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June 23, 2009
by Bill Millard

Event: Meeting of the Minds 2009
Location: One Chase Manhattan Plaza, 06.02-03.09
Speakers: Jozias van Aarsten: — Mayor, The Hague, Netherlands; Jeb Brugmann — Founder, ICLEI & Faculty, University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership; Robert Buckley — Managing Director, Rockefeller Foundation; Paul Camuti — President/CEO, Siemens Corporate Research; Tom Cochran — Executive Director, U.S. Conference of Mayors; Ron Dembo — Founder/Chairman, ZeroFootprint (Toronto); Hella Dunger-Löper — Permanent Sect. for Building and Housing, Berlin Senate Dept. for Urban Development; Gordon Feller — CEO, Urban Age Institute; Earl E. Gales, Jr. — Chairman/CEO, Jenkins, Gales & Martinez; Prof. Mario Gandelsonas, FAIA — Director, Center for Architecture, Urbanism + Infrastructure, Princeton; Jack Hidary — Chairman, SmartTransportation.org & Co-founder, Vista Research & EarthWeb/Dice & Freedom Prize Foundation & Chairman, Hidary Foundation; A. Eugene Kohn, FAIA — Founding Partner + Chairman, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates; Len J. Lauer — EVP and COO, Qualcomm; Rick Lazio — Managing Director, JP Morgan Asset Management, Global Real Assets; Robert Lieber — Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, NYC; Irv Miller — Group VP for Environment + Public Affairs, Toyota Motor Sales, USA; Paul Pelosi — President, City of San Francisco Commission on the Environment; Neal Peirce — Citistates & Columnist, Washington Post Group; Bill Reinert — National Manager, Advanced Technology Group — Toyota Motor Sales, USA; Janette Sadik-Khan — Commissioner, NYC Department of Transportation; Saskia Sassen — Robert S. Lynd Prof. of Sociology, Dept. of Sociology and Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University; Aurora Tambunan — Deputy Governor, Jakarta, Indonesia; Victor Vergara — Urban and Local Government World Bank Institute; Alexandros Washburn, AIA — Chief Urban Designer, NYC Dept. of Planning; Tom Wright — Executive Director, Regional Plan Association; Robert Yaro — President, Regional Plan Association; Nicholas You — Sen. Advisor, UN-HABITAT; Susan Zielinski — Director, Sustainable Mobility and Accessibility Research and Transformation (SMART), University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Bernard Zyscovich, AIA — Founder, Zyscovich Architects, Miami
Organizers: Urban Age Institute, San Francisco
Sponsors: Toyota (presenting sponsor); JPMorganChase & Co. (host); Siemens; Zipcar; Regional Plan Association; World Bank; United Nations; Cities Development Initiative of Asia; Urban Land Institute; Metropolis

The tone at futurist conferences has changed, in part because of last year’s elections and financial crash, but perhaps also because of a shift in interpretive frameworks on the part of people in a position to translate them into action. It’s less about cries of alarm nowadays, more about intersector partnerships and pragmatic incentives for progress. The background level of disturbing scientific, demographic, and economic information remains constant; even the most optimistic promoters of technological approaches to city design and resource use regularly face questions about whether any imaginable response can affect climate change and entrenched poverty. But Meeting of the Minds 2009 indicated a broad agreement that cities — particularly medium-size cities of 500,000 to 1 million residents, projected to host even more of the world’s growth than megacities — are both the site of the most critical problems and the key to workable solutions.

As organizer Gordon Feller suggested at one point, a collision between “citizen engagement” and “legacy institutions” is imminent. Among the different kinds of organizations trying to adapt to these conditions, the ones represented here agreed that none can accomplish much alone. As inventors, entrepreneurs, and corporate officials look to disruptive technologies for quick fixes, they also acknowledge planners’ and civic officials’ point that new gadgets alone won’t improve cities’ performance without corresponding social engineering. Conversely, public-sector representatives and academics recognize that green-tech solutions need economic viability: products that jaded consumers will accept, infrastructure that strapped cities can afford. Keynoter Tom Cochran, one of several panelists who agree with Saskia Sassen that “national governments can talk, talk, talk, but municipal governments have to act,” highlighted innovations at the city and regional levels while pinpointing the states (unfortunately positioned “between reality and money”) as the dinosaurs that nimbler agents need to maneuver around.

Existing and imaginable technologies are replacing speculation with concrete planning, stressing information over mobility and “multiscalar systems of enormous complexity,” as Sassen described cities, over familiar spatial forms. If Mario Gandelsonas, FAIA, is right that today’s teenagers fetishize cell phones more than cars, preferring being driven over driving, then this “culture of immediacy” is changing more than a decades-old symbol of adolescent freedom: it represents the sort of behavioral shift that reconfigures cities, provided public and private actors can jointly figure out what this new public space might look like. Large adopters of technologies (such as mobile networks or governments) tend to wait for a leader to move, as Qualcomm’s Len Lauer observed, but “once a large operator agrees to adopt a technology, suddenly the other operators become paranoid” and rush in to avoid being left behind. This pattern means that a future cityscape formed by the combination of a smart power grid and widespread wireless systems will probably emerge in fits and starts.

Gathering the day after General Motors filed for bankruptcy, this audience expressed an acute awareness that old paradigms are collapsing, particularly in the realms of transport and urban greening (where PlaNYC, represented here by Alexandros Washburn, AIA, and Janette Sadik-Kahn, is becoming an exemplary recurrent case study). Toyota spokesman Irv Miller was willing to broaden his firm’s future definition as a “mobility company,” not just a car company, not only able to make its Prius hybrid a charismatic brand but to coexist with alternative systems such as auto-sharing. Zipcar’s Scott Griffith articulated a model whereby people view transportation as a variable cost, not a fixed or sunk cost, and thus behave smarter and greener. Earl Gales’s Personal Rapid Transit, a maglev-based railcar system moving each car on less power than the average incandescent bulb uses, would add a bit of Jetsons-style aerial infrastructure to any neighborhood, but it’s not just fanciful; Gales, recalling the much-lamented Los Angeles Red Cars of his boyhood, has collaborated with former NASA engineers at Ames Research Laboratory to create a feasible prototype.

Other improvements require little or no new technology at all: Ron Dembo proposes massive-scale urban re-cladding to improve buildings’ 40% contribution to national greenhouse-gas emissions, and Susan Zielinski’s “open-source transportation” network rearranges multiple services into “mobility hubs” that ease mode shifts and vehicle shares.

Surfing these unpredictable waters calls for both realism and imagination. But does anyone in America’s hardest-hit city have the vision to rebuild GM as General Mobility?

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