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a rebirth

No longer than three years ago, on September 2013, NYU started a research lab called the Center for Urban Science and Progress. Michael Bloomberg- the city’s mayor at the time- is one of the strongest authorities when it comes to urban living and has devoted a lot of energies in theorizing and shaping a framework around the restored and increasing centrality of big cities in the contemporary scenario. When the former mayor asked for that research department, the call for city universities and colleges was clear: NYC needed a campus where candidates could study Applied Urban Science and Informatics. The plainspoken aim was to study and cross-reference the huge amount of data currently shaping the texture of our cities in order to facilitate those processes that help them keep up with the innovation agenda.

This is one of the reasons why Gregory Dobler- a world-renowned physicist specialized in quasar and black holes studies- works at the Center for Urban Science and Progress. What is the deal between physics and urban science? Dobler and his team have switched their focus and have been monitoring the relentless expanding and evolution of New York from a rooftop in Brooklyn ever since. “Instead of taking pictures of the sky to see what is going on in the heavens, we are taking pictures of the city from a distance to see if we can figure out how the city is functioning” Dobler told the Wall Street Journal. New York as a case study then, but also as a paradigm of how new technologies are building and accelerating urbanization and transformation processes within large cities. After all, the assessment and acknowledgment of these dynamics help us understand who we are becoming and how we will behave in the near future. There are few doubts, or at least there are few of them left, that cities will have the largest impact on the future of humankind. 

Several studies testify that the urban population is constantly increasing- not so long ago the percentage of people living in urban centres has reached the 50% of the total population. According to these studies, the percentage will exceed the 70% by 2050. Today the world is composed of 501 metropolitan areas with more than one million inhabitants each; the number of these centres is expected to become 660 by 2030. This is an exponential and unprecedented growth, forecasting a million of extra New Yorkers in roughly twenty years and two billions Chinese citizens in the large cities of that country. Up until a while ago, the interactions enabled by technological innovation led scholars into believing that the process of urbanization would slow down so that cities would become obsolete. In other words, the need to be physically next to each other within designed territorial unities would become historically meaningless. A brief assessment of the present- and therefore of the upcoming future- affirms the exact opposite: cities (specifically large cities) are the major propeller of global change thanks to their capability to put different creative minds in touch and provide a context for brainstorming. The restored centrality of large urban centres is strictly related to the progress these cities have made so far in terms of environmental policies, mobility and the quality of life standards. Once upon a time, in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, large metropolis attracted the rural population merely for financial struggles and survival issues: these people needed jobs, and jobs were to be found in the city at any cost. This implied the deterioration of the quality of urban life: the grimy and dangerous state of New York in the Seventies or the unhealthy conditions of London in the Fifties have a longstanding tradition in the chronicles and literature of the past century. 

That scenario couldn’t be more removed from the present one, where cities are not only the place to be, but also the place where people choose to be; they may say they want to live in Berlin more than they wish to live in Germany, and they can confess their love for San Francisco while admitting they wouldn’t live in the rest of the States. Cities are the major hubs of technological innovation but, according to many insiders, they are also the best reaction and answer to the endemic weakness of the Nation States’ capability to rule. We may recall the provocative theory of scholar Benjamin Barber’s in the essay “What if Mayor Ruled the World”, in which the unconventional American scholar predicts that mayors will rescue the world from the widespread political stalemate. Ultimately- at least when it comes to certain topics- the global discussion between big cities and their governors is catalysing growth and shaping new paradigms. No wonderingly, an organization like the C40- a global network of more than eighty megacities sharing data, best practices and common objectives in terms of environmental safeguard, toxic emissions, climate change and sustainable lifestyles- is achieving outstanding results.

Of course there are some risks and contradictions in these blooming cities, and most of them depend on what we want to make out of technological innovation. There is a lot of buzz around the concept of smart cities- currently existing and forthcoming areas built from scratch (examples can be found in South Korea and Africa) where the quintessential internet and the total robotization of urban dynamics is expected to predict and neutralize every imperfection of the cities as we have come to know them so far. This is not and won’t be the case, as it would mean the predictable and vertical application of technology to a larger social context. And this is the exact opposite of what research departments like the Center for Urban Science and Progress are willing to do: to blend technological progress and solutions enabled by creative human interaction. As the English researcher and consultant Leo Johnson would mildly put it, we need “less smart cities and more smart citizens”. This is what the exciting challenge of big cities is all about.

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