The journey to better cities and a new urban agenda

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Later this month I’ll be attending the United Nation’s Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador representing Future Cities Catapult. The Habitat event happens every two decades and the focus for the 2016 is the “New Urban Agenda”. In many ways it’s perfect timing to be exploring what our cities of the future should aspire to and look like.

Cities face large and significant challenges as urban populations grow, with the accompanying pressure on resources and all types of infrastructure. Combine this with challenging financial pressures along with the impact of wider factors like inequality, pollution, climate change, social cohesion, globalisation, immigration and it’s easy to see that the path forward is complex.

Even with a rapid pace of urbanisation there’s a huge opportunity to use new and innovative technologies to solve the social, environmental and economic challenges that cities are facing. A large group of influencers and decision makers will be at Habitat III to agree and commit to an action plan to tackle the various thematic areas defined in the New Urban Agenda.

Ultimately cities are about the people who live in them. If we can make them nicer, cleaner, healthier more inclusive places to be, I believe they will thrive.

Technology will make significant contributions to both finding the answers and delivering solutions. It is a key part of moving towards smarter cities and I will be focusing my energy on highlighting the role of technology, data and digitization in making a New Urban Agenda a reality across the globe.

While technology is not the only solution, it has the potential to radically improve the lives of people in cities worldwide. It can also empower a new generation of informed citizens to innovate at community scale and better engage with their governments and neighbourhoods.

Data in particular can be a tremendous agent of change. Decision making process in cities have been always based on some form of data, mostly collected historically and across slow intervals of time. This approach has often not been able to provide enough relevant information to tackle the big challenges we face today, or those we expect in the very near future. Technology is a powerful tool that can now deliver highly useful and reliable data in real, or near real time. This then allows us to simulate, predict, observe trends and analyse. If we use the data in the correct context it can provide information and evidence that can be used to make decisions to trial new solutions that do solve old intractable problems.

The conflagration of challenges facing us means that we need to take a step back and think more about what our cities should be and use the data to build business cases for new solutions. There are ways this might work – from creating healthier urban environments that build activity into each day to reduce the medical costs of inactivity, which might mean we need new thinking around streets and parks, as one example. Nearly every city in the world has issues with congestion and pollution but are we more focussed on technology to do more of the same or are we using data about journey types to re-imagine our cities?

Influential Danish architect, Jan Gehl, talks about Cities for People and I also believe this is a vital focus. With my smart cities and technology background, I’m convinced that technology can help provide evidence, context, data and business cases for a new urban agenda and I’m excited about being in Quito for Habitat III to discuss this further.

We spend third of our life at home, third at work and the last third in public spaces being recreational or commuting. The future may well see us building reconfigurable cities using infrastructure to more directly support what we are doing, whether that’s living, working or having fun.

Habitat III offers a chance to bridge the gap between urbanists, sociologists, technologists and city innovators and it is a unique opportunity to better understand the role that innovation has to play in the New Urban Agenda.

I’ll share further thoughts and observations on what I see and learn.

 

Future Cities Catapult is a global centre of excellence on urban innovation that brings together businesses, academia and city leaders to solve the problems that cities face, now and in the future.

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