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Urban sustainability and resilience

Urban sustainability and resilience

New, surprising, and valuable inventions that have altered the world, argues Eric Weiner in his book "The Geography of Genius", tend to occur in cities. Geniuses do not pop up randomly, he continues, but cluster in certain places and at certain times. This circumstance of a genius, as he puts it, produces a bumper crop of brilliant minds with revolutionary ideas." With that, Weiner takes us on a fascinating journey through six historical places, where, according to him, genius flourished at various times in ways that moved the world: Athens, Greece; Hangzhou, China; Florence, Italy; Edinburgh, Scotland; Calcutta (or currently, Kolkata), India; Vienna, Austria; Vienna Austria (yes, that is a repeat); and Silicon Valley, USA. Weiner goes on to say that some are large metropolises, such as Vienna of the 1900s, while others such as Renaissance Florence, are tiny by modern standards, and some, such as ancient Athens, are well-known, while others such as nineteenth-century Calcutta, less so.

Each of these places, he claims, represented an apex of human achievement. However, golden ages, he argues, come relatively suddenly and gradually fade away, usually never to return in that same place again (although notable exceptions do exist, which is why Vienna occurs twice in his list of six historical places). Each place has been different, and Weiner attempts to sum up the singular essence of genius in his six historical places (in the sequence mentioned above) as follows: simple; nothing new; expensive; practical; chaotic; unintentional; contagious; and weak. To understand what he means and for a fascinating journey across the world to discover what may spawn creativity, a reader is urged to read the book.
While it is hard, if not nearly impossible, to give a prescription for forming a genius cluster (and Weiner offers examples of how attempts to reproduce Silicon Valley across the world have not met with much success), certain conditions have typically been met where creativity has bloomed. Based on my personal reading of the book, these pre-requisites tend to include an openness to ideas and people; an ability to attract the best and brightest without being overtly judgmental; a culture of innovation that transfers across disciplines and pursuits; and a confluence of cultures and civilisations, often in unexpected ways.
Modern urban centres are not what they used to be in the ancient world, or even just a hundred years back. Cities have always been vulnerable to wars, famines, and diseases. However, cities have also been engines for economic growth, and yes, occasionally supported clusters of genius that have transformed the world. The evolution of large cities, with populations exceeding a million, is a relatively recent phenomenon that has been enabled by growing income, and advances in medical, agricultural and hygiene technologies and practices.
Modern urbanisation may have started in the developed world, with London reaching 5 million people in the early 20th century, New York reaching 10 million in the 1950s, and greater Tokyo claiming the top honours as the most populated megacity since the 2000s. However, the race to urbanisation has shifted in recent years to the developing world and emerging economies. Based on public data from the CIA World Factbook, the ten largest urban agglomerations (in 2015) are Tokyo with a population exceeding 38 Million, followed by New Delhi, Shanghai, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, Mexico City, Beijing, Osaka, Cairo and the New York – Newark (USA) region, in that order.
Interestingly, in the US, the San Francisco area which includes Silicon Valley, and the greater Boston area which includes some of the world's top academic and research powerhouses, barely makes the list of top hundred metropolitan regions. In the Indian subcontinent, the top five spots for the most populated metro regions are occupied by Delhi, Karachi, Mumbai, Dhaka, and Kolkata, with Bangalore (or Bengaluru, often hailed as India's Silicon Valley) barely making the top fifty. Based on data from the UN Economic and Social Affairs and the CIA Factbook, it was only a decade ago that most people in the world started living in urban regions (54 per cent in 2015), and the urbanisation trend has been rising (2 per cent worldwide from 2010 to 2015) and is expected to grow significantly in this century.
The rate is uneven among countries based on geographies, economies and several other constraints. Thus, the US urbanisation (2015 estimate) and rate of urban growth are about 82 per cent and one per cent respectively, while the corresponding numbers for India are about 33 per cent and 2.5 per cent, and for China about 56 per cent and 3 per cent, respectively.
What does all this mean for clusters of genius in modern times and in the future? Will the next earth shattering inventions and discoveries happen in the modern metropolitan regions, which are often unprecedented in size when compared to the "geographies of genius" as described by Weiner? Or will they occur in comparatively mid-sized urban regions, or even in modern suburbia, which may be compared with those historical analogues? Are, Silicon Valley or Boston in the USA, or Haifa in Israel, or Bangalore in India, early signs of what may come? Which and what kind of urban centre, and in which countries or continents of the world, will satisfy the basic criteria of openness, diversity, interdisciplinary innovations, and cultural amalgamations that together seem to spawn genius? What other attributes are necessary to spark that creative spirit? We may not yet know the answer to all these questions. However, we do know that urbanisation is a growing trend across the world and for these urban areas to thrive (and maybe even spawn clusters of excellence), first and foremost they need to survive. The basic services necessary for modern urban survivability may be grouped under the heads of Sustainability and Resilience. The challenges are immense, but we do have a suite of state-of-the-art, emerging tools at our disposal.
A detailed discussion of the urban priorities and the solutions available to address them are topics for other days. As of now, let us set the premise. Urban sustainability entails adequate access to clean air and water, food and accommodation, sanitation and health, housing and mobility, power and communication, preservation of urban (and as appropriate, riverine and/or coastal) ecosystems, as well as education and community services. Urban resilience is about the ability to ensure safety and security of citizens, assure basic public services, and be prepared for emergency response, public health and humanitarian aid during natural or man-made hazards and stresses.
Sustainability or resilience is not just about the here and now but must be forward-looking, with a view to contingency management and adaptive planning when faced with change. The change can be from growing population and increasing concentration of economic assets. The change can also be in the intensification of urban heat islands, riverine floods or cyclones and coastal storm surge, reduced availability of freshwater resources, atmospheric pollution, and increased propensity of terror attacks.
The change can result from aging infrastructures such as buildings and bridges, as well as the growing interdependence of lifeline infrastructure networks such as multimodal transportation, water distribution systems or wastewater, communication and power grids, and associated healthcare or logistics systems, and even financial and human institutions including community networks. The world today, especially the interconnected urban world, draws strength and resources from being connected. However, it is these very connections that can increase fragility to long-term stresses or acute perturbations, because failures can cascade across interdependent systems. Further, the world is becoming more and more dominated by extreme events, where hazards or economic shocks and policy perturbations, which are often hard to predict in advance, may collectively cause disproportionate damage. In developing economies, socioeconomic inequities and governance are especially important, as they can influence everything from natural hazards vulnerability and spread of epidemics to social justice. There is thus a delicate balance among the natural, engineered and human ecosystems in urban environments, which needs to be carefully managed.
Once sustainability and resilience are assured, a metropolitan community may begin to develop the resources and the will to invest in people, technology, culture, and in openness and diversity. In this day-and-age, a necessary precondition for creativity to emerge may be a thriving urban academic and research environment. Weiner describes how Stanford University and Silicon Valley mutually helped each other to get to where they are today. There are important lessons to be learned in that symbiosis.
The best academic institutions that spawn genius clusters need to derive inspirations not just from theoretical research but also from the challenges faced by local or regional communities and private-public sectors. Economic growth and creativity in the 21st-century knowledge economy are functions of how well research and practices are integrated into the startup or innovation cultures in the industry, tied with governance and policy - to the extent they can inform and involve citizens.
(The author is a Professor at Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. The views expressed are strictly personal.)

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