Innovation in Cities – What Can We Learn from World Urban Forum 10?

From February 8 to February 13, the World Urban Forum took place in Abu Dhabi. This biannual event is supposed to bring together urban planners, mayors and anyone else working in urban development to discuss the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 11, “to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. The United Nations’ UN Habitat Programme organises the conference. This year’s theme was “Cities of Opportunities – Connecting Culture and Innovation”. 

Out of more than 13,000 participants, only 70 mayors were present. This number is a bit depressing, since the conference’s purpose is to learn from each other and to connect. Surely, local governments can particularly benefit from that. However, the audience seemed to consist more of businessmen and investors than of local government members and urban planners.

More than 500 events were held during the week-long Forum. They all tried to find an answer to how to use culture and innovation in urban planning. However, many of the current challenges that the world’s cities are facing – climate change, social inequalities, sprawl, to name only a few – were missing from the conference. The events around innovation were particularly insightful, but they were not always well-connected to other challenges.

Apart from countless sessions on smart cities, the use of technologies such as mapping apps and government data solutions, the World Urban Forum host Abu Dhabi also offered a free tour to visit their representative smart city neighbourhood, Masdar City. This is supposed to be the “greenprint” for a sustainable city. The master plan has created an area designed for 50,000 people, that will largely be car-free, run by renewable energies, serviced by a new metro line and self-driving vehicles, and organised by smartphone apps and softwares.

What sounds good on paper and looks impressive in photoshopped visualisations is actually an example of the danger that often comes with innovative ideas: no one thought of the people who will actually live there. As American urban planning idol Jane Jacobs puts it, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” (Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961).

If you look closely at the advertisements of Masdar City, you will see that there are no visualisations of people. The 20% of the city that is already built up resembles a ghost town more than anything else. While the planners thought of a community centre, transport links and even festivals for Masdar City, they developed the project on the drawing board without any participation of potential residents or neighbourhood groups. The results are evident: There is no clear target group of Masdar City residents. Due to the location of this smart neighbourhood at the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, interest is not particularly big. Currently, Masdar mostly consists of stray cats and some students who attend the University of Artificial Intelligence, but it is very hard to imagine a vibrant street life in this innovative, but ultimately empty neighbourhood.

Talking to Alan Marcus from Planet Smart City, a real estate company that actually puts the neighbours first in designing the vital details of a neighbourhood, reveals a new idea that did not get enough attention at the World Urban Forum events: we have to put people before technology. Applications can help to make connections, smart software can help to monitor your energy consumptions, but ultimately, a good neighbourhood needs common spaces, community decisions and co-design. The UK-based company employs community managers in making sure that technology is used to meet different needs of neighbours. But instead of planning for technology or for “smartness”, they plan for connections, making technology only the means to an end.

The wish for connections on many different levels was one of the most prominent strands of discussions during the World Urban Forum. UN Habitat’s initiative of launching an Urban Agenda Platform to learn from other cities (website expected to be online in June 2020) will be a welcomed tool to form more connections. After all, so many great and innovative ideas on how to achieve SDG 11 are already out there. If we learned anything from WUF10, it is that we do need to connect culture and innovation – by avoiding a culture of innovation for the sole purpose of investment and by instead putting culture, which is created by and for people, first.