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The Future of the City

Cities and their influence on citizens’ behavior, community, and culture is top of mind for more than the usual suspects: urban planners and city hall officials. Right now designers, technologists, hacktivists, and journalists are all exploring how the urban environment is going to change in coming years, as the megapolis becomes more of a reality. As my colleague, Creative Director Scott Nazarian, states in his article in our upcoming print issue of design mind, “Cities challenge us to manage their many networks, all of which must be managed or facilitated by both people and automated systems.”

So, who are the people and organizations rethinking our cities? Mathieu Lefevre is the Executive Director of the New Cities Foundation, a new global platform for innovation and exchange on the future of urbanization. I discussed the future of the connected city with him, the places that are getting urbanization right, and technology’s role in these transformations.

design mind: Given your background working in governance for the World Bank and as a political officer for the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, why did you decide to shift your focus to the New Cities Foundation?

Mathieu Lefevre: I grew up in Paris, and have always had a passion for cities. As much as I sometimes dream of living among green fields and sheep (I think my 2-year old son would love that), I have cities in my DNA. I spent a decade working on complex global problems in some of the world's hot spots, and I learned a lot from those experiences. After the best part of a decade in the field, I wanted to move away from the big wheels of international politics (one gets a little weary) and I wanted to leave before I got cynical.

I always had the city as a unit in the back of my mind. Cities are where big problems - environmental, social and economic - become local and can get solved. I was offered a great job in city government, but then I realized I wanted to create something new with the city as a focus. Then I met John Rossant, our chairman, and that was the spark for the Foundation. Cities are growing and becoming more connected to one another as they cooperate and compete. In my job, I get the local reality and the excitement of the international.

dm: With urbanization growing exponentially, it seems as though there will be an implosion. What is technology’s role in managing or improving these new environments or mega cities?

ML: Take the subway in any major city, particularly in Asia, and this implosion you refer to is visible. Half of the passengers are reading the news, emailing their friends or playing Angry Birds on a phone or tablet. But I think, as strange as it may sound, technology has the potential to make the mega city more human or certainly to allow humans to connect more. One of the factors most closely associated with the experience of the megapolis in surveys is loneliness. Technology, while it does not replace human contact, can help connect city dwellers and certainly navigate the immensity of the megacity.

dm: The Connected City is a buzzword. but what does it really mean and what
are its implications on city-dwellers (and their behavior?)

ML: Think of the future city as an increasingly sophisticated living organism. Information flows through its veins. In its simplest form, the Connected City is just a new urban system where everything and everyone is able to communicate in real time, people to people, people to object, and object to object. The subway is connected to the grid in a new way; I am connected to the subway, to my son's school, to my friends, to city government. The real question is how does that impact my life and our lives as citizens? This has yet to be determined. We are planning a session with frog during the New Cities Summit in May called 'Navigating the Meta City' that will explore some of these themes.

dm: You’ve talked about the benefits of the 'connected city' and what systems
technology could enable or improve, but what about the dark side of a city
so dependent on this type of connection?

ML: The connected city is often portrayed to be necessarily synonymous with progress and a brighter future. This is obviously naive. If things go wrong, the connected mega city could be a pretty scary place on many levels: personal, environmental, and political. The basic point that we tend to forget in this age of rapid technological evolutions is that technology does not change society. People, newly empowered by technology, change society. The transformative power of technology for cities is something we believe in very strongly, but it needs to be accompanied by social and political change. For that to happen at the city level, the technology community needs to better understand the realm of politics and governance, for example the role of a mayor or local government. Equally, the staff at a city hall needs a better grip on technology, in fairly detailed technical terms. The creation of the post of Chief Information Officer (CIO) in many city halls is a very welcome development. We also do some work in the area of smart regulation, which is really about how regulation can better and more rapidly adapt to the environment including the technological context. This is particularly important for the future city we believe in to become a reality.

dm: What is the role of personal data in this new imagined city? It is likely needed for a personalized or customized experience when navigating the city, but will citizens be willing to exchange that information for that benefit?

ML: Data is what will make the connected city a reality. Among the terabytes of big data available in a city, the most personal data is the most pertinent and valuable. To be truly connected to, the city as a system has to know who I am and how I behave. The truth is that without access to this personal data, the city cannot be smart. That is the key discussion we should have to build the city of the future. Data exploitation systems today are years ahead of the mechanisms to regulate the use of that personal data.
There are also generational and cultural concerns here. I am amazed - and a little scared - at how little my younger cousins care about giving up their entire life in data to services like social networks. Maybe a social transformation is at play here and the younger generation has a different take on privacy. Or maybe more education on this is badly needed.

dm: What are some examples from your ideal vision of the "City of the Future."

ML: The City of the Future has always been an inspirational theme, ever since the Sumerians.  My city of the future is dynamic and inclusive. It fosters creativity by capturing the positive energy that comes from the proximity of people of different backgrounds, skills and views. It is a green city where the benefits of density are fully maximized in environmental terms, but where real trees and real grass is given a central place, not as an afterthought (I am, personally, not a fan of the Highline model of gardens). The City of the Future is not segregated or ghettoized. It is connected but not oppressive. It is cultured but not snobby. 

dm: Do you see those being developed in any city right now?

ML: I think there are some cities that are doing amazing things and should be seen as examples. New York, for me is still hard to beat as an all-around candidate. Then you have really interesting projects like the Royal Sea Port project in Stockholm or King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia that are very different but innovative in their own way. But the biggest story of urbanization is in Asia of course; that is where one should look for success stories and there are plenty in Chengdu, Hangzhou and Singapore, for example.

dm: On a lighter note, why do you like living in a city?

ML: Freedom, creativity, the excitement that anything could happen today. I also love to take public transportation in New York, Paris, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Rio, or London and see the amazing diversity of people. That pleases me on a very basic level. Nothing pleases more than street food though - a major benefit to city life!

image by Kazuhiko Kawahara (cc)


As frog's Content and Community manager, Kristina Loring curates, writes, and edits the design mind platform. When she's not spreading frog's ideas across the Internet and the city, you can find her raving about digital activism, the power to humanize tech, and community-led innovation.