• Cities need to become far more responsive to citizens' needs, says Gerhard Schmitt of @ETH_en
  • The most liveable cities are those which have strong interaction between citizen and City Hall
  • A city doesn’t need a powerful figurehead to become responsive, says Gerhard Schmitt of @ETH_en

When Gerhard Schmitt wakes up in Zurich, he wakes up in a city where everything works. A city where the trains run on time; a city which is replete with more than 50 museums, theatres and concert halls; a city blessed with stunning scenery; and a city whose citizens have a direct influence on its governance and future direction.

Professor Schmitt, you see, lives in a city which is “responsive” to its citizens’ needs. Take climate change as an example. “Some years ago, the citizens voted to move towards what they call the ‘2000 watt society‘,” he explains. “This was a very strong message from the population that they wanted to reduce their energy use and reduce their output of greenhouse gases. The city is moving towards this goal step-by-step and is not getting poorer as a result – quite the opposite.”

This is because the commitment to “go green” in this way is leading to new jobs and new businesses, as well as a myriad of knock-on effects. “For many young people it is no longer interesting to own a car; instead, there is high-quality public transportation which everyone uses, regardless of their class. This is supplemented by apps and websites which the population can use to directly influence the direction of the city, creating a channel for new ideas to go directly to the city government.”

For Schmitt, who is professor of information architecture at ETH Zurich and who leads its Future Cities Responsive Cities Scenario in Singapore, it means he can truly take his work home with him. The task now, though, is to make sure that the rest of us who live in cities – which is more than half the global population – can also experience the same level of urban satisfaction.

Creating a responsive city

ETH Zurich is a good place for a cities expert like Professor Schmitt to take root. A leading science, technology, engineering and mathematics university, it is somewhere for Schmitt, who sees “responsive cities” as the coming frontier in human development, to take his research to the next level. So, how would he define a responsive city?

“Responsive cities are about bringing cities back to their citizens,” he explains. “You use the technology of a smart city, but change the way it is used. Rather than being monitored and observed, it is the citizens themselves taking ownership of how technology and data are used.” He goes on to say that no city – not even Zurich – has become fully responsive, but several are making rapid progress.

“Interestingly, these are the cities which have the highest liveability rankings – cities like Vienna, where there is a strong interaction between the citizens and the city leadership,” he says. “You could also take Geneva or Zurich or Vancouver, Melbourne or Copenhagen – all have a close relationship between the city government and the citizens, and their governance system allows for the constant input and suggestions from the people.”

This close relationship between city leadership and citizens is particularly strong in Switzerland, where there are many examples of direct democracy in action. This means that even before the technological boom, the country’s cities were already highly responsive. “The citizens of its cities, towns and villages have long demanded and voted one-to-one on what their government should be doing,” he points out. “It is a specific form of bottom-up governance. Swiss cities have among the highest liveability, productivity and innovation levels in the world, as well as the highest competitiveness levels. So we think that this is good evidence that this approach can work.”

The urban wave

There is an increasing urgency to Professor Schmitt’s work, not least because of the ever-growing number of people who are living in or moving to cities. Urbanisation, a global megatrend if ever there was one, shows no sign of slowing down – anything but.

“What we really want to do is ensure that the cities where, over the next three decades, two billion more people will live are as responsive as possible,” he says. “But the traditional way of growing cities or founding new cities will not work. It won’t be successful unless the citizens and the people in the region are really involved from the very beginning. When the city is being built up and people live in it, the citizens must have an effective channel into the city government to bring in their suggestions for improvement, to make it more efficient – and more dynamic.”

To illustrate his point, he goes on to cite the example of China, which has purposely made some cities into special economic zones, accelerating the progress of places such as Shanghai and, more recently, Shenzhen, which is now a huge city. “In one way, these cities are partially responsive because they can propose incentives to expand and accelerate their development,” he points out. “Everywhere that the citizens have more influence – not just through the one-off design of a building or a neighbourhood but active participation in the entire process, from planning to construction to management – is where the most progress takes place.”

Somewhere like Singapore – where he used to live and run the Singapore-ETH Centre – is another example of a city which is making great strides. “Singapore is advancing very rapidly,” he says. “It is combining human needs with strong deployment of digital technology, particularly in its use of big data to strengthen its urban design and future developments.”

Interestingly, he believes that a city doesn’t necessarily need to have a powerful figurehead – like a mayor – in order to become more responsive. Although “strong mayors” in big cities like Houston have helped spearhead strong development, he says that a close relationship between citizen and city government trumps all. “The mayors of the largest cities in the US have more freedom – particularly those on the east and west coasts, which are very good examples,” he says. “But on the other hand, the need for strong leaders is not absolutely vital. Those cities which have scored well in the liveability rankings do not depend on a strong mayor alone – because of the already close relationship between the city government and citizens and their contribution to progress.”

Urban planning

As for the future, Professor Schmitt says he is optimistic that more and more responsive cities are on the way – but only if certain conditions are met. “We need to target the discrepancy between rich and poor, empowered and not empowered, and make sure the gap is decreasing and not widening,” he says. “This is the absolute necessity. If the trend towards inclusion can be accelerated, I am extremely optimistic. The city planning in both poor and rich countries – from Ethiopia to Singapore – is aiming for cities to be nearly completely emission-free, with increased productivity, and with a reduced need for private transportation though smart-city and responsive urban planning.”

The list sounds intimidating but, on the contrary, the professor is undaunted. “All this is possible when experts and citizens, supported by technology, collaborate – and that’s why I so am optimistic,” he concludes. “I truly believe that, in time, responsive cities will be the norm and not the exception.”

 

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