Asia Pacific Cities Summit International Keynote Panel (2003)


Opening comments by Sohail Inayatullah

2003 Asia Pacific Cities Summit International Keynote Panel. 20 October 2003. Brisbane.

We are to explore the alternative futures of the city.]


These futures are based on the consequences of current trends as well as the anticipation of emerging issues that will likely alter the current trajectory of the city, in all its meanings.

The themes that were developed were based on an environmental scan of the futures of the city, a sorting out of hundreds of articles, books and speeches. They were not mean to reproduce current knowledge but to move toward emergent ideas.

What has resulted are five broad themes:

  1. The transformation of urban sprawl
  2. the greening of the city, going far beyond recycling
  3. the healthy city
  4. the global and local city
  5. and alternative futures

These are not your typical concerns, normally, city politics is mired deep in local politics, in issues of what is called here in Australia, roads, rates and rubbish.

However, cities were never, and especially now are not immune from the forces of globalization, digitalization, multiculturalism, global warming, and other factors that transform the nature of risk.

Cities as well are becoming the site of social change  – UN conferences are referred to by their respective city hosts, Rio 92, for example. Nation-states are hard to maneuver, like grand oil tankers, towns do not have the budget or populations to make a difference, but cities do, they become the nexus between globalization and localization, creating glo-calization. This means ensuring that local people are not lost in the drive for the movement of capital but ensuring that they benefit from internationalization.

City futures is essentially about city design, city policymaking and city planning. Why is this crucial. A recent study reports that that there is a direct relationship between city design, in this case suburbanization, and obesity. We know as well that there is a direct correlation between obesity and cancer and heart attack rates. Thus, what seem as isolated phenomena are in fact directly link. How we design cities in fact dramatically can alter the quality of life of its citizens. Destroy communities for the sake of modernity and what will result is increased crime, anomie, suicide an depression. Build endless suburbs and the benefits of tradition – walking, talking, connecting – will disappear. The healthy city is thus about design.

And it is about money. Have city policies that balk at green issues and the cost of business will go up far more than the cost of  business of following green regulation. Urban and suburban  sprawl, traffic jams, car and bus pollution should not be seen as externalities to be dealt with by individuals and the federal health system but rather they are intrinsic to the city.  Water for example is seen as an externality but as water becomes a crucial issue research is showing that the drought is linked to urban planning patterns. For example, we now know that suburban sprawl – strip malls, office buildings and other paved areas – have worsened the drought covering half the United States by blocking billions of gallons of rainwater from seeping through the soil to replenish ground water.

Thus, Business costs go up, individuals and companies move to other cities, a vicious cycle starts, and soon, what is left is a highly populated, and poor city, caught in a cycle of corruption and waiting. At this stage, neither moral individual actions or inspired leadership is enough, since the structure has taken over.

But by looking at future problems, anticipating them before they become too big to solve, individuals and leaders can do a great deal.

Thus, issues of recycling, clean energy public buses, transparency, walking and bicycle lanes may seem unrelated but they are all directly related to creating a better city.

Digitalization is not separate from creating a better city, indeed, technology must be embedded into all our future themes – digitalization can create a seamless city, with information on tourist arrivals and departures all linked so that costs are held to a minimum. Technology can be used so that more is created with less, technology can help create a healthier city, mapping health providers, making it easier to have access, monitoring our habits via health-bots. Technology, however, is not the solution, we know we will have more of it. The key is its appropriate use, and more ever, it is in innovation in social and organizational know ware as well as in transforming the worldviews that govern how we create the future city that is far more important, and pivotal.

City design and policy planning can thus influence individual behaviors but more importantly is that it transforms systems. We know that better driver training is not the solution of traffic fatalities but rethinking the transportation system. Underneath this system is the worldview of the fast and big city. City design is also then searching for new paradigms and visions of the city. It is understanding the relationship between events, structures, paradigms and images.

I know that for many of you that word comes out at election time and then disappears when the endless politics of budgets takes over. Thus, it is a long term issue, and not meant to solve today’s issues but to ensure that 1. your visions and not colonized by others 2. your visions are the most effective and for the good of all.

It is these visions and alternative scenarios that we will focus on in the mayoral forums and the fish bowls. Research from the sunshine coast suggests that the view of the city as business as usual, while certainly raising housing prices and thus benefiting owners, is not the desired future by most, indeed, only 5% favored this. Most favored three other images. These were 1. electronically linked urban villages, that is, instead of big cities, many linked villages. 2. the triple bottom line sustainable city – prosperity, plus social justice plus environmental concerns. And 3 – the living gaian city, that is, the city that literally becomes alive become of digitalization and spiritualization.

What this means is that spiritual and ethical behaviour is not seen as divorced from local city politics. Normally we segment – and rightly so – the church and city hall (or the temple and city hall) but this emerging vision calls for the integration, reconciliation, of the two. Thus politics is not just seen as what happens at election time, and meditation is not just seen as a personal practice but a new integration of the personal and the political, creating a new imagination of the city.

Certainly we are unlikely to see this type of ethical evolution (here moving far away from Darwinian evolution) for 40-50 years, but in some form, I believe, it is likely to come.

The issue for you as leaders and policy makers is that 1. do you want to resist this image, 2 or create a new vision.

This meeting is your chance to do so, to explore the futures of the city. My hope is that by the end of our three days, we will be able to create not only new memes for the city future, but to say, that at Brisbane, many of the world’s cities charted out a new course for themselves, fundamentally changing city politics and economics.