June 26, 2017
The Urban Petri Dish
By Ellen van Bueren
Chair of Urban Development Management, Delft University of Technology

Around the world, urban renewal is being approached as a grand experiment for addressing community concerns and enlisting citizens for their input. But do the results always best serve citizen interests?

Living labs, test beds, proving grounds, hatcheries: they have become an important development in modern cities around the world. For the past decade or so, the city has become a site for experimentation. Why have urban experiments become so popular? Perhaps more importantly, do they live up to their expectations?

Urban experiments are a response to the growing complexity and interconnectedness of urban living. They aim to provide localized solutions to some of the communities’ most pressing problems, addressing the concerns of citizens instead of policy makers. Often, the solutions can be exported to other locales around the globe – sometimes on a much larger scale. In this way, urban experiments are key to more innovative and sustainable cities.

But just how can urban experiments live up to expectation? One challenge is that the focus on local problem solving tends to come at the cost of more general lesson-drawing. A second challenge concerns the users or citizens: Their interests often play a marginal role in the experiments, even though these are supposed to be central to many forms of urban experimentation.

In Amsterdam, for example, the redevelopment of the industrial port area of Buiksloterham has been the setting for a number of urban experiments. For decades, people were reluctant to reuse some of the land because the soil was strongly polluted. In 2012, the city nevertheless put out a call for tenders for the temporary use of a highly polluted plot of land that had been the De Ceuvel shipyard. Here, an innovative working community was born.

The start-ups that won the tender immediately put old house-boats on shore. Young creatives, who would otherwise have been forced to move out of the city now had access to temporary and affordable office space. Meanwhile, a long-term experiment started with a novel, nature-based soil remediation process. One experiment led to another, both of a technical nature and of a more social one. In 2017, within five years after the winning of the tender, the whole Buiksloterham district has become a living lab, with “off-the-grid” self-built houses, a biodigester for local waste water collection, a timber flat building with adaptable floorplans, and further space allocated for even more new and novel experimentation.

Key to the success of this Amsterdam living lab is the highly active role of a small group of entrepreneurial citizens. They made sure that citizens’ concerns were addressed in the developments, contributing to ownership and acceptance by the local community.

Larger-scale urban experiments are also taking place across the global south, in cities where inequalities are high and where technological innovation will be key in providing greater access to resources and services. In Asia, Latin America and Africa, many urban experiments focus on the use of information and communication technologies. These experiments are highly technology-driven, with global companies playing a leading role. Even though citizen participation is strongly emphasized in these experiments, citizens are usually approached for their role as users and as data-providers.

The South Korean master-planned city of Songdo for example, aims to accommodate its growth in a sustainable and smart way. On one of the busiest shopping streets, U.S.tech giant Cisco Systems established a small building called the Internet of Things Cube. From this Cube, with a transparent glass façade, innovations for “smart streets” could be tried and tested. Real-time data and user-generated feedback from passers-by was collected and displayed for analysis. Despite the citizen focus, it is unsure how the interests of citizens are served by such technology-driven innovation.

In India, technology companies experiment with providing free Wi-Fi to unconnected districts, just as in the favelas in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro. In Bogota, big data analytics and local network-building have become crucial to understanding both citizens’ needs and how to form the effective public-private knowledge partnerships needed to make a real and tangible difference in the lives of city inhabitants. However, true citizen participation and involvement remain challenging in such technology-driven projects. The Ciscos of the world are – understandably – more interested in the large-scale testing of technologies than serving particular citizens’ interests. In the long run, however, this may lead to resource efficient, smart and healthy cities, in which citizens’ needs are better served. Whether this also contributes to other values, such as identity, privacy, happiness and inclusiveness remains to be seen.

Despite the challenges, the experimental turn in urban development has succeeded in spurring engagement of public and private stakeholders and citizens. To significantly improve the impact of experiments, more monitoring and evaluation is needed. The cities of the future will only be as innovative and sustainable as the experiments we put them through today. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to poke, prod and experiment until we find the most effective solutions to our urban problems.

Ellen van BuerenProfessor Ellen van Bueren holds the chair of Urban Development Management at the Faculty of Architecture and Built Environment, Delft University of Technology. She is also Principal Investigator at AMS, the Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions in Amsterdam. The governance and management of sustainable built environments is at the core of her research and teaching interests. She is the lead editor of the book Sustainable Urban Environments: An Ecosystem Approach.