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Smarter Cities

Urban Diversity: Cities Of Differences Create Different Cities

What does "sustainability" really mean? A forward-looking French architect offers his reflections as part of Worldcrunch Impact: Smarter Cities.

The Hammarby Sjostad environmental project in Stockholm
The Hammarby Sjostad environmental project in Stockholm
Alain Renk*

PARIS — Sustainability has become the new buzzword around the world as cities look for ways to attract residents, tourists and businesses. But too frequently “sustainability” is little more than PR campaigns promoting a few green buildings scattered around the city — buildings that will never touch the lives of the vast majority of the city’s inhabitants, nor change the city’s quality of life.

This approach perverts the meaning of “sustainable,” because the only way to move towards real, long-term sustainability is to engage all of civil society in the transformation of the entire urban fabric.

The first step towards a truly sustainable transformation is to make sure that a maximum number of actors have an agreed upon, concrete goal. That goal should be shareable, measurable and desirable and should include a move towards increased sustainability.

Working towards improving the quality of city life has the possibility to bring together young and old, scientists and artists, poor and rich. These different stakeholders should work towards creating a city that makes space for modern transportation, business and culture, while orienting itself towards the future, not the past.

In addition, transforming the fabric of our urban lives will require people, groups and cultures from different backgrounds to work together. They might be from different professional spheres and used to working in different physical spaces and on different time frames, but they must work in concert towards a more sustainable future.

That means desegregating development specialities like housing, transportation and commercial development and focusing instead on the interconnectedness between each of those domains. In that sense, the biggest challenge in sustainable urban development is reconfiguring the mental architecture of officials, planners and all of the other professionals involved in a city’s transformation.

The key to improving the quality of city life is creating “urban diversity.” This means promoting diversity in the types and sizes of businesses and business spaces, in cultural activities and institutions as well as economic diversity. Like genetic diversity in the natural world, diversity in an urban context builds resilience throughout the city’s systems.

Here are some other mental shifts that need to take place as we prepare to create the cities of tomorrow:

NO SIZE FITS ALL - Today, big = leader. Our increasing digital connectivity will challenge this notion in the future, allowing for a more nuanced discussion about how size influences quality of life in the city.

DIALOGUE - Traditional urban planners do the thinking for civil society. In the future, they will have to think with civil society.

ALL CORNERS - Today a city’s vitality is measured by its urban center, but the city of tomorrow will be dynamic throughout its entire territory, as business and cultural activities spread throughout the city.

CONNECTIONS - Today’s urban production systems tend to be uniform, while in the cities of the future they will be more personalized and connected.

CREATIONS - Urbanism today is about organization and tidiness, but in the future it will be about promoting creativity.

The challenge for modern urban planning is to establish the best possible conditions for humankind’s time on earth. Professionals should focus just as much on facilitating the almost infinite number of small projects that arise from civil society as they do on large, flashy projects. If they are able to do so, the number of sustainable transformations will take off. Modest projects deployed en masse will create a network of urban territories that are more sustainable and more livable. This is a human recipe for creating the cities of the future.

*Alain Renk is a French architect and urban planner. In 2010, he co-founded UFO, a technology startup aimed at developing and experiment with collective intelligence tools dedicated to improving city life.

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Globalization Takes A New Turn, Away From China

China is still a manufacturing juggernaut and a growing power, but companies are looking for alternatives as Chinese labor costs continue to rise — as do geopolitical tensions with Beijing.

Photo of a woman working at a motorbike factory in China's Yunnan Province.

A woman works at a motorbike factory in China's Yunnan Province.

Pierre Haski


PARIS — What were the representatives of dozens of large American companies doing in Vietnam these past few days?

A few days earlier, a delegation of foreign company chiefs currently based in China were being welcomed by business and government leaders in Mexico.

Then there was Foxconn, Apple's Taiwanese subcontractor, which signed an investment deal in the Indian state of Telangana, enabling the creation of 100,000 jobs. You read that right: 100,000 jobs.

What these three examples have in common is the frantic search for production sites — other than China!

For the past quarter century, China has borne the crown of the "world's factory," manufacturing the parts and products that the rest of the planet needs. Billionaire Jack Ma's Alibaba.com platform is based on this principle: if you are a manufacturer and you are looking for cheap ball bearings, or if you are looking for the cheapest way to produce socks or computers, Alibaba will provide you with a solution among the jungle of factories in Shenzhen or Dongguan, in southern China.

All of this is still not over, but the ebb is well underway.

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