When building cities long-term considerations for their livability are rarely a major concern. But that is maybe about to change as Toshiko Mori works to introduce an innovation and quality driven approach to city planning.

“It is about innovation in cities.” Toshiko Mori, Robert P. Hubbard Professor in the Practice of Architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, explains when asked about the conference she is organizing in Tokyo, October 17th. “Physical cities are going up all over the place, but people have to live in them. They need a community if they are to stay in the cities that we are building. Life has to take place.” We are building more and bigger cities all over the world, but in our building frenzy we tend to forget that cities have to be livable. We tend to focus solely on the quantitative measures, but Toshiko Mori believes that we should be paying more attention to the quality of cities.

To further this perspective she has organized the conference on Innovation of Cities; designs for cities and lifestyle, on behalf of the Global Agenda Council on Design & Innovation. “We have these amazing people coming from different sectors beyond architecture and design, who are interested in design and want to participate in the dialogue on the quality of cities: How we live in it; how we use it; how it changes; how to keep it dynamic. It is a very ambitious agenda.” Toshiko Mori says, acknowledging that it is not an easy task that she has given herself and the participants at the event. Still she hopes that they will be able to lay the ground for a new way of evaluating cities, “It would be great if we could identify some value criteria from the inhabitants’ perspective that could serve as metrics for identifying what an innovative city is – today and 20 years from now.”

Breaking down silos

The key to achieving the ambitious goal is breaking down the silos of expertise by bringing people from different fields together. “We bring people together to provide a platform,” Toshiko Mori says, explaining her approach. “All of the major problems that we face today are being approached with isolated silos of expertise. As long as these isolated silos exist and as long as they do not work interdependently, we will not be able to focus and come up with any new big ideas.” At the Global Agenda Council on Design & Innovation they want to address this challenge by using design as a holistic and interactive discipline that can connect different fields of expertise, while maintaining focus on the end users. It is this approach that the upcoming conference will explore.

The basic idea is to use the design process of holistic thinking, iterations, prototyping, and end-user focus to bring together two different fields and have them come up with new and innovative solutions. To exemplify the dynamics, Toshiko Mori, together with her Harvard students, have created a so called dating-game, where different silos meet. “For example Energy and Trade are dating,“ Toshiko Mori explains, “and they discover energy exchange systems that are working in the city. Climate Change and Water Systems are dating and they see how water systems have to be ready for climate change and its effect on rising sea levels, storms, and how climate change affects both water scarcity and abundance.” By bringing these otherwise isolated silos together the problems we face become visible but also more nuanced, which has a very positive effect on the solutions that they come up with. “Two isolated silos can actually come up with amazing proposals, visions, and solutions.” Toshiko Mori says, and links it directly to the upcoming conference, “The conference is twofold: One is getting together and talking about innovation in cities and urban systems. But [we also want to have] people from different backgrounds coming together to challenge and stimulate each other to generate out-of-the-box thinking, and collaboratively come up with new solutions. I am doing this as a social experiment because this is exactly what innovation is about. We are going to be practicing innovation at the conference.”

A new and promising generation in public management

The timing also seems to be right for introducing this interdisciplinary thinking to stimulate change in cities. At least in Japan, there is currently an interesting trend where young business professionals turn to the public sector to become mayors and governors in cities, which would imply that the mindset surrounding how cities are run is changing. “A lot of people from the private business sector have become mayors and governors, and this is a really interesting and hopeful phenomenon.” Toshiko Mori explains, and continues, “They have MBAs from Stanford and Harvard, and all of them are in their thirties. They are very young and they use their entrepreneurial skills to promote global cities.”

Having these young business professionals making the move from the private to the public sector is in itself bringing in a new perspective to the way we think about and operate cities. But when adding an entrepreneurial mindset, the opportunity for real innovative solutions arises. “What is quite interesting about this younger generation coming from the private sector is that they think outside of the box,” Toshiko Mori says, “They come up with proposals that are alternatives to traditional bureaucracy. They think about progress instead of maintaining the status quo. They have an ability to go beyond the comfort zone of normal bureaucracy.” In doing so, they are strengthening the smaller cities that sustain rural communities and thus balancing the urbanization trend. “[It is] making the country more resilient by creating decentralized and overlapping municipal structures, thereby reducing dependency on larger cities.” Toshiko Mori adds.

However, they do not simply do it because they like to – they do it because they have to. There is a real sense of urgency for challenging status quo, “Unless you do it, [the local communities] might not be able to survive. There is a crisis mentality in local communities, but younger people are seeing opportunities and are approaching the problems with an entrepreneurial spirit and a wish to change the existing models. Give them a twist to create something new – and that is innovation.” says Toshiko Mori.

Promoting social cohesion

According to Toshiko Mori, what we should really try to promote is social cohesion. We have a lot of top-down and bottom-up systems in our society but when they fail, we need social cohesion as an interweaving element to keep the society together. “We need social cohesion to keep the society safe, to stay prepared, and to keep an eye out for each other. It also creates a sense of belonging to a community in a situation where we experience urban cities as being highly temporal.” Toshiko Mori explains, and continues, “It is about making cities transparent, participatory, and about making information accessible.” It all ties to building a soft and human centered system, where perceived experience, interactions, and the practice of sensible ideas are at the core. “Perception and sensory experience will play a large role for cities in the future.” Toshiko Mori concludes.

A key feature in this trend is the notion of sharing. There are a lot of excess resources in cities that we ought to be better at utilizing. It would not only make the cities more sustainable, it would also enhance the social cohesion by strengthening the ties between inhabitants.

It is not easy to achieve this, as there are many different opinions to take into consideration. However, design has proven itself to be able to navigate such environments, which is also one of the strong arguments for applying design methodology to these big and complex issues, “When applying design processes to global problems it represents a neutral position as it is not fighting for one interest over the other. It is a very democratic platform for discourse.” Toshiko Mori says.

Building on the democratic platform that design offers the participants at the conference on Innovation of Cities will try to come up with new and challenging ideas for the cities and lifestyles of tomorrow. Toshiko Mori is optimistic and hopes for an energetic and inspiring conference, “It is just a great opportunity to have these great minds together and have them engage in interesting conversations on how we should live in twenty years.”

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