Planning for our urban future: TEDxBerlin City 2.0
From community gardens to a start-up culture, immense creativity and innovation, Berlin was the perfect place to hold the TEDxBerlin City 2.0 conference, to explore and look ahead to the future of cities worldwide.
True to its name, the conference was strongly focused on Technology, Entertainment and Design (although entertainment was not subject matter, inventive music and comedy performances on stage certainly brought this in to the equation). The premise of the conference – so well-known and overused today that it is difficult to comprehend its true significance – is that for the first time in history, just over half of the world’s population live in cities, and by 2050, this will rise to 70%. But it won’t be 70% of the current population. By then, billions and billions more people will inhabit the planet. So what do we do?
Talks given ranged from sharing stories of diverse urban citizens to exploring the science of sustainability. What I took from the conference is summarised below, under themes that I feel potently reflect the message of TED and City 2.0: interdependence; inclusivity; innovation.
This is a term that came up again and again, to highlight the vital and extensive connections between systems as well as people in the urban environment. We often forget what highly co-ordinated levels of interdependence go in to all aspects of city living. These are connections that should be nurtured and expanded for positive urban futures.
Whilst Marc Elsberg presented a potential risk of such interdependence (if one part of the system shuts down, it all does), others promoted the value of social interdependence particularly: this can be seen in the emerging ‘sharing economy’, discussed by Ariane Conrad. Conrad – much like an effective advertising campaign for change, or indeed most TED talks ever – pulled on many heartstrings and inspired soaring determination to work together for a sustainable and connected future. Through practices like co-operatives, crowdfunding, car-sharing, creative commons, open government and time banks we can move away from the recent self-centred or greedy economic system and start building more mutually beneficial connections through sharing. ‘The great hope of our sharing economy,’ Conrad summarised, ‘is that it will awaken our cities and turn us in to neighbours.’ Speakers including James Patten, Bastian Lange and Kristien Ring also extolled the value of sharing for a healthy and creative city.
The benefit of social interaction and interdependence was heralded as the solution to inherent urban stress. Mazda Adli believes providing opportunities for social contact and minimising social isolation are key to countering the negative effect of city living on mental health.
Inclusivity of course is implied in holistic interdependence. But I see this as a theme in itself because of the welcomed representation given through the conference’s talks to all members of urban society – including the illegal or ‘invisible’ citizens. Urban narratives can often dangerously dwell on the western, middle-class model. We must make every effort not to discount others (perhaps homeless, unregistered) from civic status – quite the opposite. The culture of treating people as invisible, as Conrad warned, spells disaster for the future of humanity. Socially, we coldly deny the existence of ‘others’; physically, we design-out ‘undesirables’ from a space. A far more inclusive approach needs to be adopted if we want our society and our cities to work.
These beneficial inclusive environments extend to our living and working spaces too – James Patten argued for the value of so-called ‘junk’, casting it as vital for creativity. A flexible and inclusive space, then, breeds flexible and inclusive ideas.
Inclusivity was also supported on the neighbourhood scale – in other words, to include a local community in urban change and ensure each voice is heard. Kai-Uwe Bergmann‘s example of Superkilen in Nørrebro showed how multiple local narratives and identities can be involved in the shaping of place. Here, a public park was made with the participation of a diversity of local residents, who brought together their stories and suggestions of street furniture and play equipment from different countries that reflected their individual and collective identities. Carlo Ratti also positioned ‘public participation 2.0’ – people engaged in improving and creating the city – as one of the 5 key points for a ‘senseable’ city.
Through becoming more inclusive with each other, as well as making processes of place more inclusive, cities can grow more positively and society can thrive.
Innovation (for good)
A key part of planning for the city 2.0 – working to improve urban environments and life – is achieved through innovation, whether it be social, scientific or technical. Zhang Yue’s ‘Sky City‘ imagines a whole new model for a future city: one that is fully contained within a single tall building. Though on paper the environmental benefits look impressive, this is not a model I can ever envisage supporting. Though it was heralded as an ‘inclusive’ ideal city, I can only imagine it becoming an exclusive surveilled fortress-like place where ‘undesirable’ activities and people (i.e. flexibility, variety, difference) are designed out.
But, back to good innovation. Allison Dring’s discussion of her practice’s air-purifying building facades (‘an architecture of building hacking’) felt like a step in the right direction of future-proofing cities – though, of course, the real action needs to take place at the root of the problem: the polluting cars themselves.
Tech innovation was shown to offer increased opportunities for civic engagement and participatory change through online/mobile platforms like Changify , which involves crowd sourcing, crowd solving and crowd funding ideas for positive change. Carlo Ratti, from the MIT Senseable City Lab, reflected on the way that new technologies can help improve the experience of cities and support new ways of living and more responsive space and place.
The narrative often came back to our host city, Berlin, as a model for social and technological urban innovation. As the ultimate ‘Makercity’, as Bastian Lange described, Berlin acts as an incubator to a collective creativity and grassroots urbanism: a community of makers co-producing a bottom-up urban landscape. Kristien Ring spoke of the guerrilla gardening, self-initiated housing, shared spaces and general self-made and green community in Berlin that helps strengthen neighbourhoods. This innovation requires a shift in established processes, to help support space and place which is user-focused and user-generated.
There was no grand conclusion as such – and much of what was shared is knowledge already embedded amongst built environment professionals – but together, the talks formed a collective inspiration to all those that can watch them to proactively support more sustainable, integrated urban places through collaborative, inclusive and innovative methods.