Citizens for Urban Strategy
Why business-driven urban development must be anchored in citizens and what we can learn from the Latin American experience. Why business-driven urban development must be anchored in citizens and what we can learn from the Latin American experience
First, yes, I believe that smart urban development must be business-driven since the technology and resources provided by established firms and new startups alike will enable the acceleration of urban innovation that provides better livelihoods for millions. However, this is only so if the technology and urban solutions in question are designed specifically with the end user in mind. Citizens, after all, are a city's number one stakeholder, even if popular discourse on the topic often seems to forget it amidst exciting buzzwords such as IoT, AI, Industry 4.0, Big Data and many more.
Last week the second version of the Do Smart City conference (DSC17) in Santiago, Chile, proved a refreshing departure from this discourse, as the capital region of 7+ million people looks to overcome significant social and environmental challenges. The majestic Andes mountains encircling the capital are all too often hidden by smog, traffic is chaotic and congested and there are great divides in social and economic status between the city's eastern and western zones, to name a few.
Everyone in Santiago is aware of these challenges, and so the conference last week, which included keynotes from across Latin America and the likes of Madrid and Barcelona, was centered around the inclusion of citizens for co-creating a more sustainable urban future. Chile, and indeed the Latin American region is one of the most urbanized places in the world, with some 80% of people in the region living in cities. Without the inclusion of- and collaboration with citizens, the very discussion on 'Smart Cities' and urban development remains purely academic. For example, the success of urban development projects, such as parking solutions and green infrastructure is entirely dependent on the adoption by the citizens. An urban planner, a politician and a taxi driver in Santiago will likely give you very different answers as to the successes and shortcomings of the public transportation system, and all stakeholder groups should be considered when making decisions that affect millions of people.
A new social contract
For years, Latin America has struggled with the paradox of having institutional voids while simultaneously seeing increasing sophistication from the bottom up. In other words, societies have become increasingly aware of- and concerned about sustainability and environmental and social challenges, while institutions have often lacked the capacity to ensure sustainable development. This gap has traditionally been filled (somewhat) by corporations by providing their products and services. Today, technology-driven firms and resource-heavy corporations again play a crucial role in transforming our cities into open, accessible, liveable and enjoyable places for all who live there, but it requires a re-thinking of how business is done. Even in modern Chile.
From my perspective, a so-called 'Smart City' is essentially a dialogue - a multi-stakeholder conversation between the city (government), businesses (private sector), universities and research institutions (academia) and finally the people (civil society). As such, a city is a social contract that must be constantly renegotiated.
Such renegotiation may be done through many different projects and collaborations, but key for them all is that liveability for its citizens must be at the heart of anything a city does, whatever form that liveability should ultimately take. Smart urban development is thus equally a question of leadership. If innovation should be business-driven, then governments and other urban development professionals (including ourselves at Quercus Group) should work to facilitate innovation that promotes liveability, equality and better social and environmental conditions through various means such as public-private partnerships (PPP), development of strategic clusters or living labs for developing and showcasing new technologies.
Santiago's Intendente (Mayor of the capital region) has called for public-private collaboration as well as greater inter-agency collaboration, stating last year that the capital city's challenge is not with technology. Basically every keynote I heard at the DSC conference reflected this mentality, from the regional government of la Región Metropolitana through the business sector and non-profits alike.
What is needed then is a revolution not in technological development (that's already well underway), but with the way we make decisions. With a political leadership that pays attention, Chile may just become a future reference case for integrating the social dimension in urban development projects.