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Cities of dreams

Big topics, big challenges and big questions around the future of cities dominated the discussion at SmartCitiesWorld’s inaugural advisory board meeting and we look forward to addressing them.

Citizens must believe that city leaders and planners are acting in their best interest
Citizens must believe that city leaders and planners are acting in their best interest

Where do you begin with the future of smart cities? Where we live are such beautiful, chaotic, life-affirming, frustrating locales that trying to bend them into some sort of shape can prove a life-long challenge. It took some 60 years to transform the bulk of Manhattan island from the morass of lanes and thoroughfares that spoke of its diverse heritage into its (in)famous grid structure.


Debate continues to this day as to whether it proved a success or was an easy means of divvying up land to sell. I guess it depends whether you are trapped in a taxi trying to travel three blocks or surveying line after line after line of lights stretching forever from the top of a skyscraper at dusk.


But Manhattan’s fascinating history shows the challenges facing cities is perennial – the ability to follow through on a project and the need to get citizen buy-in. And these were just two areas covered in almost three hours of debate during the inaugural meeting of our new Advisory Board. You’ll already have read about the achievements, experience and diversity of the board and that was matched by the quality of the conversation. Highlights of the discussion will be published in the coming weeks but a couple of things struck me.


One was the consensus that smart city projects need follow through from everyone involved. Nice pitches, trials and proofs-of-concept are one thing, but citizens actually need the end product. Projects need to be built with them in mind and with the budget and ambition to see it through.


Citizen buy-in was another point of interest and one that should serve as a cautionary tale for cities. It’s an irrational time. The US president refused to discount an organisation peddling conspiracy theories last night, fears abound about the health of Brazil’s democracy, and arguably most worryingly, anti-vaccination attitudes are on the rise. Why should citizens believe governments will do the right thing for them?


This should concern any city. Coronavirus requires we rethink our cities; it’s not merely an opportunity but a necessity. As you will read in greater depth next week, Jeff Risom from the architecture firm Gehl discussed the rise of the local and how people will be more inclined to stay in their neighbourhoods, with the need for more green spaces and a greater number of shops and services to provide a mini city near their front door.


But citizens need to be convinced the local authorities are acting in their best interests. For one, they need to be happy with the related disruption just outside their back gardens. Additionally, these projects need to happen quickly – coronavirus isn’t a looming problem. Human behaviour needs to change now in order to help stem the spread of the virus.


Big questions but that’s the aim of the board. What the SmartCitiesWorld team wants is for the board to challenge us, ensure our content stays relevant and gives you what you require. I came away with pages filled with notes and ideas for the future. The board will make sure we stick to our promises of using the debates to influence what we write.