A Shared Future for Cities: Notes from the Young Leaders Symposium at the World Cities Summit

Guest Blog by Professor Jem Bendell, WCS Young Leader 2014; Founder, Iflas.info

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - “A smart city is a city that shares” concluded Singaporean Ambassador Burhan Gafoor, after a round of discussions at the Inaugural Symposium of Young Leaders, held recently at the World Cities Summit in Singapore. Fifty-seven leaders from 28 countries were discussing common challenges in our cities, and innovative new ideas for tackling them. Aged between 30 and 45, we comprised government officials, urban planners, industry experts, architects, economists and researchers (like myself). From this diversity, a common theme had emerged: the potential of unprecedented levels of hyper-connectivity to empower citizens and city officials to transform urban environments for greater liveability.

The opening Young Leader keynote was given by Rt Hon Stephen Yarwood, Mayor of Adelaide. All of our hands went up when he asked if we all had a smart phone, illustrating his argument that we live in an age of digital geo-location that enables mass coordination of people and services. Next up, Ridwan Kamil, Mayor of Bandung, dispelled any doubts that this connectivity is limited to advanced economies, by explaining how he uses his half a million Twitter followers to reach millions of Indonesians and solicit their input on public policy. Mayor Kamil explained how connectivity could help create a “collaborative city” as it provides means for people to organise collective action. He gave the example of Bandung Berkebun, where technology is helping people come together to farm idle urban land.

This resonates with developments in Adelaide, where the government backs an initiative called shareNSave. It lists groups in South Australia offering free activities that help people save money and avoid wasting resources. Things like community gardens, cooking groups, toy swapping, tool swapping, and local produce swaps, as well as time banks where people help each other and are rewarded in a currency of hours that helps them access support later on.  

Digitally enabled sharing systems like these hold great potential for the sustainable development of urban areas. We may think nothing of cars that sit idle 23 hours a day or offices that are empty 70% of the time. Yet that is a waste of scarce resources. Why own a car, bike or power tool when we could borrow one? Why hoard clothes in our cupboard when we could swap them? Why leave our garden like an ornament, when a neighbour could cultivate it with us for nutritious food with low carbon miles? Enabling citizens to share with each other, whether cars, bikes, power tools, gardens or spaces, could help meet multiple City Government goals at the same time. It can help people save money, earn income and be more sustainable consumers by renting or borrowing rather than owning. If done at scale, ride sharing might reduce congestion and pollution. Bike sharing could also help.

The social dimension of this new “collaborative economy” is also important. Giving an example of how technology might monitor the safety of elderly people, but also how that doesn’t address their loneliness, Director of the Pontiac Land Group, Melissa Kwee reminded us that technology without soul is not helpful. The potential of digitally enabled volunteering systems for elderly care, perhaps involving rewards for the volunteers, as with “time banks,” was therefore discussed, as was the potential for how participation in the “collaborative economy” could help reconnect neighbours and promote community cohesion.

Both Mayors of Adelaide and Bandung emphasised the power of leading by example, with both explaining they cycle to work! Their commitment to cycling as a means of transport, not just recreation, was a great fit with the launch of the Centre for Liveable Cities’ publication on Active Mobility. Mayor Kinlay Dorjee, from Bhutan reminded us of how we should assess any economic development project in terms of whether it would improve overall happiness. Then Mayor Lani Cayetano, from the Philippines, spoke of the challenges of economic growth, such as traffic congestion and pressures on utilities, and welcomed the opportunity to learn from other city leaders about innovative ways to tackle these growing pains. It was also useful to meet leaders from important service providers to cities, who are have been leading on sustainability. Khaled Al Huraimel, Group CEO of Beeah, from UAE, explained his company has set a goal of zero waste to landfill by the end of 2015, and is helping municipalities towards such goals. Ruth Yeo, has led climate change work within her firm, the Malaysian conglomerate YTL, and explained how through their role as a utilities provider in many countries they are keen to promote urban sustainability. Benyamin Ford from Jaragua do Sur in Brazil, has gone further, after a career as a clean technology entrepreneur, now bringing his ecological expertise into local government.

There were two other Young Leaders from Brazil in this inaugural intake. So I was pleased to hear how the cities of Rio, Sao Paulo and Port Alegre, have partnered with Airbnb for the World Cup and Olympics, to help the local population benefit more from the influx of fans, so the money will reach the people, when fans stay with locals. This highlights how there can be roles for city authorities to guide and scale the collaborative economy. It is why a Shareable Cities network of enthusiasts and experts has been launched to help exchange innovative best practice. The next step is for a network of city governments themselves to engage in sharing of experiences, and even joint actions.

The Young Leaders Symposium showed it provides an important an opportunity for city leaders to learn from each other on such topics. The commitment of the Singapore Government and the World Cities Summit to the Young Leaders initiative was evident from the active participation of Minister of State Desmond Lee, and the Managing Director of the World Cities Summit, Larry Ng Lye Hock. As we crammed into the group photo on the steps inside the Marine Bay Convention centre, our enthusiasm showed how Young Leaders thought this a worthwhile initiative with a great future ahead.

At my University in the U.K. we believe that the digitally enabled collaborative economy could make cities smarter, more sustainable, more liveable, and more resilient. We believe the environmental crisis means we need to act fast, and city authorities have an important role to play in helping scale this approach. The good news is we can learn from each other if we connect around this theme. The contribution of our Institute for Leadership and Sustainability to this agenda is a new qualification in “sustainable exchange,” taught out of our London campus.  

The idea that “a smart city is a city that shares” is one I took into discussions at the Mayors’ Forum the following day. It resonated with Mayors from as far apart as France, China, Oman, and Vietnam, confirming the summit organisers’ belief that cities have “common challenges, shared solutions.” Along with other Young Leaders, I look forward to our next gathering in New York, where we will explore the role of cities in achieving Sustainable Development Goals, which are being negotiated at the United Nations. As fellow WCS Young Leader Selection Committee member and former mayor of Kigali, Dr Aisa Kacyira Kirabo explained, “cities are central to achieving sustainability and should be adequately reflected in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals.”    

Jem Bendell is Professor of Sustainability Leadership, Founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) in the UK, lead author of ‘Healing Capitalism,’ and a WCS Young Leader 2014.