Our takeaways of the Urban Future Global Conference 2016 in Graz

0a9b55e5-b6e9-4de9-bddc-e38c4605d9db On March 2nd and 3rd took place the Urban Future Global Conference in the modern Congress Hall of Graz, Austria’s second-largest city, and one of Europe’s hot spots for clean-tech innovation. The announcement presented the event saying: “More than 1,500 City Changers from 300+ cities in 50 countries meet at the largest such event to exchange their experiences on how to make change happen. Be one of them.”
Obviously, Verteego was there, as an Advancity (French Smart City cluster) member and a Vivapolis (French’s approach regarding sustainable cities) representative. We would like also to take this opportunity to thank Advancity for its kind invitation to the conference.

The organisers successfully invited an impressive list of speakers, and the attendance of more participants than expected showed the interest and the topicality of the subject. Among them one could find politicians, city agents, EU bureaucrats, companies, SMEs, ONGs, experts and academicians from several different countries, mainly European but not only. Inhabitants were often mentioned, but as far as we know, not represented.

54802700-2814-44f1-912d-f2e3a6db2221Some aspects made one feel more in a convention than a conference. After registration under the poster stating ‘Save the world, change cities Know-how‘ every participant got his « city changer » bag and at the opening learnt that Urban Future expects to become a global movement.  Jonathan Mac Donald, international speaker about perpetual change, certainly reinforced that feeling with the promotion of his “unlock sessions” around the traditional Chinese say “If the wind of change blows, some will build a wall and others will build a windmill”. “Today is the slowest pace of change that we will experience”, he added. Who would like to stay outside such a movement?

Quotations had an important place during presentations. Cedric Price’s « Technology is the answer, what was the question? » from a1966 lecture was even quoted twice, followed by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and even Bob Dylan.

Maire TuebingenNevertheless, although that systemic approaches were the baseline of quite a few presentations, several cleavages could be felt: between thinkers & doers, technologists & field workers, rich & developing countries oriented solutions, and even children & adults.

It is noteworthy that every single time Smart Cities were mentioned, one of the first things to be said was that people and living space were the main concern for the solution, project, technology, company or application. Technology has to proof that it is not just a gag in the process of change. Atos’ presentation, which portrays itself as “your business technologists, powering progress” was finished with Dylan’s song “times ‘re changing”! Does a “tactical urbanist” or a mayor showing their work around public space need to do the same? Their action doesn’t need to be legitimized; it is so by the evident results.

Urban Future Global ConferenceIs that the “original sin” that technology has to overcome in order to be accepted by cities’ inhabitants, the end users and recipients of the some time complex and expensive investments politicians and city agents choose and buy for their communities?

What is a Smart city? Siemens’ definition: a city that applies the use of digital technology & data for efficient & sustainable delivery of services & amenities for people.

What is Big data? Carlo Ratti from the MIT says “what you cannot put in an Excel”. It is furthermore opportunistic, user generated, purposely sensed. A plentiful of examples of exciting research projects helped demonstrate his statement.

Urban Future Global ConferenceWhat are the issues of the digital culture of cities? For Rahaf Harfoush, it can be summed up as following: the world is becoming more connected, cities are evolving into digital spaces, digital culture will play an important role in the lives of citizens and visitors, urban networks are not determined by geographic proximity but by social distance, technology helps citizens form communities, and therefore has to  be seriously considered as a new input for urban planning & policies.

But then Felix Finkbeiner reminded us that the global poverty crisis and the global climate crisis need concrete solutions, like “trees for climate justice”. 212d9b7a-222c-4f43-b657-ab62f1ed8b09And he’s been out there for almost nine years (since he was only 9 years old!) making sure that humanity, thanks to the children of the Plant-for-the-planet-organisation, plants 1 trillion trees by 2020. “Stop talking and plant a tree” says their campaign.

His intervention put on stage the gap between the solutions for the wealthy and Planet scale problems. Solutions have to get to the developing countries, where the future is at stake. We Europeans have the means and the knowledge to make it, even if it is not clear if we have the necessary will to do so. But what about the rest of the world? The figures presented a bit earlier by Arab Hoballah from the UNEP, who has been struggling for years for resource efficient and resilient cities, based on Sustainable Consumption & Production (SCP), brought a note of pessimism questioning if we are on a sustainable path (60% of ecosystems are damaged, 2 to 3 billion new middle class consumers by 2040, resource’s extractions has reached 140 billion Tn per year).

WKOFurthermore, at the end of the first day, a movie presented compensation action chosen to offset the carbon emissions provoked by the conference. Unlike it had happened after every intervention, no applause followed. Weird! Kenya’s rain forest had been suddenly invited to the conference, putting in evidence the essential vs. the superfluous? The unease of the whole audience probably unveiled carbon offsetting actions as a good conscience deal and revealed the enormous gap.

A conference can also be defined by who’s not represented, the big absents were indeed transition towns, agriculture and food. Not technology and business oriented enough?

JMacDonaldSomehow the main topics of the conference were Smartcity – Opendata – Big Data – Technology, which when endorsed by the citizens, used or produced by them, become an evident positive factor to turn cities into “transitionscapes” and living laboratories, as says Niki Frantzeskaki, pointing out at the shifting roles in urban transition: citizens from users to “prosumers” ; scientists from ivory towers to co-producers ; politicians from appliers to innovators.

There’s no doubt that top-down solutions have to be handled carefully. The building stock is not flexible enough, says Dan Hill from Arup, and urban planners have to inspire themselves by the market of desired objects, like smartphones. More consumer oriented objects as a solution? C. RattiAnd the co founder of Cradle to Cradle, Michael Braungart, puts forward his approach of all-encompassing quality & usefulness, of efficiency vs. effectiveness, thus portraying sustainability as a guilt management grasp from the past. And by the way making us feel out-dated for still focusing on sustainability?

In fact, the numerous concrete city examples were about re-rooting everyday life: community relationships, belonging, down to earth practices, where technology is part but not the core. 2016-03-03 12.21.15Despite IBM, Oracle & Co longing for the spotlights? The technology that becomes invisible even though that is present, the one that doesn’t need to justify its presence because everybody has access and uses it (like internet in Europe and America). Is that model valid for the developing world? How to avoid having the gap or gaps between rich & poor become larger and larger?

We have to be part of the change, and transmit the message, widespread Saint Exupery’s say quoted by Maria Vassilakou, Vice Mayor of Vienna: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”