CONVERSATIONS FOR THE URBAN AGE: THE IBERIAN APPROACH TO SMART (GLOBAL) CITIES
URBAN 360º, the blog edited by Pablo Sánchez Chillón, Urban Planning Lawyer, International Speaker, Strategy and Public Affairs Advisor and Urban Advocate. Pablo is Co-founder of Eolexcitylab, Sánchez Chillón & Foro Global Alicante. Urban Innovation Advocates, Consultants & Lawyers (Spain).
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Each December, after the indigestion of data, success stories and unique solutions for Cities provided by legions of panelists in the global huge meetings around the Smart Cities paradigm held around the world, the Northeastern City of Bragança in Portugal embraces Urban Innovation and shared knowledge on occasion of the Smart Travel Event, the first international forum on Smart Cities, Governance and ICT in Portugal, which is, by far and for many reasons, the freshest and most original (meaning d’auteur) event on Innovative Cities I have ever attended (and believe me if I tell you that I have been travelling a lot).
With this initiative, the organization (led by my restless friend Vitor Pereira and a brilliant team of committed Digizens) aims to share knowledge, experiences, and smart solutions, on a global scale, by confronting excellent testimonials of renowned global panelists with the tough reality of small and medium territories, moving along the topics of innovation, urban planning and development, resilience, entrepreneurial spirit, communications and PR and the entrepreneurial approach to our hyper-connected cities.
After being invited to open the first edition of the Smart Travel Event in 2014 with a keynote about “Innovative Destinations, Smart Cities & Digizens, Vitor Pereira redoubled the bet by asking me to close the 2015 edition, disserting about “Global Cities, and the New Urban Diplomacy”, before 400 attendees and colleagues, insisting on the capital role of cities and non-state actors in the new global scenario of politics.
By talking (and writing) about the extent and insights of the brand new Urban Diplomacy developed by Cities, I have been trying to explain how the mix of influence, reputation and collective efforts of mayors, advisors, private companies and engaged individuals is contributing to the opening of an international Urban Agenda and a new framework for global governance, in which Cities and urban issues are performing a key role, challenging the most consolidated and traditional approaches to the issue.
In a moment in which the World is becoming more open and connected than ever, and where disintermediation, end of power and open and fragile agendas are the new normal, Cities, traditionally mere followers of the dictates of national governments in terms of foreign affairs, are assuming a dynamic role as proactive actors in the global arena by using Global influence, Lobby techniques and ‘Soft Diplomacy’ tools to gain weight and resonance in the global conversation and decision making scenarios.
Navigating along the experience of some leading cities as Amsterdam, Barcelona Copenhagen or Medellin and their committed and strategic focus on internationalization as tool for global relevance and influence, I found myself in Portugal trying to understand and explain how the use of Political Leadership, Storytelling techniques, Transmedia Languages and Collective Civic efforts are helping the cleverest cities on Earth to broaden their global reputation and influence as innovative, green or friendly cities, gaining weight and competitiveness.
My aim, then, was to explain how in a world more open, noisy and connected than ever, (wise) cities, traditionally set aside of the hot centers of decision and policy making, are pushing the global agenda of governance by taking on a dynamic role in terms of influence, lobby and ‘Soft Diplomacy’, more aligned with their interests, worries and expectations. Against the solemn, secret and elite-reserved performance of classical Diplomacy skills, some Cities and Star Mayors (take, for instance, Anne Hidalgo and Shadiq Khan dynamic alliance after the Brexit shock for Paris and London) are getting on very well in developing the charms of soft and subtle Diplomacy in international arenas, by adding to the battery of tactics and strategies deployed in global centers of decision a brand new (and diffuse) strong commitment of a network of urban stakeholders and digital activists willing to tell, sell and defend the city abroad.
For the very first time in the history of Cities, Urban Diplomacy is being outsourced and performed by a rising Cloud of Influencers.
Indeed, Cities, regardless of their size are working alone or joining new collaborative platforms of influence with their counterparts, linking the domestic agendas of governance with the universal challenges of massive urbanization, resilience, sustainability, economic growth and security, by adding colorful layers to their global tale based on the new urban ‘currencies’ as innovation, good reputation, livability, creativity and other valuable intangible assets.
The result of this relatively new calling of cities as universal players is the enrichment of the discussion about progress and development, the reinforcement of the international Urban Agenda and the rising sense of openness and transparency around the always complex and discrete process of global decision making. Beyond the classical urban approaches about how cities compete and grows, in a World where international, national and domestic arenas blend together, it is time to pay some attention to the way in which cities are pursuing their international agenda and to how Mayors, Counselors, public servants, companies, entrepreneurs and other urban stakeholders are performing a true diplomatic role on behalf of a common (and diffuse) urban interest.
Urban Diplomacy, as an emerging trend and attitude for cities attends to how urban entities build tales, brands and strategies (from lobbying to external relations) to strategically position themselves globally as places for attraction of people, talent and investments but also about the way an increasing number of stakeholders and eventual actors are engaged in international city promotion and urban branding, aligning their action with the common effort to play a significant role in the international arena.
It took me some time to summarize my view around Urban Diplomacy here, if you are interested on the topic.
Last, but not least, we are currently launching the first global Think Tank around the intangible assets and reputation of Cities and Territories. Called ‘Foro Global Territorio’, our independent institute believes in Soft-Power, Reputation and Smart Influence as ultimate tools for a effective and meaningful Global Diplomacy in hands of Cities. Check out our website to know more about the project.
From ‘Dashboard cities’ to ‘Instagrammed Urban Planning,’ or ‘Pixel-like citizens’ passing by the big mistakes in terms of Communications the Smart City paradigm, my conversation with Filipa Cardoso, the talented journalist of the Magazine Smart Cities PT, flew around the warning about the negative effects of a purely technological vision in cities, the ‘emptiness’ of the standardized top-down references to the role of citizens in the process and the faith on the smart intelligence around urban and open communities.
You can find the original interview in Smart Cities PT Magazine here.
While citizens are vital, they aren’t pixels. Many narrow views of the smart city are regarding citizens as mere pixels that move in the city, on a dashboard.
We are witnessing a huge buzz surrounding the concept of smart cities. What sort of cities are we building?
With regard to innovation and technology, etc., the cities I like are those based on several contributions. We are relying on citizens, companies, stakeholders and institutions, both public and private, to outline a project where everyone is somehow involved. Indeed, I don’t believe in purely technological smart-city projects.
Can too much technology threaten to prevent the concept from working?
Technology can be a narrow view of a “smart city,” as it can provide a very small and limited view of the city and of the smart city, as well. It will clash with the concept of complexity, because, if we are in a city controlled from a dashboard [control panel], where any kind of response to an event can be predicted, there is no room for public decision, and democracy is based on possibilities.
How can we escape these “dashboard cities?”
By including a broader view of the city, where the opinion of other suppliers and other non-technological solutions are taken into account. Major technology-supplying companies are currently calling the shots regarding smart cities. If we can somehow recover the traditions, the visions, the authenticity, the history, the community, and ask for intelligence, by providing solutions and decisions based on the collective contribution, made possible by technology, we could obtain a bigger picture of the whole thing.
Do citizens have a decisive role in this?
Yes. Whenever an expert says that citizens are at the heart of smart cities, a tree is felled and dies. There are many commonplaces and understandings regarding the role of citizens. Now, everyone points out the role of citizens within the smart city project, but the way I see it, that’s an empty reference.
The overview would involve not only formally activating participation, doing this and explaining it, but also opening the processes as they are developed throughout. If we ask people to become involved only when the project is already designed, that contribution won’t mean a thing. And while citizens are vital, they aren’t pixels. Many narrow views of the smart city are regarding citizens as mere pixels that move in the city, on a dashboard.
Could social media be a good instrument for finding out what people want?
Yes, this could be a good starting point. There is a lot of information coming from social media, but only concerning people who are active on social media, and cities are also made up of many people who are not in contact with these.
Let’s look at digizens: these people are part of two worlds. A youth who interacts with friends and acquaintances through social media and on the Internet, but who returns home for supper with his/her parents and makes this connection with them, explains things to them and expands their visions… That contribution is crucial. We will have to provide [the emergence of] projects where citizens use this technological capability, people whose lives comprise a human part that combines with any access to technology as an experiment. This will be great and very interesting.
How do those in responsibility in cities reach people without including the technological aspect?
First, perhaps by having a vision or a greater understanding of what a smart city is, and what is at issue, the kind of instruments that are available for somehow controlling processes. This is not solely about buying or about money, but about urban planning, services, communities, neighborhoods and all of a city’s capital. As I’ve mentioned, while technology is an enabling element, citizens, communities and companies are key throughout the entire process.
In short, relying on the community. Secondly, in my view, starting off by explaining everything to citizens from the very outset, in order to make things very readily understandable by them. I say this because, in Spain, we have worked with cities and mayors who, at the final stage of the process, regret not having involved people from the beginning, which is vital to make things easier.
The event Smart Travel’15 was devoted to small and medium-sized cities. Do you feel that implementing a smart strategy in a city such as Bragança is a bigger challenge than doing so in a large city?
This is a classic question and, in my opinion, in this regard, size doesn’t matter. Interesting things can be done by enlivening the community, investing in the vision, in projects, while organizing events such as Smart Travel, which are somehow stirring things up and providing an image and perception of the city as a modern city committed to innovation. I have worked with small and medium-sized cities that have undertaken very interesting projects that the communities are very close to. When talking about a large city, we can predict that there will be a large swath of the community that will never know this project exists.
In such a case, there is greater proximity, as all the tools are available for conducting a proper presentation, explaining [the process] and involving people. And, naturally, as concerns authenticity and the perception of who they are, small and medium-sized cities are greatly linked to their identity, and this is something that somehow gets lost in large cities.
Is identity important for a city?
Yes, identity as well as authenticity. I have spoken of the concept of “Instagram urban planning,” where cities with filters and false perspectives are capturing the imagination of cities all over the world… and that’s not my city. I ask: “dude, where’s my city?”
[As explained above, we are currently launching the first global Think Tank around the intangible assets and reputation of Cities and Territories. Called ‘Foro Global Territorio’, our independent institute believes in Soft-Power, Reputation and Smart Influence as ultimate tools for a effective and meaningful Global Diplomacy in hands of Cities. Check out our website to know more about the project and feel free to comment].