Opinion: The smartest cities are resilient ones

By Michael Berkowitz, Robert Muggah 13 March 2017

A view of Songdo Central Park. Photo by: Andy Nelson / CC BY-NC

Smart cities are capturing the imaginations of many, seducing planners, politicians and investors with their promise of increased digital connectivity, frictionless services and greener economies. To smart city enthusiasts, the successful metropolis of the future is a fully wired one, with automated systems driven by big data and cloud computing.

Through investment in fiber-optic cables, wireless networks and e-services, it is argued that talent and capital will flow into this futurist hub, with the benefits radiating out to all. Cities such as Masdar in United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Songdo in South Korea already showcase the possibilities, and investors are salivating at the prospect of future returns. Some forecasters estimate more than $400 billion in potential investment in smart city infrastructure by 2020, and that the industry could be worth as much as $1.5-3 trillion by 2050.

Yet even as the world barrels toward a fourth industrial revolution, the vast majority of the world’s cities are unlikely to benefit from this digital dividend. As the planet continues its rapid urbanization — by 2030, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities — planning for our urban futures must look beyond the shiny solutions offered by technology and ask a more basic question: what are we trying to achieve?

Solutions beyond technology

From our experience working with a network of 100 cities and studying urban risks in another 2,000 urban agglomerations — where populations can reach upwards of 250,000 residents — we have come up with a few insights about what makes cities smarter. Urban planners are especially interested in how to strengthen cities and improve the day-to-day lives of residents. Many “solutions” have less to do with technology, which at times can be a distraction and unintentionally widen digital, social and economic divides.

A city’s future vitality depends on building integrated and inclusive urban resilience that accounts for the entire city ecosystem. It is located in the capacity of individuals, neighborhoods, communities, businesses and institutional systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow regardless of the chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.

A city must strengthen itself overall in order to effectively address its most serious problems, or implement innovative solutions. This means looking beyond preparedness for major shocks, such as hurricanes and terrorist attacks, and squarely addressing routine and daily stresses, such as aging infrastructure or racial and economic inequality, that sap a city’s resilience and exacerbate disasters when they inevitably occur.

So can urban resilience be engineered? Through our work with cities around the world, resilience is built when city plans and solutions are designed inter-systemically, through purposeful coordination across city sectors. This includes collaboration between city departments, private and public organizations and other city stakeholders, including members of the community. Cities around the world are producing resilience strategies built on these principles.

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Medellín’s interdisciplinary reform

The city of Medellín, Colombia, illustrates the power of this process. In 1988, Time Magazine described it as “the most dangerous city in the world.” By the early 1990s, the murder rate soared to 380 per 100,000 people — among the highest levels ever recorded. While the drug cartels held it in thrall, the conditions that led to its fragility are disturbingly common in many African and Asian cities, especially those expanding most rapidly.

Between 1951 and 1973, Medellín grew from just over 350,000 people to over 1 million, at a time of huge economic upheaval. Operating with diminished resources, the city could not keep pace with the rate of expansion and was unable to maintain and improve the city’s social services, housing and critical infrastructure. Informal settlements, far removed from the commercial hub at its center, left new arrivals disconnected from one another and from opportunity. The city became extremely vulnerable to the cartels and to petty crime.

And yet, Medellín found a way out of these seemingly intractable problems. After years of failed attempts at reform, the city adopted a more holistic view, making the interdependence of its systems central to its success. Rather than focusing narrowly on law and order — as is often the case in Latin American cities — Medellín’s urban authorities pursued an inter-sector approach. According to Federico Restrepo, a planner in the city administration at the time: “We took a view that everything is interconnected — education, culture, libraries, safety, public spaces.”

The city’s interventions and new policies addressed multiple factors at once and were designed, implemented and monitored using interdisciplinary processes. They included an integrated public transportation system that directly affected the most disenfranchised communities. Most notably, through a series of gondolas and escalators, the city connected the communities in the hills to the commercial center and to each other. The city also built libraries and public plazas in some of the most dangerous areas. In other words, the best interventions were reserved for the areas experiencing the highest levels of concentrated disadvantage.

Medellín’s authorities pioneered what is called “social urbanism” (or more colorfully, “urban acupuncture”), offering lessons to the world. While there are still many challenges, the application of resilience planning enabled Medellín to transform itself from the world’s murder capital into a cultural center and tourist destination. Integrated planning helped the city foster the kind of social cohesion and economic equity a city requires to become and remain resilient. This is not to say that city planning alone can eliminate the risks of crime and violence, but rather that it is an essential ingredient of successful urban renewal.

Interconnected actors and lessons learned

The city did not search for a silver bullet that would address all its problems. Medellín’s leadership, working with a wide array of local and regional stakeholders, understood that in order to solve its most deeply entrenched problems, all of the city’s systems had to be strengthened as an interconnected whole. Medellín was able to tap into its private sector, which contributed billions to revitalizing the city. The resilience revolution also counted on a strong work ethic of its residents to drive the process forward. Not all the city’s experiences can be easily replicated, but they do offer lessons.

Smart technology is important and may be utilized to further this process of resilience, but it is not the bedrock on which enduring and meaningful resilience forms. Rather, it is an important tool that helps planners understand cities and design optimal solutions. A city’s ability to adapt and thrive amid the uncertainties of the 21st century relies on the reimagining of the urban landscape, one that incorporates all of its shocks, stresses, systems and individuals.

Over six weeks, Devex and our partners will explore what it takes to build a successful smart city, how climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies are being implemented, and how actors in the global development community are working together toward common goals and engaging local communities in an inclusive way. Join us as we examine what it takes to create our smart cities of the future by tagging #SmartCities and @Devex.

About the authors

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Michael Berkowitzberkmic

Michael Berkowitz joined the Rockefeller Foundation in August 2013 to shape and oversee the 100 Resilient Cities. Previously, he worked at Deutsche Bank, most recently as the deputy global head of Operational Risk Management (ORM). In that capacity he oversaw the firm’s OR capital planning efforts, served as a primary regulatory contact and connected the myriad operational risk management efforts group-wide.


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Robert Muggah

Robert Muggah directs research at the Igarapé Institute and the SecDev Foundation. He advises the Global Parliament of Mayors and is a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Future of Cities and Urbanization. He is also a fellow at the Global Affairs Institute and the WEF Global Agenda Council on Fragility.


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