of new start-ups, by engaging corporations, universities and R&D centers in mutually fruitful arrangements, by promoting the creativity and entrepreneurial cultural shift in education, will be hopefully capable of tackling the problem of competitiveness without a price penalty in social cohesion and democracy. On the contrary, both might be reinforced during the journey.

The quest for “The Place To Be”

Peter Hall was an urbanist that sought to decipher, along his prolific career, the traits that turn, at one precise point in history, some of our cities into “The Place To Be”. Alexandria, Florence, Paris, London, Berlin, New York… each at its own time, managed to host a unique combination of talent, capital and ideas that pushed innovation and arts to flourish. Today, in a shrinking world, many capitals can fulfill that role simultaneously. In them, technification and globalization will give birth to a whole new set of skills and jobs, many of them linked to new services and new technologies. Amongst those many new professions, two are of special interest in this urban era, where the economy and the environment will ultimately depend on the ability of new cities to be green and lean: “city makers” and “city scientists”.

The job of current city makers may consist in favoring that those “places-to-be” are in the part of the globe where democracy is stronger, where wealth is more equally distributed and where environment is considered our most valuable asset.

In turn, future city scientists face the far more challenging task of helping to spread green, human-centered approaches to the rapidly growing cities of Asia, Latin America and Africa. A task that will have many burdens and obstacles, but which will benefit from the demands of a growing middle class that will not ask for more civil rights and will not likely put up with running on their lives and their families’ in a (social and environmental) rotten millieu.

This article is published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Picture by Ryoji Iwata (@ryoji__iwata) via Unsplash

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Last modified: 14/10/2020