The theme of this year’s New Cities Summit in São Paulo was “the human city.” But what is a human city? And, for that matter, what is a city?

We must be able to conceptualize the non-city in order to define the city and “cityness,” observed Saskia Sassen in the event’s opening panel. This is a surprisingly difficult task, as urban eateries depend on rural farms for their food and rural farms depend on hungry urbanites to sustain their operations. There is an assumption, notes Sassen, that the defining characteristic of “cityness” is density, but there are places with high density (such as suburban malls and stadiums) that don’t speak to our understanding of the city. There are other characteristics, such as serendipity and anonymity, that are central to the urban experience but difficult to define and measure.

The mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, spoke eloquently without — and without any notes — about the role of urbanization in Latin America’s economic and political coming-of-age over the past two decades. In cities, the cost of providing services is greatly reduced, competition increases, and innovation spreads with less friction. But urbanization also brings great challenges. In many large cities, less than 20% of residents have a sufficient income to purchase an apartment or home. Additionally, the high cost of rent pushes the poor out to the periphery around the city, causing social segregation and daily commute times of more than two hours. Finally, notes Mayor Haddad, the governance structure of many cities in developing countries is outdated. Federal governments still treat cities as “concessions” to which they transfer money each year; but many cities aren’t able to collect their own revenue, and key matters of local administration and legislation are still controlled by federal agencies. Haddad hopes that São Paulo and other cities will soon pass local constitutions that assert their rights and autonomy. (This is already in the works in Mexico City.)

The most iconoclastic — and perhaps the most compelling — presentation was by Ashwin Mahesh, the founder of Mapunity. He began his short intervention with a staggering statistic (which I haven’t been able to confirm): more than 900 new residents arrive to Bangalore every single day, most of them to the city’s informal slums. If the private sector creates products for profitable markets, and if the government administers services to the middle class, then who is responsible for resolving social issues in informal communities? Bordered on one side by the executives from GE and Cisco, he asserted that we can count on private sector to only focus their attention on what brings them profits. Bordered on the other side by Saskia Sassen, a renowned academic, he blurted frankly that half the world’s universities could disappear tomorrow and no one would notice. But Mahesh’s criticism is rooted in hope. He believes that universities have both the social capital, intellectual force, and capacity for disruption to bring new innovations to scale that address the major social issues facing cities like Bangalore. Universities must stop distancing themselves from society. Rather, they should roll up their sleeves and deploy cavalries of students and professors to cities’ poorest neighborhoods to consistently and thoughtfully address social problems. Applied civics in the city instead of abstract theory in the ivory tower.

My favorite sessions offered concrete examples of innovative projects that are currently being piloted in cities around the world. Among them:

  • An architect in New York is constructing a lego-like building to bring convenient micro-living departments to Manhattan. If successful and cost-efficient, this could be a flexible way to bring well designed, high-density housing to cities around the world that suffer from a lack of housing supply.
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  • The “Copenhagen Wheel” developed by the MIT Senseable Cities Lab is a bicycle wheel fitted with sensors that collect information about air quality, noise pollution, relative humidity and temperature in real time.
  • São Paulo, one of the world’s most congested cities, is building a monorail to extend the metro line 2. Hopefully they’ll add some bicycle lanes too!
  • Cristian Siveland Norlin from Ericsson mentioned that researchers can use embedded sensors in cell phones to detect when users place their phones in their shirt pockets, and then when they cough. Combined with data from Google Flu Trends, this anonymized data could help predict flu severity. Of course, coughing could be more accurately detected using the microphones of our cell phones, but this would push privacy concerns a step further.
  • Mutinerie, a co-working space in Paris, is forming partnerships with other co-working spaces around the planet to create “Copass” a membership club for global nomads to work at any participating co-working space at any time.
  • The mayor of Porto Alegre gave a passionate, convincing presentation about the transformative affect on participatory budgeting in his city. Participatory budgeting strikes me as one of the few interventions that effectively links transparency, participation, and accountability all in one exercise. First, the city explains to citizens where public money comes from and how it is spent. Then, citizens participate in events where they express their desires for how the budget should be spend the following year. Finally, the government responds to the citizens with updates about the progress toward those goals.
  • Snips, a big data analysis company in Paris, is working with the French train authorities to develop a Google Transit-like app that not only shows you when the next train leaves for your destination, but whether or not you’ll be able to get a seat based on past usage data. For commuters who spend an hour on the train, it might be worth waiting 15 minutes if you’re guaranteed to get a seat.

It is both exciting and frustrating that so many of these innovations – and many others – could have transformational effects on our cities. And yet, few have achieved scale and fewer have replicated in other cities. In theory, new urbanism is developing quickly, but in practice the gains are irritatingly slow.

Hedron

On the flight back to Mexico City, I read City 2.0: The Habitat of the Future and How to Get There, a Kindle Single by TED and Atlantic Cities that compiles writings about innovation and the urban environment. The authors are convincing in their breathless enthusiasm. It seems just a matter of time until all rooftops of buildings are outfitted with aquaponics greenhouses that produce enough fish and organic vegetables to feed occupants throughout the year. Restaurants, bakeries, and catering companies all pitch in to share the resources at expensive industrial kitchens. We move around the city through a combination of metro, monorail and bike and car sharing programs. Thoroughfares connect neighborhoods by car and public transit, but the neighborhoods themselves are open only to bicycles and pedestrians. We are freed from the oppression of corporate office buildings; instead, we join our teammates in open, collaborative coworking spaces. Once a month our local governments invite us to town hall meetings where, together, we measure the progress toward our goals, and discuss the issues of the day.

Yes, it is frustrating that we are still so far from inhabiting the cities that we desire. But the New Cities Summit gave me hope rooted in a global network of entrepreneurs, activists, and policymakers working to ensure that the cities of the 21st century are built around the needs of humans, and not just cars and industry.

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