School is out, summer holidays are just getting started — this might just be the busiest season on the urbanist’s conference calendar. A year ago, my June schedule included the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale, the New Cities Summit, the launch of the Amsterdam Institute of Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, the Clinton Global Initiative America, and a special “cities” track at the Aspen Ideas Festival. This year, I limited myself to just two events, which was less exhausting, but also meant missing:
- Future Cities Catapult’s (a knowledge network) Dan Hill and Architecture 00’s Indy Johar debating the future of urban governance at MakeCity Berlin. “How do you design systems? How do you visualise them?” Johar asked. And Hill replied: “Once you apply a system lens to wicked problems you see different leverage points to start acting… We are thinking too straight from cause to effect, but from a systems perspective we realize it’s 3rd, 4th level implications. The city will become a central economic unit as corporate lifespan decreases from 70 to 10 years, and it needs long-term stability.”
- Back-to-back talks by married urban academic rock stars Saskia Sassen and Richard Sennett on creating more open, inclusive permeable, cities at the Future of Places conference in Stockholm, organized by UN-Habitat, the Ax:son Johnson Foundation, and Project for Public Spaces. Much of the conference was devoted to drafting an agenda for public space at next year’s Habitat III conference. (Expected to be a once-in-a-generation event, the conference will take place in October 2016 in Quito, Ecuador.)
- Listening to the Rebuild Foundation’s Theaster Gates and author Charles Landry engage with the 32 winners of the Knight Cities Challenge in Detroit. Landry described the evolution from “City 1.0”‑ a hierarchical, rigidly public and private model— to “City 3.0” in which hybrid organizations empower residents to make and shape their cities to their needs.
And that’s just what I happened to follow on Twitter last month.
Myself, I flew to Jakarta in early June to deliver the opening address at the fourth annual New Cities Summit. The New Cities Foundation, another knowledge GSN, began its summit series in 2012 with a meeting that introduced corporate members to municipal officials, and has evolved into a multi-stakeholder convening body through which Ericsson and UN-Habitat are able to work with non-profits such as Bangalore’s MapUnity and Transparent Chennai to create contextually relevant digital services‑stepping beyond the “smart city” model.
In my brief talk, I focused on what makes cities special —especially their ability to compress social networks in space and time, literally accelerating residents’ metabolisms both physically and intellectually — and thus why we need to resurrect the “right to the city,” to use a phrase coined by Henri Lefebvre and expanded upon by David Harvey.
Extending our collective rights to the city — and the right to maximize our exposure to these networks and their energies — will profit from new roles that GSNs are perfectly designed to play, whether it’s something like the “Trust Network” of community land trusts I proposed at the GSN Washington Summit last February, or the emerging transportation GSNs I explored last year in my report “Cities on the Move.” A topic I will continue to research as a senior fellow at the New Cities Foundation, where for the next year I will lead its Connected Mobility Initiative.
Next, I was in Prague for the fourth annual reSITE festival (you can see how cities conferences began packing the calendar). My favorite speaker at this year’s event was Urban-Think Tank’s Alfredo Brillembourg, a Venezuelan raconteur based at ETH Zurich who specializes in extracting funding and expertise from private corporations to address the needs of slums.
One such project is the cable car system that U-TT, an operational and delivery GSN, designed for Caracas—it features gondolas capable of carrying 1,200 people per hour over the hillsides. Another is its current work on the “Empower Shack,” a prefabricated, solar-powered residence priced within reach of those residing in Cape Town’s informal “settlements.” Empower Shack, one of several “Slum Lab” projects by U-TT, brought together multi-stakeholders for a short-term design and build collaboration seeking to solve the problem of sub-standard dwellings in urban environments. Brillembourg is an amazing, exhausting speaker, but if cities conferences could save the world, we would have done so already. Let’s hope they execute