View from the 2012 Cities Summit
On December 6, 2011, TED announced that the 2012 TED Prize would go to the City 2.0--the city that works. Grand luck for Vancouver to have the opportunity, so fresh in the new year, to host an up-close look at exactly what such a city could be.
Of course a conference on The City offered heaps of mileage for Vancouver, always in the running for one of the world’s most livable cities. And the stars came out--Calgary’s rock-star mayor Naheed Nenshi, Surrey’s Dianne Watts, our own Gregor Robertson, and luminaries such as Carole Taylor, Douglas Coupland, and Mike Harcourt joined university presidents Stephen Toope (UBC) and Andrew Petter (SFU) for what promised to be an extraordinary urban exploration.
Yet great chunks of the 2012 Cities Summit seemed intent upon looking through the wrong end of the telescope--and occasionally just staring at the telescope itself. Much of the conference was pre-occupied with issues such as open data and affordable access to hyper-speed broadband. Any lineup of people cheering for these initiatives will have Your Faithful Scribbler near the front, but the absence of context and gravity flattened their impact.
And it must be said, the presence of corporate sponsors as major presenters diluted the sense of serious purpose.
Attention CBC, Sun News: get Naheed
Why, for instance, did representatives of IBM and Shaw warrant half hour key-note addresses, while luminaries like UBC president Stephen Toope and Naheed Nenshi were relegated to minor panel roles?
For those who have seen, or possibly even worshipped Naheed Nenshi in action, watching him answer three or four questions on open data (you can get snowplow reports from your house!) was just a little, um, underwhelming.
We could have used a whole Nenshi hour. Seriously, would someone please give this guy his own show? If Marg Delahunty showed up in Nenshi’s driveway, she’d be dipping her cookies in a big mug of tea at the kitchen table instead of standing outside freezing those big girls in her Viking bra at Rob Ford’s place. Admit it, Canada, you could not buy better TV. Talking to you, Sun Media.
Undoubtedly future iterations of this summit, should Vancouver be so fortunate as to host them, will temper sponsor expectations, and put the spotlight on those whose reputations precede them.
Speaking of which, Doug Coupland set off a Twitstorm with a spirited paean to the local in local culture--especially his admonition that “a city without strong, consistent arts funding is basically a parking lot,” which sparked a loud and delightful outburst of spontaneous applause. It’s probably unnecessary to point out here that our “arts problem” is a provincial rather than a civic one.
Toope Sounds the Alarm about Vancouver’s talent exodus
Other panels proceeded choppily, without any broader context to highlight their impact. Of particular note was the panel on Cities as Urban Laboratories, moderated with exceptional skill by Wal van Lierop and featuring UBC president Stephen Toope and Lise Thorsen, Mayor of Copenhagen. All too briefly, attention was turned to the critical role played by human talent--the lifeblood of the knowledge economy. Toope sounded the alarm that Vancouver is hemorrhaging the precise talent needed to drive a thriving urban economy. “Massive exodus” were the exact chilling words. The panel agreed that we can attract, but not keep the people we need to build a sustainable urban economy.
But why is the most livable city in the world experiencing this--and how do we stop the bleeding? These are the questions Vancouver must find an answer to, and soon.
But first, let’s listen to a presentation from Car2Go!
So it went…
It’s the (emerging) economy, stupid
Finally, with just under 2 hours remaining in scheduled programming, Dr. Jaana Remes, Fellow of the McKinsey Global Institute clambered up into the crow’s nest, pointed the telescope in the right direction, and brought the future and the summit sharply into focus. For this observer, Dr. Remes was the Cities Summit.
‘Urbanism,’ as the West now understands it, cannot be divorced from the rapidly shifting centre of gravity of the global landscape and economy.
Cities in emerging markets are becoming the world’s powerful economic driver, concurrently re-balancing the distorting effects of the Industrial Revolution and opening a dangerous new chapter in history.
As Remes outlined, from the dawn of recorded history until the Industrial Revolution (and, it should be added, the colonial period), China and India dominated the world’s trade and productivity--contributing most of global GDP up to and beyond 1500 AD. Today that output is dwarfed--down to 10 per cent of global GDP by the mature developed economies of the West.
But all that is changing.
China and India’s share of global GDP will triple by 2050, while the West’s share will shrink by almost one half.
Local debate about the design implications and cost projections of Vancouverism’s tower/podium model pales in the face of the following:
Urbanization and development in the emerging markets, particularly China, is occurring at 100 times the scale and 10 times the speed of post-Industrial Revolution growth in the West--a force unparalleled in human history.
The world’s 600 largest cities, with 20 per cent of the world’s population, currently contribute over $30 trillion--more than half of global GDP.
By 2025 this output will reach $64 trillion.
By 2025 136 new cities will enter the top 600 list--all of them from the emerging markets, and overwhelmingly from China. One in three of the developed market cities will falter and drop from the list.
These 600 cities will contribute 60 per cent of the world’s global growth. Two-thirds of them are in emerging markets.
By 2025, only one city from the developed markets, New York, will be in the top 10 global cities for GDP growth. The other nine will be in China.
But according to Remes, the real story lies deeper--the impact of middle-weight cities in emerging markets--those with populations between 150,000 and 10 million. These cities are poised to deliver a startling 40 per cent of total global GDP growth by 2025--more than the entire developed world and emerging market mega-cities combined.
In the process these cities will lift hundreds of millions out of poverty and into the middle class, while simultaneously massively increasing human consumption and our environmental impact.
Municipal decisions will lock in consumption patterns for decades
And it is here in these few hundred cities, Remes tells us, that municipal decisions affecting transportation and development will lock in our energy consumption patterns for decades.
As Mike Harcourt posited, to Remes’ vigorous agreement during the question period, if China and India follow the North American urban development model, the global and humanitarian consequences are catastrophic.
If the Cities Summit set out a clear vision of an alternative vision, defining those key components of the City 2.0 that will channel humanity into a constructive and sustainable urban future, Your Faithful Scribbler missed it.
We are, it seems, still peering “through a glass, darkly” at a future we can only guess at--one that will need firm commitment and swift action--but in directions we do not yet know.
Read more at: McKinsey Global Institute Urban World: Mapping the economic power of cities