Towards a Self-Reflection Framework for Livable Cities

Reon Brand, Senior Director of Company Design Research at Philips Design, Eindhoven, The Netherlands (specializing in Foresight and Socio-cultural change).


Alison Peters

We’re going to be moving from revitalization to self-reflection. Our next speaker is going to be Reon Brand. He’s with Philips and he’s the senior director of company design research. His specialization is foresight and socio-cultural change. So Reon, please help us reflect.

Reon Brand

Good day everybody. It’s great to be in Boulder and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to share with you a little bit some of the work we are doing in Philips to reflect and think about livable cities.

The mission of Philips is really to deliver innovation that can improve the quality of people’s lives. So Philips has a large interest and a large stake, given its technology portfolio in healthcare, sustainable lighting solutions, and consumer lifestyle propositions, to make a real impact in the context in improving people’s lives and cities, and this is why this is a very important topic for us.

So I want to briefly share with you two things today. The one is I’m really going to briefly introduce a paper that I’ve written that is also available I think on the table outside in a printed format, and you can also download it from the website of the Meeting of the Minds. So the other aspect I want to share with you is the work and the progress that we are making in a think tank on livable cities, actually Livable and Lovable Cities we call it, but I’ll get to that.

Now if we look at the world as it is today, it becomes clear the future of humanity is really the urban context, because I think in the next two to three decades, from about 50% today to 70% will live in urban context. And this urban development, together with the increase in population, is really causing a massive impact on the environment, as we all know. Speakers have spoken about the access and the limited access to resources. Many cities are developing in a way that they experience serious future and current problems about water, access to water, air quality, etc. But the most disconcerting thing is the climate biodiversity. In the history of the planet, the planet has gone through five major extinctions where up to 90% of the species of each extinction have died out. And you know, we don’t even notice it, but we are in the middle of the sixth major extinction that the Earth is facing, where up to 90% of all the species is going to disappear.

So we have to really start to think beyond sustainability, and this is the point I’m making in this paper: that it is great we are increasingly sophisticated; that can help us to optimize and to minimize the impact of our urban development and the footprint of cities, and we have to continue that progress. But we have to start to think of the role of cities in the natural context in a different way. It is certainly not good enough to sustain the highly compromised state of the world as it is today. We have to really think beyond sustainability and the paper really takes a position that we actually have to develop cities in a way that it actively rejuvenates and restores the qualities of the environment and also the quality of the human and the social condition. This is really the aspect that is explored. I do not have time to go and explain all these five conventions that is covered in the paper. It’s rejuvenation of urban identity, personal rejuvenation, socio-cultural rejuvenation, environmental rejuvenation, and economic rejuvenation. The only one I want to quickly just highlight here just to give you a little bit of a teaser, and you can pick up the paper yourself, is maybe the one environmental rejuvenation.

I think increasingly as we start to think about the role of the city in the environmental context in a different way it opens up new possibilities. There are a number of cities now that are starting to position themselves as urban biospheres, and that means these cities become biodiversity hot spots. And it also shows it’s quite possible and very plausible that cities can actually start to see themselves not as something that I adjacent to nature but something that is part of nature. And increasingly what you see in many cities, the biodiversity in any case in many cities is higher than in surrounds because often it’s surrounded by farmland that is monoculture crops. So cities have a real responsibility also to actually take over the role of the nature that is displaced. So we have to really start to think of how can we design cities in a different way, design buildings in a different way, that it actually incorporates nature in the city and it actually starts to take over the functions of actually taking the CO2 out of the air, and obviously that has to be supplemented with key technologies of clean transportation, clean tech, sustainable led lighting etc., all of these technologies, but we have to really think of the role of cities differently.

I’m going to move on. This paper was actually produced as input to a lovable cities think tank that is sponsored by the Center for Health and Well-Being for Philips. Now as I’ve mentioned, this topic is very close to the heart of Philips and there’s a very big interest, and the think tank has actually invited a very sort of like multi-disciplinary team of experts in many disciplines from architecture to urban planning and urban development, even international policy people from the World Bank etc. together to really reflect on what we can do to improve the livability of cities. And that is a big task because as you might imagine, a lot has already been done. There are many such think tanks also thinking about the same topic and there’s also a number of indexes out there that sort of rate cities like the top ten or the top hundred livable cities in the world, and they’ve established a lot of criteria populated with data to actually analyze and come up with these indexes.

We’ve really reflected – because I’m also fortunate enough to participate in this think tank – what is it we can add to the discussion that will actually make a difference, because the world doesn’t need another sustainable index. And we’ve come to the conclusion not everything that counts can be counted. There are actually some aspects to consider around cities that is, I think, very important and is often missed by these indexes.

Also, if we reflect how these indexes are often used, often a lot by mayors or by many mayors and city council because they can use these things in promotional campaigns to actually maybe bring talent to the city or run marketing campaigns about the city. But in essence, it ought to be about really improving the quality of these cities.

And we thought also there’s a certain level of unfairness because every city or many cities they have a specific cultural context. They have something that is unique about that city. And they are in a specific geographical context. And you cannot compare one city with another that has a completely different cultural context and a completely different geography. The best thing you can do is you can actually come and develop framework that guides stakeholders in any particular city to really advance that city and optimize its potential. That’s really what we are after is to actually develop a self-reflection framework and a tool kit that can bring stakeholders together to really develop that city in the best way. So that is what we’ve been aiming for.

And as I’ve mentioned before, there are always these two dimensions that you have to consider together. You really have to think of the environmental layer, always, and you have to think of the socio-economic layer, so you have to really think of cities as a social-ecological system and approach it in that way. And overlaying these two dimensions, we’ve identified these three different lenses. We wanted to come up with a simple model that can actually guide the reflection and guide the discussion from a human point of view. And these lenses are actually quite broad. You can package a lot in there because they go across the socio-economic and the environmental part. And we’ve called this the AIR model, and it’s for authenticity, resilience and inclusion. These are the three lenses that we’ve been discussing. And on top of that, obviously you need to have all the hygiene factors that is also used by the indexes, but we don’t have to redo that. We don’t have to reshape the wheel and reinvent the wheel, we can actually re-leverage a lot of the data sets that already exist, but make them easier to comprehend and feed the discussion and actually develop something that actually will be more constructive to having a multi-stakeholder discussion.

I’m just going to quickly look at these three dimensions. For each of them, obviously we develop a whole set of criteria which I can’t go into here, but I think inspirational cities, they have a sense of place and a sense of identity. And being in a sense of place and coming from a place that you can really identify and identify with is really a crucial aspect of human happiness that we have to consider. These elements can really come from many different dimensions. The DNA for a city can come from the way it’s actually designed, it’s architecture. It can come from a specific cultural element. It can come from the cuisine. It can come from the natural geographical beauty or the flora and fauna that makes up a place. And all these elements – a city really needs to find its own identity and the citizens of a city have to feel that identity. I think that is a really, really important element, also for development of that city, because progress will always happen, and you need to have progress. But once you’ve established that sense of identity that people identify with, you have to really balance that with the way the city progresses so that you actually maintain that DNA of the city and that core that gives it the uniqueness. And we see in many of the Asian cities, unfortunately, that’s now being developed. And I think so many new cities will be developed in that region. They really look like pop-up cities that has no distinction one from the next, often. So that is really a consideration, because cities are not just dormitories of existence. They are really places where humans want to be fulfilled and they want to actually experience fulfillment and they want to be at home. So this is an important element that is often missing from some of the indexes we’ve seen.

The other one is inclusion, and this is a very, very important I think that’s been discussed and touched upon by many of the speakers. But social participation is a key driver of human dignity and you see many of the cities are developed – you have two tracks. You have the fast track of people that really become very prosperous and wealthy, and those cities are often surrounded by sometimes informal settlements where there’s a very, very different quality of life and there’s also often a lack of access to the quality that the cities offer by many of these people around the cities. And it’s not only that. With inclusion it’s not only giving people access or giving them something that they want. It’s actually more than – to enable people to participate and contribute, because that is really the driver of human dignity. You look at, for example, this is not only people maybe from a different social class or income level, it could also be aging society. Older people often are marginalized, specifically in Western societies quite often. By empowering people to participate and contribute, it really gives them a level of embeddedness and a level of dignity and it actually makes it part of the community. So those are the aspects in livable and lovable cities to consider.

Then you have resilience and again, it’s a broad topic. You can package a lot in this lens. It’s the resilience in terms of the biodiversity, it’s resilience in terms of multicultural tolerance and building a healthy social fabric. It’s also resilience against nature and the natural elements due to the geography where a city might find itself. It’s how to deal with waste. It’s how to actually foster creativity. So there are many aspects that you can package into resilience.

The point I want to make is like if you take this AIR model, the discussion in different cities will be very different, because if you bring together multiple stakeholders to discuss resilience in one city, you will find that aspects that will actually bubble up in the discussion will be very different from one city to another. It’s the same for the other dimensions and that is really what we want. We want a multi-stakeholder participation for people to actually bring out the essential aspects that can help them to transform their own city.

So what we are putting together to make this pragmatic is a tool kit for transformation. And this kit, the first level is really about knowledge and this is also where we want to tap into existing data sets where we can actually overlay data sets with dynamic data driven infographics that can in a very quickly portray to multiple stakeholders the reality and the key aspects about a city like the hygiene factors so that can feed the discussion. But beyond that, people are not inspired by data only. You also need a level of inspiration and this inspiration can come from interesting case studies that can be shared among cities. It can come from interviews, video interviews, of many stakeholders within a city context, but also interesting thinkers outside the city context, and you can really feed that into the discussion and use this AIR model as a framework for discussion and then a toolkit for providing coaching and approaches for multi-stakeholder participation to take this forward. And now I think also through our contacts with the World Bank and some of the other people participating in the think tank we have now made a short list of cities that will be approached and we actually started to find already a good level of interest to start to pilot that in the next year, so that is where we are at.

So just to summarize, the key three points that I want to make is that we need to think of cities beyond sustainability. That is the rejuvenate cities paper that you can pick up outside. It’s not about competing and comparing cities but it’s about maximizing the potential of a given city given its own characteristics. And it’s also developing a way and a process for activating and putting into action the self-transformation of cities. That’s my speech.

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