Humanity has crossed a major threshold: more than half of us now live in cities. Just 150 years ago, the percentage of city dwellers was only 10%.
With a growth pattern like this, it is clear the future sustainability of our planet depends on smarter governed cities.
Climate change and urbanization are both very real, and our children's future will be determined by the pace at which cities can make themselves more sustainable, more prosperous, more just and more liveable places.
Take heart — cities all over the world are rising to the challenge.
There is a new and better way of governing emerging from our cities and local governments:
- Performance management.
- Customer service call centres combined with geographic information systems (GIS).
- Collaborative circles of caring people making decisions based on evidence and data rather than on a hunch or intuition.
Getting things done, bringing people together, using modern technologies like GIS to improve the delivery of essential city services and to enable better analytics — this is the new way of governing.
And the great promise is not so much that the data allows us to manage the masses, but rather it allows us — if we care — to recognise the needs and dignity of every individual person.
Isn't that what democracy is all about?
If a lack of trust is the greatest challenge democracies face today, perhaps city leadership provides the way forward in these politically challenging times.
For the last year, I have been leading a smart cities initiative in the United States called MetroLab Network. MetroLab is a collaborative network of 40 leading cities and their university partners.
This network is, in essence, a community of practice; a network of cities committed to the idea of better partnerships for the research, development and deployment of smart city solutions to big city challenges.
We are focused generally on two categories of work:
- First, how can sensors and urban instrumentation better the way we manage the built and natural environment of cities and how can we use these technologies to address sustainability, resilience, energy, traffic and stormwater issues?
- Second, how can we use big data and open data for social good — for the more timely and accurate delivery of critical human services, whether it's healing families, or saving vulnerable children. How can we collectively create, in open and transparent ways, better diagnostics, screeners and alert systems in human service delivery that save lives?
Powerful examples are emerging and improving their practice every day. With openness and transparency, cities all around the world can learn from one another and accelerate the learning curve.
When I was elected Mayor back in 1999, my city, Baltimore, had become the most violent, addicted and abandoned city in America. At one of our first community meetings in a hard-hit neighbourhood of East Baltimore, citizens assembled with me, their new Mayor, to talk about crime and public safety and about justice and racial injustice.
There was tension in the air — a fear about what might be.
A little girl came up to the microphone.
“Mr Mayor,” she said, “my name is Amber, and I am 12 years old. And because of all the addicted people and drug dealers in my neighbourhood, there are people in the newspaper who call my neighbourhood, ‘Zombie Land.’ And I want to know if you know they call my neighbourhood Zombie Land. And I want to know if you’re doing anything about it?”
Her two questions are the two essential questions:
- Do you know?
- Are you doing something about it?
Together, we put our city on a path to achieve the greatest reduction in crime of any major city in America. We used modern information technology like GIS — smart maps — to bring separate departments together to reduce crime and improve every other city service.
We measured performance relentlessly. Brought people together in collaborative circles focused on the reality that emerged every week on the latest data displayed on the map.
This is the new way of governing which mayors across the globe are bringing forward.
You see, there is an inseparable relationship — a symmetry — between how well we govern ourselves and how much trust we one another.
Mayors understand: progress is a collaborative enterprise.
And good mayors are fearless when it comes to sharing information and data openly with all because in today’s Information Age, where citizens know more than their leaders, it is the only way to get difficult things done.