O futuro urbano com Gerald Babel-Sutter, fundador e CEO da Urban Future Global Conference
29 Jan 2020

Em entrevista ao BCSD Portugal, o fundador da Urban Future Global Conference que, este ano, acontece em Lisboa de 1 a 3 de abril, explica o porquê de reunir pessoas dispostas a transformar cidades em lugares melhores para se viver, para já e para as gerações futuras, como o tema está intimamente ligado à crise climática – “agora entre as principais prioridades dos líderes políticos, em particular nas cidades”- e como os agentes de mudança são o que abraçam o desafio de convencer as pessoas a fazer algo diferente pela sua cidade.

Explica a diferença entre uma “smart city” e uma cidade sustentável e fala de CityChangers, os “doers” e os “shakers” mais apaixonados e com as ideias mais impressionantes para partilhar em áreas como a mobilidade, o imobiliário, a arquitectura, ou a economia circular. Porque “podemos ter as tecnologias apropriadas para tornar as cidades mais sustentáveis, os carros menos poluentes e casas menos consumidoras de energia, mas precisamos de convencer os outros a realmente usá-las ou criar soluções alternativas ainda melhores para os desafios que enfrentamos”.

Leia a entrevista original aqui:

What’s the mission of Urban Future?

Urban Future’s main goal is to gather people willing to turn cities into better places to live in, for us and for future generations. Following the current global discussion related to the climate crisis, it seems pretty obvious that change is needed. This is why we will keep on searching to find the most passionate CityChangers with the most impressive ideas to share. It doesn’t matter if you are a specialist in mobility or in circular economy, the challenge is the same: to convince people to do something differently.

Our mission is to gather people with diverse backgrounds who have an incredible personal passion for sustainability. Personal involvement is absolutely critical and the goal is to bring people from different sectors together, not to talk about what needs to be done but HOW to change and how to make it happen.

Having the right people in the room makes a difference. The type of conversations that start at our conference are very different compared to others, where the goal is to sell a product for brands to be present. Our goal has always been to bring together the most brilliant and active leaders to share what they are developing so that others are motivated to do the same.

Why Lisbon for this Conference?

Although Lisbon is the European Green Capital this year, this was only one detail in the choice of the Portuguese capital for the fifth edition of the conference. We were approached by around 20 cities but decided to choose a place with challenges in different areas, with Lisbon being the choice for 2020.

Thinking about the economic crisis in early 2000, Lisbon didn’t have an easy start. Showing examples of cities like Lisbon, that are in challenging situations, is a real motivation for cities other than Copenhagen (which is often referred to as the Holy Grail in terms of sustainability) because they can relate to it. Many people left the Lisbon because of the crisis but the ones who stayed found “a fat cow to be slaughtered”, which was tourism. Money started to enter the city, because people started to return to the capital and it regenerated. This resulted in another challenge: gentrification – it is a huge issue in Lisbon. And it’s an issue that many cities have to cope with. That’s why we’ll see if there are sustainable solutions on how to address it.

Another topic that attracted us to Portugal was water, one of the major problems in southern European cities. Here, Lisbon is doing a fantastic job! Perhaps the citizens have not yet realized, but the 40% savings in water consumption of the municipality in five years, wow that numbers have not been reached anywhere else in the world.

Who are the people getting together at Urban Future in Lisbon?

The URBAN FUTURE global conference is a multidisciplinary event for the real urban doers and shakers – for people who make their cities better places to live in.

We use the term “CityChangers”, to identify all those working towards environmentally friendly cities, including mayors, city planners, architects, and representatives from a variety of sectors such as real estate or mobility. No matter where they come from, who they work, or what level of hierarchy, what unites them is their passion for creating a better city.

We need such people because without them not a single step would be taken in the right direction. We might have the appropriate technologies in place to make our cities more sustainable, our cars less pollutant and our houses less energy consuming but we need to convince others from actually using them or creating even better alternative solutions to the challenges we are facing. But such tasks require people who raise their voices and convince others to change their behaviour with a considerable amount of passion, like former Vice Mayor of Vienna Maria Vassilakou did, by introducing the 1€ public transport system, investing in bike lanes and shared public spaces and closing off Vienna’s largest shopping street for cars. It wasn’t what you would call a piece of cake. It didn’t happen overnight. It lasted years and now that it’s in place and its results are being noticed – already other people are in charge. But still, we know who to thank for: among others Maria Vassilakou and her team who entered endless conversations with people explaining them why it wouldn’t work. Well, it did.

What does it take to be a CityChanger? A vision of a better city, guts to handle inconvenient conversations and the ability to inspire others. Also, we’ve seen that people need a space to exchange their stories, to share what worked well and what didn’t. That’s why we’ve created the URBAN FUTURE global conference: to support the community of people who drive change in cities.

Can you describe some of the most relevant trends when it comes to urban sustainability?

I’d say it’s not really certain trend that will change our cities, but rather an understanding that’s arriving in the heads of decision makers and citizens all over the world alike. Think 10 years ago: how many local politicians talked about and/or undertook actions because of climate change? Think now: it’s among the top priorities of political leaders, in particular in cities. Because it must be, and because many people demand it from them. In addition to that, young talent is increasingly asking sustainability questions when considering a new job. This will have also have a profound impact on the future of recruiting for most businesses.

There is a crucial difference between the understanding that sustainability is not another department, but instead another way of thinking. This is why we need to manage cities differently (and not with many isolated departments).  Only then come some trends that we’ll be seeing:

Cities more and more realize that our current mobility systems (moving people and moving goods) will no longer work. Currently, mobility congests our cities, uses too much space, pollutes the air and is a health hazard in many ways – and is inherently undemocratic. That’s why cities will (have to) address the issue of mobility. It’s not (primarily) a question pro or contra cars, but a question what kind of city you want to live in and what kind of livability you want.

Another critical issue will be the saving of resources, in particular energy and water. Those two trends will have profound effect on all aspects of the real estate market, most notably on construction and (energetic) refurbishment of existing buildings

What’s the difference between a smart city and a sustainable city?

In many conversations, “smart city” is a term used to describe a technologized city, one in which tech solves all our problems. There are many amazing tech solutions that help to make cities more sustainable, however believing that this approach will be enough is naïve.

If you ask me, I’d say there’s nothing like a smart city: there are smart people and I’d argue that all cities have their fair share of smart people. So the question is, whether cities allow those smart people to also do smart things? And yes, there are cities that are really good in providing a space for people to thrive, be creative and to shape the environment they are living in. And when people are proud of their city, they will also (be more likely to) take care of it. That’s what I’d call a smart city.

As for a sustainable city, that’s a way more complex issue, I believe. I see sustainability almost like “equilibrium” and that’s the way we should live. If we don’t, there will be consequences. Somewhere. Some consequences far away in other places of the world, some very close, some directly for myself. A sustainable city should make sure that we (as society, as citizens, as businesses, …) live & act sustainably in regard to different issues:

Environmental issues: if we continue to destroy our basis of existence – everything from deforestation, air pollution, to overfishing and CO2 emissions – the consequences will be getting only more severe: already today more than 400,000 early deaths in Europe are connected to air pollution per year (!).

Resource issues: we’ll need to find ways to live with less resources, because many will get scarcer and many require heavy CO2 emissions. Already today, there are countless cities and communities running out of water.

Social issues: inequality is a huge problem for our society and cities are already feeling the strongly negative impact of inequalities. If we cannot close the gap on income distribution, education, possibilities & opportunities, housing, job, etc. it will blow up in our face. No systems in a disequilibrium does remain intact, so we should not risk the “blow up” scenario and find ways to shape the huge changes ahead of us in a way that actually decreases the inequalities.

Economic issues: eventually, our economies will change. If they continue to build so large shares of the economy on oil & gas, they will have an economic disadvantage in the long-run. However, we can all just barely imagine how a world that’s NOT running on oil & gas would look like. We should start imagining … soon!

What will a sustainable city look like in 10 years? And 25? And 50?

I wish I knew. The good part is, that 25 or 50 years are a long time to shape and change our cities. The bad part is that we have so much infrastructure that’s already here today, and will be so in 25 or 50 years. Most homes are built for 80-100 years, conventional power plants for electricity have lifetimes of 40 years, car and truck fleets often up to 10 years. So unless we’re willing to assume the cost of shutting down or upgrading infrastructure that would still “work” otherwise, change will be VERY slow.

So the question will be whether or not we as society agree to act. I dearly hope so. If we decide to act, we’ll have to work on many fronts and this would become visible to everyone. I believe the two most visible areas will be mobility and the way we live:

We’d have to change MOBILITY patterns, which will result in very dense & attractive public transport networks that account for the largest share of moving people. Other modes, such as walking and biking will become way more important and attractive.

As a result, this will have an impact on how NEIGHBORHOODS will look like. As substantially fewer people will own and use cars but rather bike and walk, their “radius of activity” will get smaller. That means that we’ll see many different uses merge in neighborhoods – from housing to retail and from offices and small production to entertainment and leisure areas. Cities will decentralize, removing additional pressure on mobility. I believe the idea of having “living areas”, “office areas” and “commercial areas” in cities is a concept of the past.

What can a citizen do for the city sustainability?

This is a question we’ve asked many of the CityChangers we’ve interviewed for our CityChangers blog. To be precise, we wanted them to finish the sentence: Everyone can live more sustainably simply by… and we’ve received a bunch of ideas like:

  • …consuming less plastic materials, traveling by public transport or ride sharing schemes, eating less meat and avoiding products with palm oil. Anna König-Jerlmyr
  • …walking more. Eugene Quinn
  • …eating healthy. Hubert Rhomberg
  • …being more human. In addition, I would say cycle more. Jorn Wemmenhove
  • …being the change that you want the world to be. By being more consistent with what we think, say and do. Gil Penalosa

 What are the worst things a city can do?

I think the worst a city can do are three things:

  1. Not thinking long-term

The challenges ahead of us cannot be solved in 4-year terms – so there must be an understanding that some critical topics are to be handled independently from election politics. If the needed strategies are not set up for long-term changes and implementation, they will not happen, or MUST happen at a very later point in time at a cost many times the investment would have been otherwise.

  1. Closing the eyes for necessary changes

Some changes will be controversial, simply because people will need to change their behavior (and that’s what we all hate), and some will be “losing” something. Whether it’s the freedom to drive one’s car to every corner of the city, or the liberty to heat one’s apartment to 30 degrees in freezing wintertime, or a job as my industry is no longer in such a demand because of the changes. But these issues can be addressed and handled if the overall direction is clear and most are on board. To make this happen, however, we need to have those critical conversations of how we want to develop our cities – how we want them to be in 25 or 50 years from now. Difficult conversations, time consuming, controversial – but critically important for our future.

  1. Not acting and just keep going as they did in the past 50 years

It was more than 35 years ago that scientists started to warn about climate change. Unfortunately, they were right on the point up until now. And unlike President Trump I tend to keep believing them in what they say and predict after being right for 35 years. So “the same as usual” will not do it for us – and not only young people show that to us very drastically. Companies who act irresponsible will strongly damage their brands and risk losing clients – in particular in times when most industries are attacked by disruptive innovators – and the times of those politicians who just talk about acting will be over soon.

Do you think we are becoming citizens of cities instead of nations?

I strongly believe that citizen will become more citizens of cities rather than citizens of nations, simply because cities are much better to identify themselves with and it’s an organizational size that people can usually understand much better than national governments.

You see that change not only in the perception of the people but also in the perception of the politicians. From larger and smaller cities all around the world, you can see mayors standing up and saying we “just gonna change that regardless what the national governments are saying” and suddenly national governments are out of the game. I strongly believe that citizens will feel much more attached to their cities as they will to national governments in the future.

Which do you think is the role of companies in promoting urban sustainability?

I think it is not about PROMOTING sustainability as much as it is about LIVING sustainability. That’s what companies should focus on – as much as cities, municipalities, politicians, transport companies, citizens – actually everybody. LIVING sustainability is a different thing: it’s not a new position as “chief sustainability officer” – even though that’s a good thing – and it’s definitely not about PR. It’s the DNA of a company, the way all parts of that company act and think. If sustainability is not part of the DNA (or core business), it will never work.

The World Economic Forum, for example, talks about climate change as the most imminent threat to humanity and the planet. Well, that’s a surprise. But its delegates travel with hundreds of private jets. That’s hypocritical … as much as it is case with the world’s largest oil companies talking about sustainability, or the “environmentally friendly mayor” who drives a diesel-powered car.

Getting sustainability into the DNA of a company is hard work, it takes time and it requires strong and committed leadership. I think that committed and responsible leaders who act is what we need most these days!

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