Who is Responsible for the Future of Cities?

As technological innovations continue to transform urban growth, many believe the private sector should lead the future of cities—and that government regulators should follow its lead. But in a recent cross-disciplinary panel at Harvard, not everyone agreed.
by Carmen Nobel

CAMBRIDGE, Mass — On a rainy afternoon in late October, Mohsen Mostafavi stood before a packed auditorium at Harvard University and considered the history of cities in terms of three cooked eggs.

Mostafavi, the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, described an analogy created by the late architect Cedric Price, who bottom-lined thousands of years of urban history into a breakfast order. The ancient city was a hard-boiled egg, surrounded and protected by a wall. Next came the fried egg, representing the city of the 18th and 19th centuries; with no wall to protect it, the core was surrounded by an expanding ring of residential and industrial growth.

And finally, the scrambled egg—a delicious mess but a mess nonetheless: the modern city, sprawling with opportunity, technology, and confusion. “Somehow,” Mostafavi said, referring to the current state of the urban landscape, “we have to make sense of this.”

It was a fitting introduction to a multidisciplinary panel called The Future of Cities, which considered urban growth from as many diverse perspectives as there were panelists. Hosted by the Harvard Business School and Graduate School of Design and sponsored by Harvard’s Worldwide Week global engagement initiative, the panel featured experts from the design, planning, technology, transportation, and business communities.

"The question is not so much whether cities can survive, but whether their growth can be managed and guided, by whom, and for what needs"
The panel was moderated by John Macomber, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School whose work ponders how public/private partnerships can fuel urban development for the better. As a business person, he spends most of his time with people who agree and assume that it’s up to the private sector to spearhead such growth. But not everyone on the cross-disciplinary panel shared that assumption.

And so the discussion was guided by a question of sovereignty: Who should be in charge of building, managing, and controlling the cities of the future? The government? The entrepreneurs? The citizens?

“In contrast to the past, the question is not so much whether cities can survive, but whether their growth can be managed and guided, by whom, and for what needs,” said Diane Davis, Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Development and Urbanism, and Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Panelist Efosa Ojomo clearly believed that the path to urban growth and improvement has long been spearheaded by innovations in the private sector, rather than by municipal governments.

“Innovation typically precedes regulation,” said Ojomo, a research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, where he studies how technological innovation can fuel growth in developing cities and nations. “You can’t regulate what you don’t yet have.”

When government just gets in the way

Other panelists shared the view that public administrations can be a hindrance to positive change. “There are huge design opportunities in Africa,” said John Fernandez, an architecture professor at MIT and the director of the MIT Urban Metabolism Group, a multidisciplinary research team that considers various resource-related issues of urban growth. “The problems lie in government and financing.”

Ojomo noted that the US Department of Transportation wasn’t established until 1966–long after the nation’s major roadways were built, and more than 60 years after Henry Ford founded his eponymous motor company.

As a more recent example, he cited a Nigerian instant noodle company, Tolaram Industries, which built its own transportation system and power plants to support its operations without having to depend on the unreliable municipal power grid. “They took noodles, and they developed a set of infrastructures around selling that product,” Ojomo said, adding that the company now grosses $1 billion per year and employs thousands of local citizens.

Macomber summarized the key takeaway of this example: The infrastructure wasn’t built ahead of time in hopes of attracting new business, he said. Rather, it was built as needed by the business.

“We are the city,” Ojomo said, referring to the world’s technological innovators. “We have to go to the governments and tell them what’s going to happen. The problem with governments is that they can’t move fast enough.”

Davis disagreed. “I do not accept the proposition that the government should only be responding to innovations in the private sector,” she said. “Why is it that we assume that all the innovation will come from the private sector? Why can’t a city have an innovation lab?”

Stefan Knupfer, a senior partner and leader of Sustainability and Resource Productivity at McKinsey & Company, said that “cities need to operate more like companies,” meaning they need to learn how to effect, manage, and respond to change quickly. He cited as an example the Uber-fueled ride-hailing movement, which took off in spite of and outside of existing taxi regulations. “It literally happened over a period of months.”

With or without government support or collaboration, technology will continue to disrupt cities. “Autonomous driving, electric cars, it’s all happening,” said Christian Irmisch, sales manager for commuter and regional trains at the German conglomerate Siemens, who acknowledged his job involves competing against the promise of autonomous electric cars. “The government needs control.”

Panelist Harriet Tregoning, former director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Economic Resilience, suggested governments can be proactive about encouraging innovation rather than responding to it. She recalled HUD’s 2014 National Disaster Resilience Competition, which awarded a total of $1 billion in funds to tackle climate change. Rather than simply soliciting “here’s-how-we’ll-use-the-money” project plans, HUD first required participants to suggest NGOs, local philanthropies, and other partners who might help them in the quest to steel their cities against future natural disasters. The takeaway: It takes a village to keep a city.

And applicants responded in kind; the 13 winners came with more than 200 partnerships. “We put up a billion,” Tregoning said. “And they came to the table with five billion.”

Related Reading:

The Fantastic Horizon: How to Invest in a New City
Informed and Interconnected: A Manifesto for Smarter Cities
Researchers Use Google Street View to See the Future of Cities

What do you think ?

What is the best way to plan for urban growth? Add your comment to this story below.

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

Post A Comment

In order to be published, comments must be on-topic and civil in tone, with no name calling or personal attacks. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.