On Wednesday I had the opportunity, along with editors from Cities the Magazine, Global Urbanist and Urban Times, to talk with Harry Veerhar – Head of Global Public & Government Affairs at Philips. Although the talk was brief, it was extremely insightful as Harry had just returned from this year’s World Urban Forum at Naples and happened to come with some fresh developments on what cities around the world are doing.
Further to that, the talk focused on how to measure cities, beyond the traditional GDP figure. This encouraged some discussion amongst the participants, with indicators that are not entirely hard economic figures having gained momentum in recent years and been widely debated by academics, professionals and authorities alike.
The approach, in essence, is simple: focus on a type of service or sector which plays an important role for a city’s development and use it to measure how it is doing compared to other cities. In this case, Harry talked about lighting and how it directly impacts quality of life for a city’s residents. As such, examples of how city development has evolved in the last 100 years was intrinsically related to issues of public lighting and domestic access to electric light; we discussed how Amsterdam, London and other European cities have greatly improved as a result of the enhancement of access to electricity and lighting.
Harry Verhaar on the Google Hangout
However, many challenges arise from using these kinds of indicators. First, each city is unique, and although it may have many similarities with its regional counterparts, it is difficult to compare London with Brasilia or Shanghai to Vancouver. This should come as obvious, and should not stop professionals from indulging in lateral learning from other cities. But when the indicator is so specific, the methodology for research and executing policies will vary from city to city; it is easier to assess access to domestic and public lighting in widely wired cities such as Amsterdam and San Francisco than in places where the informal sector might have a larger presence such as in Mumbai or Rio de Janeiro.
Second, there is the issue of private versus public and who benefits from using such indicators. Although it is true that metropolitan areas are increasingly working in public private partnerships (PPPs) and that this trend will likely continue in the coming years, the question becomes about the essence of the right to the city and if the trickle-down effect is inclusive enough to reach all scales in society. If a private enterprise is evaluating the conditions, is it for pure profit or is there a sustainability element implied in the action?
That said, it is an interesting approach, especially if citizens are central to the equation. If a city’s residents are an integral part of the evaluation processes, new urban indicators might prove friendlier than the sometimes mind boggling figure that is the Gross Domestic Product. The urban innovation driving these initiatives is proving exciting to be part of, and is in some ways revolutionising the way we look, approach and intervene in cities around the world.
Alejandro Echeverria is Editor of This Big City en español