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Conference insights from Vancouver and Boston to Paris and Beijing.

Envisioning the City of the Future

For the first time in human history, more people live in cities than in rural areas, and in the next 20 years the urban population will grow from 3.5 billion to 5 billion people. The social, economic, environmental, design, and engineering challenges of this transformation will shape the 21st century. The lives of the people living in those cities can be improved – and the impact of this growth on the environment reduced – by the use of “smart” technologies that can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of urban systems. Given that cities are, and always have been, about the clustering of people, digital innovations are now undoubtedly accelerating human interactions in urban environments and readying citizens for contributing to inclusive growth. By unlocking technology, infrastructure and public data, cities can open up new value chains that spawn innovative applications and information products that make possible sustainable modes of city living and working.

Smart initiatives are underway in many urban centers around the world, and the (pop-)cultural debate is zooming in on it as well: See Cisco’s strategic initiative with the city of Barcelona, this film by Ericsson on “Thinking Cities," or Gary Hustwit’s new documentary “Urbanized.” TED awarded its 2012 TED Prize to “The City” (for the first time it didn’t go to a person), and The Atlantic devotes an entire section to the City.

Thus, the New Cities Summit in Paris a few weeks ago, the inaugural annual conference of the New Cities Foundation of which frog is a founding member, came at the right time. It brought together thought leaders in technology, infrastructure, architecture, energy, transport, national and local government, the media, academia, and the non-profit sector from all regions of the world. Seven hundred high-level urban thinkers and city shapers met to discuss the “first truly urban century.”

More than 90 speakers known for work with global impact shared insights: from physics to politics, architecture to technology, and from art to engineering. The attendees were as international as engaged in the discussion, and made for a truly vibrant forum of exchange and visions. Or as Bertrand Delanoë, Mayor of Paris, put it in his speech at the Gala Dinner hosted at the Grand Palais: “Today’s and tomorrow’s challenges are intelligence, social cohesion, innovation, culture - I could have actually used just one word: the city.”

Setting the stage, the first plenary session investigated the urbanite as a species, and addressed the issue of “how we become a city species and why,” featuring speakers such as Wim Elfrink, EVP of Globalization at Cisco; Ajit Gulabchand, Managing Director of the Hindustan Construction Group; Gregor Robertson, the Mayor of Vancouver; and Geoffrey West, Distinguished Professor and Past President at the Santa Fe Institute. It juxtaposed the swift urbanization of new cities with projects for retro-fitting classic, older cities.

Moderated by Richard Quest of CNN, the panel “Portrait of an Urban World: Facts, Figures, and the Future” featured speakers such as Ricky Burdett of the London School of Economics; Greg Clark, UK Minister for Decentralization and Cities; architect Daniel Libeskind; and Hans Vestberg, CEO of Ericsson. The highly diverse backgrounds of the panelists allowed for an inspiring commentary on some of the central challenges faced by the urban world today. The speakers shared their thoughts on the most significant trends (from finance to culture) impacting urban development.

On the second day of the Summit, frog ran an interactive “speed-ideation” session on “Navigating the Meta-City,” led by creative directors Rob McIntosh and Gianluca Brugnoli. The concept of the Meta-City assumes that accelerated innovation and the adoption of ubiquitous computing, mobile devices, and rich sources of data are changing how we live, work, and play in urban environments. Increasingly, a digital landscape overlays our physical world and is expanding to offer ever-richer experiences that augment – and in some cases, replace – the physical experience: “The city is the platform, the network, the sensors, and the interface,” as frog creative director Rob McIntosh put it. The goal of the session was to aggregate expert knowledge from multiple disciplines and to address a number of provocative hypotheses related to the Meta-City, from smart sociality, smart transactions, smart buildings, to smart mobility.

- Smart Sociality: Cities are social platforms and physical locations that contribute to the organizing logic of social interactions. Location-aware mobile technologies strengthen the feelings of connection to our surrounding space and nearby people, allowing us to connect information to places and communicate with others. How can social technology relate to the genius loci, the unique spirit of a place, and the socialization that occurs in the physical spaces of a city? What should the user experience look or feel like for such social software, and what would be the implications for personal and national identity, privacy, and citizenship?

- Smart Transactions: Mobile Money and Mobile Payments technologies create disruptive scenarios in both B2C and B2B sectors – from social shopping, augmented commerce, smart cards, peer-to-peer payments, couponing, advertising, to software that analyzes consumers’ behavior patterns. This raises many questions: How will these disruptions impact the retail and B2B sectors? Are there new business opportunities in both arenas? What are the emerging user experiences in the smart transaction space that can be crossed over between B2B and B2C? Smart Buildings Media facades and interactive landmarks convey situated information through their exterior skins. Reactive architecture and buildings respond to the environment and people flows. They can mimic biological structures for the purposes of sustainability, energy savings, and creating innovative human habitats. What are the opportunities for engaging citizens in the urban architecture for creative and collaborative purposes?

- Smart Mobility: Moving and traveling within the smart city combines car sharing, carpooling, and shared vehicles with the interconnectedness of transportation and other infrastructures. Mobility-on-demand and fleet-management tools can fill the gaps in public transit. What opportunities can arise from Smart Mobility to improve the daily commute of workers as well as the needs for citizens to move around the city?

In a similar vein as the Meta-City workshop, the “Hard and Software Cities” panel gauged the challenges and opportunities created by the increasing integration of hardware and software in cities. Moderated by Diane Brady of Bloomberg Businessweek, the panel included Greg Clark, UK Planning Minister; Parag Khanna, New America Foundation; John Rice, Vice Chairman of GE and President and CEO of GE Global Growth and Operations, and Jonathan Woetzel, Co-Chair of the Urban China Initiative at McKinsey. The main themes of the conversation were mobility, access, basic infrastructure needs, and issues of governance. These are all matters that have gained increasing relevance within an environment of ever more sophisticated ICT technologies.

MIT Senseable Lab’s Carlo Ratti held the audience spellbound with the presentation “A Glimpse into Future Cities.” Or more precisely, “senseable cities.” He argued that by analyzing and learning from data, value can be added to daily city life. When combined with how we “sense” the city, the future urban experience will require a new understanding of the the use of data, architecture, and objects around us.

The following sessions on “Urban China” as well as “Modern Utopias” took the attendees on a journey to the East and into the future. The first panel, moderated in Chinese and English by Johan Björkstén, focused on the urbanization of China, the role of the government, and related challenges. The session was followed by an update on modern utopias “in action”: green field cities such as King Abdullah Economic City, Skolkovo, Jiangsu, and Lavasa.

The day ended with the announcement of the winner of the AppMyCity! competition, a contest directed at the improvement of the experience in a city. During the afternoon participants had presented their concepts and solutions to an international jury. Philippe Pujau, developer of the app CityGardens, was delighted to learn that he won the contest with an idea that seeks to localize, inform, and transform knowledge for city dwellers to help them discover the green spaces around them.

The summit concluded with a joint call to action around the theme “Thinking Ahead, Building Together.” New Cities Foundation Executive Chairman John Rossant emphasized the role of cities in meeting global challenges. Cities are hubs of innovation where social problems arise and can be solved, and where partnerships and collaborations can drive change at massive scale. As Rossant stated, “Meeting the challenges and seizing the considerable opportunities presented by this unprecedented shift [of the world toward urbanization] requires all the actors of change – governments, business, academia, civil society, the media – to seek new forms of collaboration that will shape the best practices of tomorrow’s cities.”

Highlights of the Summit are featured in this video summary:

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Also check out the design mind special issue on “The Future of the City”.