Across the world, new urban models are being invented and constructed before our eyes: from post- industrial cities seeking regeneration (Coventry, Detroit and Charleroi) to technological utopias striving to be world leaders (Masdar in the UAE and Songdo in South Korea) to over-populated megalopolises looking for fluidity (Mexico City, Lagos and Singapore for example). Despite the different scales and social contexts, all of these places have something in common: they must all deal with the unprecedented intricacy of today’s urban fabric. ‘Complexity’ has become the catch phrase of an urbanism that is still searching for solutions. The repercussions of this change of paradigm are numerous, for the city as well as for those who operate within it.
Extending the City Limits
Scott Smith, an American futurist who heads the agency Changeist, talks about ‘the secular failure of planned urbanism’ – a statement that no architect or urbanist has been able to refute. According to him, ‘the socio-economic complexity of the world has caused the structures imposed by the urban ecosystem to falter. City-dwellers live complex, chaotic lives: urban planning needs to offer flexibility and give its inhabitants the opportunity to create their own environments’. This edict can be translated as a necessity to grow the skills involved with the ‘science’ of city development and notably citizen involvement. He describes an urban ‘tapestry’, as bold as it is intricate, created by increasing stakeholder involvement in the development of the urban fabric. Previously, this involvement was reserved exclusively for those working directly in the sector (architects, urbanists, developers or transporters). Today, urban science extends to many third-party disciplines – such as telecommunications providers, artists and designers, managers, without forgetting financial engineers, whose skills have become essential for those places that are yearning to invent new models. While developing these capacities is a pre-requisite for the cities of the future, it is also clear that moving into this new era also means adding yet another layer of complexity.
Architect Alain Renk, founder of the start-up UFO and the architecture studio HOST, and strategic adviser for digital cities at the Mines Telecom Institute, also sees in this movement the end of yesterday’s urban approach: ‘expert intelligence, closed in the silos of rigid professions, has been made to look ridiculous by the agile intelligence distributed throughout individuals and organisations.’ Renk has developed an app ‘Unlimited Cities’, which allows city dwellers to share their vision of the city to guide the choices of urban policy-makers. With the help of this app, he seeks to predict the advent of truly collaborative urbanism, for which cities need to better prepare themselves. In this context, managing the development of cities requires a paradigm shift from a vertical hierarchical structure to a more horizontal organisation that includes multiple stakeholders. A governance shared between all parties that make up the city of tomorrow, with their diverse interests and operations. Easier said than done.
Reading the City Horizontally and Openly
Everything points towards an adjustment of scale, the necessity of thinking about urban space as an ecosystem, and even holistically, in order to enable all stakeholders to take ownership of their environments. According to Nicolas Nova, co-founder of the futurist agency Near Future Laboratory, and professor at the Geneva School of Art and Design, ‘the main challenge comes from the difficulty of a focus shift to simultaneously define issues and imagine solutions. That requires taking into account different scenarios, thinking ‘outside the box’ or in unique directions’. Renk is optimistic concerning this shift from theory to practice: ‘In the end, it is simple enough to help cities understand the complexity of urban issues. Using intelligent, collective tools and methods for urban development gives people access to a dynamic and lived understanding of place.’ This opinion is shared by Nova, who says ‘one of the best ways to comprehend these issues is to leave behind pre-conceived judgements, to create hybrid, mixed forums where all parties involved in any given scenario participate.’
This solution was already practised in the 70s. It was this change in focus that allowed Curitiba to resolve issues of population growth and transport, and to become a benchmark for urban ecology and planning. Pioneering pedestrianisation in Brazil, the city is known for its innovative bus system, conceived as an ‘above ground metro’ with stations and interchanges. Introduced by the mayor Jaime Lerner, himself an architect, Curitiba’s bus network is the product of a true change in urban thinking, at a time when more traditional decision-makers were only thinking about roads, more roads and costly metro systems. Bringing together everyone involved in the urban fabric, including small businesses, Curitiba demonstrated the benefits of shared decision-making – a marked departure from the common practice of the era. Now that intermodality is king, this example shows that the best solutions don’t always need new resources or equipment, but rather a systematic reorganisation of space and networks.
Towards Shared Governance
Almost three decades later, and despite results that are more mixed than before, curitiba continues to inspire cities who aspire to better mobility. The Brazilian city is still considered as the ‘3rd smartest city in the world’, according to a 2009 Forbes study, proving its enduring relevance. However, the world has changed significantly over the past 30 years. In particular, the explosion of e-commerce, the rapid expansion of digital technologies in our daily lives and the re-densification of inner cities have generated new challenges for urban territories. To fulfill this need, a new form of global, shared governance is emerging, where the city is seen as a shared destiny. Which cities will be able to take up the challenge to radically change their decision-making process? Which models will be able to integrate all stakeholders in these urban spaces, from citizens to policy-makers, as well as investors? The city is but one big laboratory.
Complexity: a Methodological Challenge to Respond to the Demands of Urbanity
With its 12 million inhabitants, the Paris region is a fascinating site to understand urban issues, whether in terms of infrastructure, solutions or governance. It is already difficult to represent the complexity of this region on paper, so how is it possible to move towards action and confront reality? It was this methodological challenge that led the Ile-de-France region to call on Mazars, asking for assistance. How can we construct sustainable and adaptable urban logistics models, that integrate the demands, constraints, ebbs and flows of cities of the future? Mazars’ response was to create a methodological framework that promoted collaboration between all stakeholders in order to reconcile all possible constraints (timing, economic models, etc), consider the different scales of intervention and ensure that the specificity of each place was taken into account. Our work was, of course, partially inspired by intelligent initiatives that we had observed in other locations, but we also knew that they were by no means the only way to create innovative urban logistics models tailored to the dynamics of each place and embraced by all stakeholders. Amongst several solutions co-developed during this process, three test projects were identified: first, the integration of an urban logistics model from the conception stage of a new eco-neighbourhood; second, using more fluid, multi-channel urban logistics to revitalise a city centre; and finally, exploiting vacant, low-value industrial property to create new urban logistics infrastructure and address increasing transportation demand caused by the growth of e-commerce. These three pathways are helping establish a new logistics eco-system in a complex urban environment: taking into account what we have, and reinventing a better reality.