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Essential Reading on Our Urban Future

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Today, the majority of the world’s population lives in cities, generating about 80% of the global GDP. Rapidly rising standards of living and economic growth has meant a worldwide surge in migration to cities and growing urbanization.

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In addition to this accelerated rate of urbanization, today’s reality also includes a quickening pace of innovations in information technology, super computing and artificial intelligence, all advancing faster than we've ever seen before in human history. With cities and people becoming increasingly productive, rapid economic and urban growth are the benefits but also the downside. As the quality of life and economic gains increase, so do pollution, environmental damage, inequality and loss of quality of life for many.

The explosive growth of cities has widespread implications for energy use and environmental factors, leading to a greater demand for cities to think about how to be both smart and green, at the same time creating and holding onto economic dynamism.

While billions of dollars are being poured into urban energy solutions and ‘smart’ city strategies, there are still enormous challenges. Smart cities will be those that will have effective management tools capable of creating urban systems that address all sorts of challenges, not only energy and pollution. As many writers and experts in recent times have noted: tools and strategies to address issues facing cities (and nations) must be sustainable and adaptable but also embrace creativity and collaboration.  

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Where Thomas Friedman has taken on virtually all of the factors that concern cities and the future of national states, authors like Charles Montgomery in Happy City and Gabe Klein in Start Up City focus on the intersection of urban design and the emergence of happiness. Creating the world’s most dynamic cities must address the needs of its citizens. Along with smart and engaging design should come strategies around building community and strong interdependence among residents. Again, the human element is integral to design and future strategies.

Cities and citizens everywhere strive for clean air, accessible transportation, protection from the effects of climate change and more. Ultimately, cities need to ensure they are liveable, competitive, sustainable, resilient and smart. Yes, the term ‘smart cities’ encompasses the use of big data, autonomous vehicles, new technologies, even robots, but it also must bring together creative, innovative and implementable solutions that are human friendly.

The most pressing challenges arise from the intersection of information technology and environmental sustainability on the urban scale. Addressing issues in these areas will require a complex integration of expertise, tools, and know-how from multiple disciplines - from building design and real estate development, to mobility, water systems and energy providers.

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With the advent of self-driving vehicles and other technological innovations, Gabe Klein asks how we can close the gap between the world of start-ups and the complex bureaucracies struggling to adapt to an age of accelerations. Again, smart cities will be those with flexible, citizen-led policies, but that also seek input from the newest leaders in business and finance.

Start-Up City calls for “public entrepreneurship” from the tech start-up community – to work with the public sector and put some of its vast resources towards creating useful and implementable projects for cities and the wider community.

Certainly Pope Francis would agree with this approach, following on his recent appearance at the TED Conference in Vancouver, where he told tech entrepreneurs and business leaders to work for social inclusion and building community - to ensure we are building future that will include everyone, for everyone. 

Happy City

Smart and happy cities will be successful only if they emerge from a citizen-led approach. This will include web platforms and intelligent applications for citizen engagement however, not everything in the future will be related to an intelligent data network or so-called operating system. Assuming a continuous connection to the web in order to survive is neither realistic nor desirable and certainly will not be available to all. A complex integration that includes a multi-disciplinary approach at the intersection of innovation and sustainability will be required to build future urban environments. Smart cities (current and future) will need to implement thoughtful strategies in the areas of architecture, city design, mobility, water systems, energy use and more.

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Start-Up City

Author Gabe Klein and David Vega-Barachowitz call for “public entrepreneurship” – the participation of designers, public policy makers and others to come together and create solutions for technology and innovative industries to help cities design from the human perspective. The startup business community has great potential to lend its weight and resources to finding intelligent and innovative solutions to issues that cities (and nations) face. The effective application of new technologies must also be combined with creative collaboration and economic adaptation. 

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Thank You for Being Late

Thomas Friedman points out that the combination of new technologies, big data, the supernova (cloud computing) along with globalization and climate change issues are converging in what he calls the age of accelerations. His book covers an overwhelming number of topics important to our planet and human happiness. Most urgent is the need to adapt to massive changes in employment and industrial labor, most of which will result in new kinds of employment but will also require rethinking of the application of skills and lifelong learning. Friedman, like authors Montgomery and Klein, advocates multi-disciplinary approaches to find solutions to the many issues cities and nation states face, now and in the future. Ready or not, he says, the future is coming.

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Street Smart

Samuel Schwartz looks at how to redesign the city and implement new technologies to mitigate climate change but also rethink transportation. For instance, in America people are driving fewer miles in their personal cars while urban living and structures are transforming. They all advocate a vision that inspires a more active and vigorous approach to urban design that includes more walking, cycling and other forms of mobility. A decline in the use of cars is a must to cut greenhouse gas emissions and ensure sustainable policies for reducing environmental damage. 

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Cities for People

For more than forty years Jan Gehl has helped to transform urban environments around the world based on his research into the ways people actually use - or could use - the spaces where they live and work. In this revolutionary book, Gehl presents his latest work creating (or recreating) cityscapes on a human scale. Taking into account changing demographics and changing lifestyles, Gehl emphasizes four human issues that he sees as essential to successful city planning. He explains how to develop cities that are lively, safe, sustainable, and healthy. For Gehl, the urban landscape must be considered through the five human senses and experienced at the speed of walking rather than at the speed of riding in a car or bus or train. In a final chapter, Gehl makes a plea for city planning on a human scale in the fast-growing cities of developing countries. 

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Julia is a Sydney based writer covering sustainable living, innovation, books and art.

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