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July 30, 2009

When Cities Grow Too Fast

All around the world, experts have been studying urbanization for decades. It is an undeniable global trend, one with major consequences for all of us. But it’s not until you come to Asia, where people are pouring into cities from Seoul to Singapore, that you begin to understand the full effects of rampant urbanization.

 “The question is how we can prevent urbanization,” said one participant in IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook deep dive in Singapore yesterday. “I don’t think megacities are sustainable.”

“The blind rush to cities is creating environmental problems and deteriorating the quality of life in our cities,” said another.

“If large companies would start supporting tele-commuting, we might be able to slow the growth of these cities,” said yet another.

It’s not surprising that residents of this area are gravely concerned about this unchecked urban growth. Our meeting was attended by urban experts from Singapore, Japan, China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, The Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand. And the concern about the negative impacts of overpopulation in their cities was palpable.

But despite this universal concern, it was widely acknowledged that there is nothing to be done about it. People come to cities for many reasons: jobs; entertainment; family; friends; and sometimes because they have no where else to go. Urbanization is a force of nature, a sign of our times, and it cannot be controlled, even if someone were so inclined.

Of course, this immutable fact only reinforces the need for better planning, more efficient systems, and sustainable solutions; a reality that was not lost on this group. “Cities are like multi-dimensional jigsaw puzzles,” reasoned one participant. “To have a good puzzle, you have to design it properly. But most cities are not designed like this. They just keep adding things on, like a rubbish heap. So there is a great need for good master planning.”

Planning like that requires deep insight, both from the elected leaders that govern these places and the citizens that live in them. From that insight they must develop well-defined goals and constantly measure their progress against those goals. In this way, running a city is not unlike running a business.

“In the business world we use dashboards to measure our progress,” said one participant from Hong Kong. “But what if we used the same tools for leaders and individuals in a city? Only we make the dashboards relevant for each of them, so that they feel that with their actions, they can move the dial?”

In other ways, cities are nothing like businesses, of course. And some of our participants were quick to remind us of that fact. “Businesses can be incredibly creative and they can act very quickly,” said one participant from New Zealand. “But they are also profit driven, and have a huge capacity for greed. I don’t think cities can afford the luxury of failure that comes from greed.”

Cities certainly can learn a lot from the private sector when it comes to strategic planning and managing growth. But they’ll have to learn from their own citizens and other cities as well. And in this part of the world, that learning can’t happen fast enough. 

July 30, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (44) | TrackBack

July 08, 2009

Turkish Delights

In pursuing a global perspective on the future of the world’s cities, IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook could have hosted deep dive discussions in nearly a thousand locations around the world. But you would have a hard time picking a more compelling location than Istanbul.

Besides being one of the largest cities in the world, with more than 12 million residents, Istanbul is the cultural and financial center of modern day Turkey. It straddles two different continents (Asia and Europe.) It has been the capital city of no fewer than four different empires (Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman). And its history dates back more than 8,000 years, during which time it has been known by countless different names (Constantinople and Byzantium, to name a few).

Not surprisingly, this long and rich past plays a central role in shaping Istanbul’s future. Our meeting featured a robust collection of local expertise, from Turkish universities to government leaders to some of the most successful private companies in the country. And many in the room agreed that transformation in Istanbul cannot be pursued without first considering the past. But whether history is Istanbul’s opportunity or challenge depends on who you ask. Two comments from the dive illustrate these contrasting views:

“Istanbul has so much history and each culture tries to put a straightjacket on the direction of development.”


“History and heritage can make a city a center of excellence.”

These starkly contrasting statements demonstrate how historical legacy can either be seen as a burden or an asset. Making ancient cities smarter is indeed a formidable challenge. Aside from the logistical difficulties of retrofitting systems that were designed hundreds of years ago, it can be nearly impossible to get citizens that are still culturally tied to the past to embrace change.

But if Istanbul’s history has taught us anything, it’s that great cities can be made and remade dozens of times over the years, and nothing is forever. In that spirit, participants in the Istanbul dive advocated for a new era of urban planning. Not the kind of planning that gets constantly interrupted by election cycles or quarterly earnings. But the kind of planning that is informed by a deep understanding of the citizens of a city, and an enduring vision of what the city can and should become.

“Istanbul has been a center for civilization for a long time,” said one participant. “People still come here and leave their culture. And Istanbul still embraces these cultures, and incorporates them into the dynamic nature of the city. So the city of the future should be the city that listens to people and their agenda.”

Many in the room recognized that a new ability to listen to citizens now exists with the millions of people already communicating through social networking sites and the like. And it is this generation of Turks that most participants identified as the key to Istanbul’s future. The trick is converting their input into insight, and crafting a plan that both moves the city forward while preserving its precious history.

July 8, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack