Sparks of Inspiration at the Electric City Conference

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Michael Kimmelman, Bjarke Ingels, Ricky Burdett and Alejandro Zaera-Polo debate urban design

You know you’ve attended a good conference when the discussion leaves your head buzzing with new ideas and possibilities, and the debate continues long after the event closes. This was certainly the case at the Urban Age Electric City conference last week, where politicians, academics, designers and technologists met to share, discuss and argue urban policy and the future of cities.

Ostensibly the conference theme was smart cities and urban technology, and there were several tech business speakers extolling the virtues of electric cars, smart grids and so on. There was however widespread cynicism of techno-fixes on many fronts. Adam Greenfield used the very definitions of the smart city provided by corporate promoters to show the vacuous techno-utopian branding of what is often simply an extension of the real-estate industry. Richard Sennett articulated the ambiguous and complex nature of traditional street-based urban form, and by extension how archetypal smart-city examples from Masdar and Songdu failed to create similar spaces of social interaction that support innovation.

Yet it must be said that the urban technology debate is itself far more diverse than the strawman examples of Masdar and Songdu. Certainly the Shoreditch digital economy cluster that surrounds the conference venue illustrates thriving tech businesses in a traditional urban setting. Many of the counterexamples to smart-city utopia presented during the conference themselves involved aspects of technology, particularly in relation to communication and participation.

Urban equity, or lack of, was a key theme for many speakers. Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, passionately argued for tackling social inequality as a central element of improving urban sustainability- an argument he has helped translate into reality through reforming Bogotá’s public transport networks. The politics of inequality also underlie the social movements and protests that have rocked the world, from Occupy to the Arab Spring and the London riots. In these cases social networking technology presents a highly dynamic and unpredictable force that city governments, both rich and poor, are struggling to engage with.

On the design front, the talk that best integrated the conference themes was from Alejandro Zaera-Polo, who sought to articulate the evolution of architectural style and practice in response to digital communication. Citing modular and self-build architecture examples, he described a new aesthetic of incompleteness, and used slum developments as the model of how complex functional urban form emerges from simple building blocks. He also pointed to crowdsourcing as an increasingly key funding mechanism for development in the austerity age, requiring a new entrepreneurialism from architects to generate public support and money for ambitious projects. This spirit of architectural daring and entrepreneurialism was certainly on show from Bjarke Ingels, whose mad and wonderful “hedonistic sustainability” examples were a joy to see.

Alejandro Zaera-Polo- "architects must create belief"
Alejandro Zaera-Polo- “architects must create belief”

Yet as much the designers inspired, presentations tackling the global environment highlighted the gaping chasm between urban sustainability aspirations and reality. “Cities dream of Barcelona and build Los Angeles” was Greg Clark’s quick-fire summary of Joan Clos’s conclusions from the UN Human Settlements Programme. “The compact city plus global lives do not equal sustainability” correctly argued Maartin Hajer.

Intellectual heavyweight Anthony Giddens grappled with the grave implications of the 4+ degrees warming path we are set on for this century, and the high-risk high-opportunity civilisation we have created. When asked somewhat glibly by the chair whether he was an “optimist or a pessimist” he replied quite rightly that the question was irrelevant and that climate change requires scientific realism, a perspective that is currently beyond much of the public. It’s certainly appeared beyond the UK politicians on show, who enthusiastically banged the drum for sustainable London while conveniently forgetting that much of the globe’s fossil fuel industry in headquartered in London and funded by City banks.

Anthony Giddens tackles the implications of global climate change
Anthony Giddens tackles the implications of global climate change

There were also some rays of hope for a deeper understanding of urban sustainability. The former mayor of Stockholm, Carl Cederschiöld, described how sustainability progress had been achieved in his city, pointing to the vital role of both strong national support and public understanding as well as city government. Dimitri Zenghelis put forward the economic growth case for an urban green transformation. Mark Swilling presented a methodology of understanding urban sustainability through social and resource flows- exactly the kind of approach needed for considering sustainability in an age of global connectivity. Maartin Hajer described the need for forging “coalitions of the willing” in tackling global sustainability where international governance has been so ineffective.

And that’s what the Urban Age conference surely is in the end, one big coalition of the willing… or willing to discuss and debate at any rate. Thanks to all those who took part and contributed to a very engaging event. If you missed it, conference video highlights will be appearing on the website over the coming days, and you can read essays by many of these speakers in the conference newspaper.

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One thought on “Sparks of Inspiration at the Electric City Conference

  1. Yes, it certainly was a great event for which I would like to thank all responsible and not least those behind the scene dressed in black that made it all so ellegant and smooth.

    One thought that keeps on my mind since is that it seems we know a great deal about electricity (technology) but there is yet a hell of a lot to dicover about the city.

    It seems though, that a conference like this makes one hopeful that at least we are not heading towords the same urban fiasco the industrial revolution brought about.

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