We all have seen images of the Earth at night from space. The blaze of billions of lightbulbs, broadcasting from our urban centres, illustrates the dense urban network. A sight both beautiful and telling of our increasingly urban existence. Currently, over 70% of Europe’s population lives in cities. This is forecast to increase to over 80% by the middle of the century.
In his book Urban Express, Swedish economist and writer, Kjell Anders Nordström argues that cities rather than nations are the new power houses. The exponential rise of city populations is producing experiential knowledge: the kind of knowledge that comes from contact with a wide range of cultures, traditions, systems and ideas. Knowledge that can’t be taught in a classroom, but that is vital for innovation. According to Nordström, cities have the supreme advantage of bringing both taught knowledge and experiential knowledge into the same space. If cities are set to become more powerful, more relevant, the question then is: how can we improve the quality of life for everyone living in urban areas without increasing the burden on our planet, while adapting to people’s changing needs? Part of the solution has to be innovation.
Cities as open innovation ecosystems
Cities can be re-designed – cities can evolve − according to the needs identified their inhabitants, rather than designed by a privileged few. Cities can benefit greatly from open innovation ecosystems. Communities interacting and networked across all walks of life: digital and physical. We need to make sure we ask our fellow citizens these kinds of questions. And then we need to make sure we listen to them! In December 2014, an article entitled If women built cities, what would our urban landscape look like? published in the Guardian, began trending. The article concluded: “Nowhere in the world has a city been conceived and constructed along the lines that […] women planners would like.” That’s incredible when you think about it. I imagine no city has ever been conceived the way nature would like either. Or the way children would like. Or the way a single father would like. Or the way a scientist would like.
We are moving towards high-tech digital cities. Nowadays, there’s an app to order your morning coffee. To check what time your bus will arrive. To reserve a co-working space. To pay your bills. To book a place to stay for the night. Technology is moving quickly, but so is human behaviour and human expectations with it. Our cities have to be just as fast at adapting to the needs of people and to the needs of an environment increasingly under strain. We are lucky that 30 years of transnational EU research on sustainable urban development has financed hundreds of projects. Creating a wealth of knowledge and inspiring ideas. European research and innovation are, quite simply, the best way to imagine, test and provide solutions. The best way to make increased urban living a way to pool our resources, rather than deplete them.
21st century urban challenges
In line with President Juncker’s plans, European research and innovation will help the EU Urban Agenda for ‘Cities of the Future’ to succeed: bringing together scientists, planners, businesses and city-dwellers to solve 21st century urban challenges. And it is our cities and regions who will conduct that research and innovation!
I want to get Horizon 2020 and the European Structural and Investment Funds working in tandem
Both Commissioner Crețu and I want to get Horizon 2020 and the European Structural and Investment Funds working in tandem, so your regions have more opportunities to foster home-grown talent and ideas! Jane Jacobs, the brilliant author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, describes life on the sidewalk as: “An intricate ballet, in which individual dancers […] all have distinctive parts, which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.”
In conclusion, I want to recall that my ambition is to continuously support the efforts of European cities as innovation hubs. This is a long-term commitment that I cannot deliver alone. This can only be delivered with the Committee of the Regions on board. So let’s use research and innovation to build cities as nature would have them and as their people would imagine them! Let’s reimagine what progress and prosperity look like!