Cities and communities: How to develop new models of cooperation in urban development

“The city is human, not simply glass, concrete and steel. When we talk about communities and urban development and smart cities, the technical aspect usually comes to mind first. But we want to start with purpose, with the human factor, because this is about environment and society. It’s about meaningful connections.”

— Markus Schreyer, Senior Vice President of Global Business Innovation at Design Hotels


The urban future is a human issue and facing it will take human-centered thinking and planning. Hosted by Benoit Lagacé, Director of Strategy and Urban Design at Sid Lee Architecture, and Fanny Eliaers, Sid Lee’s Global Director, Growth and Innovation, our most recent round table examines the future of cities through the lens of co-creation, design, partnership, planning, activism, and data.



Kari Aina Eik, Secretary General of the OiER, Senior Advisor for the Sustainable Development Goals, and Co-Chair of United for Smart Sustainable Cities (U4SSC)

Dr. Victor Pineda, PhD in Urban Planning, Non-resident fellow at Dubai’s Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government, Founder and President of the World ENABLED Foundation, and Founder of the Pineda Foundation

Olivia Bulis, High school sophomore and mental health activist

Markus Schreyer, Senior Vice President of Global Business Innovation at Design Hotels, PhD in Innovation Management


Thousands of years ago we banded and settled together, safer in numbers and behind walls. We organized, manipulated our environments, became more productive, built trust, evolved. Cities evolved with us.

If we think of the human world as a planet-wide system like the ecosphere — an anthrosphere, maybe — how much of it does the city occupy? Not just physically, but as part of the collective psyche? It’s fair to say that as more and more of us were (and continue to be) liberated from the near-constant battle to obtain or provide food, the city has grown gargantuan in it.

It’s estimated that by 2030, 60% of people will live in cities. Cities and their metropolitan areas drive economic growth. Tellingly, they contribute about 60% of the global GDP, but they also consume a proportionate amount of resources and are the source of 70% of the world’s carbon emissions.

To be truly successful, shaping the urban future has to be an act of co-creation and radical collaboration, especially given that soon, the majority of human life and its impact will be unfolding in cities. Responsibility and action have traditionally focused on governments and international organizations. What’s needed is an effort to embrace the contributions of civil society, business, academia, philanthropy, and many other community actors. We must create systems that make better links, ease data flow, and break down barriers between the forces shaping urban environments and the citizens living in them.


Effective planning : Human-centric and focused on human impact

“I want a world where Debbie wearing glasses and Billy having freckles and Victor in his wheelchair are all seen as just social diversity.” — Dr. Victor Pineda

Architecture and infrastructure are a city’s face, but buildings and bridges are not the city any more than a canal is the water running through it. These things are vessels, load-carrying systems, and we have to continually reexamine their value according to how they serve people. In thinking for tomorrow, we have to ask how our systems contribute to the organizing of communities as they face the evolving issues of today.

Whatever the intentions behind them, whether they’re brick and mortar divisions of space or smart city tech, systems can create or entrench inequality. They can also foster opportunity, access and inclusion. The key is identifying how they can do the latter and design accordingly. An important ingredient in beneficial systems, something that helps them unlock human potential rather than constrain it, is community participation in their creation. This is the space where real collaboration and radical inclusion begin.

Collaboration takes seeing beyond the boundaries of fields and unlearning enough to make space in the margins of expertise to recognize overlap and see where commonalities lie. It’s in that space that we find new answers.

So often, the people most affected by an issue are the ones furthest from making decisions that change circumstances. It’s imperative that they are brought to the table and given a voice. They bring new ways of seeing and doing, often overlooked by traditional planning and conceptual schemes. Equipping people for participation is a matter of education; it’s foundational to all change and necessary in designing inclusive urban systems. Educational spaces for people of all ages built into our cities provide the tools of engagement for actually applying sustainable, inclusive practices in planning for the future.

Participation goes beyond soliciting opinions. Change should not only occur from the bottom up; the pyramid must be upended. The voices of the city’s people need to be not only heard but seeded into its systems. True inclusion means representation on panels and boards that recommend and decide. This is the way to actually integrate real-world solutions.


Leveraging technology and systems to empower inclusivity — a vision of the future through the lens of co-creation

“We need to create systems that make better links and make sure that we have the proper representation, and to do that, we actually have to actively get in there and try to find the people.” — Benoit Lagacé

Truly inclusive innovation is catalytic. Its embedded principles jump-start the movement systems forward. Often, when we talk about urban development and smart cities, the technological aspect comes first, but inclusive innovation starts with the human factor. It is not only about environments, but about the society inhabiting them and the connections woven through them. It incites people to think about positive impact and fosters partnerships. It implicates both the private and the public sector.

Take for example climate change as a formative factor. Surveyed on political issues, 80% of voters aged 18 to 29 cited climate change as their central concern. Data like this must be taken into account when designing and building cities, from creating green spaces to exploring renewable energy sources. Doing so turns up the volume on the voices that need to be heard. It’s an example of flipping planning — making it bottom-up instead of top-down.


Communities, resilience, collaboration and soft infrastructure

The COVID-19 pandemic has put cities and communities to the test, laying bare inadequacies and highlighting strengths. Where challenges have been met through human cooperation, and human interactions have been facilitated, new opportunities have arisen, deepening connections and strengthening communities.

Displays of human resilience are transferable. The same spirit can be applied to other challenges. We like to think of this as a “soft power” — a force rooted in understanding, empathy and dignity. Treated fairly, people are empowered to unlock tremendous potential within themselves.

Pressures like those brought on by the pandemic and its economic and social consequences display the value of investing in human resilience and social sustainability. Technology should be leveraged to this end, not regarded as a goal in itself; it serves us best by upholding human values, unlocking human potential, and creating social sustainability.

Another thing highlighted by the pandemic is the power of collaboration and aligned action. Pull in one direction and things move. This works vertically as well as laterally. Since the spring, we’ve seen global recommendations empower local action on a new scale. The pandemic response, however uneven it may seem on the ground from any one vantage point, has been a massive act of cooperation.

Not only is the same kind of collective action possible when it comes to planning the urban future, it is also necessary. Large private networks exist across borders and political divides. Hotel chains, for example, have holdings, real estate, economic clout, and social capital, and they are invested in the cities where they operate, employ locals and provide public spaces. They are well-positioned to help increase awareness, capacity, and partnerships that benefit their urban homes. They can create peer-to-peer expectations about progress and empower groups to make it happen. There’s a real role for organizations like these to play in reinforcing soft power.


Data, tools, simulations and perception

The main innovation in which we need to progress is gathering and curating data sets. We need systems to bring it all together and create targeted, measurable indicators on accessibility and inclusion. This is cataloguing innovation to spearhead initiatives and work on issues from infrastructure to artificial intelligence.

This kind of treatment lets us see what we have and what we need. Are we collecting the right kind of data? Is there enough? Are there blind spots in our view of the issues?

We can imagine a framework for pushing this data forward and into use:

— Legislative measures at local and international levels.

— Empowered leadership that allocates resources.

— Institutional capacity in the form of training, human knowledge and human resources equal to managing and coordinating the necessary work.

— An attitude of constant learning, expansion and understanding.

— Participation in solution development, diversity of representation in the process, and a metric to measure it.

Public perception of the value in measuring data is a challenge. If we’re seen as endlessly collecting data that results in no real-world impact, the public trust is understandably tried. Reinvigorating it takes implication; unlocking and using the data has to be a co-creative effort that happens in an environment that nurtures trust.

Simulations are useful in picturing the future of cities but they, like data and AI, are not inherently neutral “trust” environments. It helps to partner with trusted institutions like the UN in using these tools.

The benefits they do have, however, are significant. They let us transfer knowledge into other areas. Independent of content, they can simulate any scenario or city. And, importantly, data remains the property of the clients using these tools.

Innovation in this matter might lie in shifting from quantitative to qualitative methods of assessment. This would give us insight into motivations and needs and allow us to implement this deeper understanding into community planning more efficiently. Again, this takes hearing the voices of those who make up the city.


Citizen implication, partnerships and the private sector

“If we're not going to crack this code with the private sector, we’re never going to make this happen.” — Kari Aina Eik

It’s unrealistic to think that governments alone can effectively shape the urban future. The private sector must be engaged. Cities aren’t waiting for one thing to fall into place — they need everything, from infrastructure and architecture to a human citizen interface and soft power. Going forward, our approach must be holistic and integrated.

Partnerships empower the city, helping local governments understand how to build capacity, advance technical guidelines, and unlock new resources and perspectives. And it’s in the private sector’s interest to ensure that these principles are never demanded by society, but embedded in infrastructure. This demonstrates a true understanding of the relationship between society and environment.


Soft infrastructures

“I think it's really disempowering to see cities that are built with spikes on steps and places that people don't have a place to sleep. But we shouldn't be having people sleeping on streets, we should be providing safer spaces for them to have some kind of shelter.” — Olivia Bulis

The impact of some issues is pervasive yet quiet; while we address symptoms, causes slip under our radar. Soft infrastructures — systems that prioritize human well-being — can be a holistic approach. They involve ensuring rights and equal access, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, economic status, or religion.

Part of this rests, again, on being open and really listening to the voices of the city. For example, youth has sustainability on the front burner, but they are also focused on well-being and mental health. Mental health resources are currently hard to access and expensive, putting care out of reach of those who need it. Soft infrastructures that answer these needs might look like preventative policies, or might expand and integrate services, introduce educational programs to tackle stigma, or provide more access outlets like crisis centers.


Call to action

“You need to be part of something. Alone, it would be impossible. We are all connected, right?” — Kari Aina Eik

There is a solution for every problem out there. For every issue beleaguering a city, some other city has cracked its code. Our imperative is to listen, link and learn.

To really profit from each other’s knowledge and experience, we need to get every voice into the room and share efficiently. Radical inclusion ultimately is proactively investing in all voices and bringing in a broader intersectional approach to equity. The more inclusive our representation, the more inclusive our cities will be.

And to enact holistic change, it will take holistic systems that enable the sharing and implementation of the wisdom, experience and perspective of those collected empowered voices. From this comes the opportunity to embed our values into the infrastructure we build, and to have it evolve as our values evolve.

Solutions exist. It’s time to build the political will and capacity to connect in creating the systems that will deliver the future we want for our cities.