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Ethical cities agenda

What an exciting night! On Friday 10th November Architects for Peace hosted a lecture on Ethical Cities at RMIT. We knew it was a somewhat special event. In the weeks coming up to the lecture there was a great buzz on all our platforms, a sign that there is a great appetite for this topic.

We had been asking ourselves many questions about the meaning of liveable, smart and resilient cities and how to reconcile private, political and economic agendas so we can redefine our shared future in the urban age. We had waited in great anticipation and welcomed our guest speaker Ralph Horne.
Ralph Horne did not have a ready-made solution on how to govern our cities, but he offered us many suggestions on how to start thinking and acting collectively to minimise cities’ vulnerabilities.

Ralph opened the night by looking at the problems that cities present before talking about them using some contemporary adjectives – or ideas – often applied to cities. These are resilient, smart, shared, and liveable cities.

The problem with cities
In the dominant economic view, cities are described as centres of competitive advantage, but Ralph talked about cities as people not just infrastructure. With the rapid expansion of urbanisation, there is a growing need to think about our cities’ growth and anticipate it if we want to solve future problems.

Some of the current challenges that we face in our cities are governance, accountability, corruption and unequal access to infrastructure. We need to remember that so far, urbanisation has not entirely solved poverty, but rather shifted poverty from rural areas into the urban areas, deepening inequality.  
How do we to start to tackle this complexity? Ralph identified the rescue framework with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the New Urban Agenda (NUA).

Next, we need to ask ourselves: who should be involved? Ralph identified stakeholders such as mayors, civil societies, who tend to engage enthusiastically, and the corporate sector, less so. Our great challenge is how to bring those stakeholders in.

What happened to the sustainable city?
Ralph traced the transition of environmental concerns from the 1960s through to present as running from local ecological concerns, through to the global-north shifting the burden to poorly resourced and poorly regulated global south. This coincided with the resurgence in focus on marketisation, individual choice and overconsumption as the means to achieve sustainability. He highlights that this is based on the flawed assumption that market forces and regulations will always work.

The unstated reality is that underlying structures are at work, but who do they work for? Ralph pointed out how we still live with the idea of progress, growth of GDP, without questioning what that really means.

Over time, the idea that we must survive without subsidies took hold, although subsidies make markets work. For example, vast amounts of public money that could have gone into public health were instead directed in fossil fuels due to the IMF’s support of neo-liberalism.

Where is the resilient city?

Resilient cities have been broadly characterised as flexible, diverse, able to bounce back. But who defines the definition of resilience - from what, to what?

The literature suggests that the responsibility lies with individuals and the cities themselves. However, Ralph disagrees with this view stressing the fact that when evaluating projects, we should ask who exactly benefits from them.

What is the smart city good for?

The smart city is framed by three models: intelligent (digital), entrepreneurial (knowledge economies, post-industrial) and progressive (more democratic, forward looking). However, the dominant narrative about the smart city is coming from competing tech corporations, which are in a frontier-style digital land-grab.

Free public wi-fi is an example where the theoretical models meet and clash with the corporations’ idea of smart city.

The provisioning of wi-fi is done by local municipalities going into partnership with corporations who, in return, get access to the users' valuable data.  Based on how contracts are defined, the data can either be made available back to the city/citizens, or only to the corporations. Public-Private-Partnership contracts need to be reframed for the public good, keeping in mind transparency and accountability.

More than just the contracts need to be considered. Free wi-fi relies on people bringing their own devices - access to such devices is a source of inequality.

Ethical city: agendas & practices

What does the ethical city look like? How can we ensure that we won’t exacerbate already existing issues? How do we achieve this without selling meta data to corporations?

To begin with, the city itself must have an ethical frame, it is not sufficient to just have ethical individuals.

Cities become dysfunctional and anti-social as individual citizens begin to prioritise their narrow short-term interests over others. Cities that fail to build ethics are more vulnerable to shocks - climatic, economic etc.

The role of the private sector is crucial. As Ralph reminded us, many of the assets and infrastructure are privately controlled. The governance of those private public partnerships is essential – there is need for transparency and greater awareness of the consequences of decisions and actions. Ralph was calling for more overtness on intended and unintended consequences of project design.

Good examples of the PPP can be traced in the work done by the UN Global Compact Cities Programme.

Closing Remarks

Ralph closed his lecture with reminding us that the Ethical cities agenda is designed to raise the profile and advance a principle-based and collaborative approach to urban development and city management. When we devise a new project for our cities we need to ask ourselves How will your project address equity? And How do we make people accountable?

It was an interesting journey through the many facets of our cities: sustainable, resilient, smart. At core, the message I came away with is that cities are made by people for people and if we want to keep living in the same shared space we need to seriously start thinking how to reframe governance and the role of the private sector.

As part of civil society, we are but one of the stakeholders that have to sit at the table and bring forward ideas to make our place truly liveable, resilient, smart and shared for the 100%.
It’s your turn now to tell us what did you took away from the nightLeave your comments here.
Our thanks go to Ralph Horne for sharing his time and knowledge with us and to all of you for participating.

The video of the lecture will be released soon!


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