Anthony Townsend: “We can not afford to repeat the mistakes in urban development that were made during the 20th century”

“Urbanization of the planet will have finished by the end our children’s’ lifetime and will last forever. We only have one opportunity to do urban development properly. We can not afford to repeat the mistakes of the 20th century,” warned Anthony Townsend, Research Director at the Institute for the Future, in a presentation that was followed by different and sometimes rather disparate views on how to plan the future of cities.

New technologies have dictated the concept of the “Smart City”. But does “smarter” necessarily mean better? When more sustainable cities are sought¿ones that supposedly will offer a better quality of life¿who decides what technologies to use, and how to use them? The answer is not simple; in fact, there is no single answer, as demonstrated by the diverse views of the participants at the second plenary meeting of this Smart City World Congress.

Townsend warned of conflicts that will undoubtedly emerge over the coming years between the different actors involved in shaping the cities of the future. “Smoothening out this conflict will require that everyone be included in the process,” he advised. Townsend argued that today’s cities should be made into living laboratories to find the best solutions for each problem. This use of cities as laboratories offers another advantage, as he said: “There won’t be a single answer that can be transferred from one city to another, so each city will have to find its own solutions.”

Administrative control vs. spontaneous order
Adam Greenfield, founder of Urbanscale and expert in technological developments for user experience, offered an alternative perspective in a plenary session that was replete with solutions and experiences presented by companies like IBM, Siemens and Endesa. “We talk a lot about technology, but it seems like we forget that a Smart City is, first and foremost, a city,” said Greenfield, who contrasted the two models available for transforming cities. One model, represented by Le Corbusier’s urban planning, or the design of cities such as Brasilia, is defined by public administrators’ need for control.

The other model rejects such top-down planning and calls for spontaneous order from the ground up. Greenfield argued in favor of the latter model, which differs from what companies like IBM and Cisco understand and promote. For the founder of Urbanscale, cities designed from scratch are not true cities but rather experiments, because they do not offer “the chance for a reality check.”

In contrast, Anne Altman, General Manager of the Global Public Sector division of IBM, was clearly enthusiastic about the technological solutions proposed by companies like IBM to make cities better places to live. Nevertheless, she acknowledged that the culture that has dominated over the past few years must be changed, and that openness and scalability should be maximized.

According to Joan Clos, Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat), although this debate may be philosophically interesting, today’s cities require pragmatic solutions: not for the next 30 years, but for the next 10. As an example, he cited that in the next decade the population will double in many African cities, where 60% of residents already live in slums. “Not solving these problems will lead to situations that can be described as humanitarian disasters,” he said. For the former mayor of Barcelona, the Smart City concept should be embraced whole-heartedly: “otherwise, we would be supporting the opposite concept, the ‘Stupid City’, and I don’t think anyone believes in that.” Clos alluded to a certain consensus regarding certain errors in urban planning that were made over the past 100 years based on access to cheap energy. “However, there is not yet any consensus on what the cities of tomorrow should be like,” he recalled.

Intelligent citizens for intelligent cities
Rosa María García, CEO of Siemens Spain, does not support use of technology to convert cities into “Big Brother”. According to her, “the solutions will stem from the contributions of each citizen, as well as from the efforts and decisions of politicians, and the capabilities that companies can offer.”

In this sense, Jose Luis Marin, CEO of Endesa Red, stated “cities will be intelligent because they will be inhabited intelligent citizens.” He went on to add that “We have the power to choose how we use technologies, and which ones we use.” Marin emphasized the importance of better electricity management and highlighted some of the innovations proposed by his company, including iSockets, new devices that can provide information on how to manage household energy consumption.