Q&A  | 

The future of digitalization of urban nodes, with Dr. Alfonso Vegara

Dr. Alfonso Vegara, Founder and Honorary President of Fundación Metrópoli

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PhD in City and Regional Planning; degrees in Architecture, Economics, and Sociology. He is Fellow and Trustee of the Eisenhower Fellowships; he’s also been appointed as Honorary Consul General of Singapore in Madrid since 2005.

Alfonso Vegara has been lecturing Urbanism at the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid, Universidad de Navarra, and Universidad CEU San Pablo. He was also a visiting professor at the School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania, and Advisor of ETH Zurich Polytechnic.

He’s been an advisor for more than 15 years to the Government of Singapore, as well as of various cities around the world, including Yokohama, Mexico DF, Bilbao, Buenos Aires, Kuala Lumpur, Sao Paulo, Casablanca, Moscow and Medellin.

In the current post-pandemic context in which many more people are working from home and in which nature is increasingly prized, what role do cities have? Have city growth forecasts been in any way affected?

The pandemic has had a serious impact, and all aspects of society need to recover, including cities. We need to come out stronger. In cities, as in other areas, the pandemic has accelerated trends, especially those related to digitalisation. Digital tools have improved but what has really changed is the attitude of people and different sectors towards the use of technology. Technology can improve efficiency, and this has been highlighted in cities.

All aspects of cities have changed. Houses have had to be adapted for mixed use (living and working); offices have become expressions of corporate culture and innovation centres; shopping centres have integrated experiences where face-to-face and virtual leisure and shopping experiences meet; education has broadened its horizon beyond the city; and there has been a new balance struck between public and private transport.

Overall cities continue to attract talent, and talent is people. The trend towards urban areas continues.

How do you see the future? Is the number of supercities going to grow or is the gap between small and large cities going to be reduced? What role does digitalisation play in this evolution?

There are proposals such as Paris’ 15-minute city, but the truth is that these ideas collide with the great objective of cities, talent. What cities are really competing for right now is their ability to train, attract and retain talent. This is the great battle and to do it what’s needed is large, attractive, cosmopolitan nodes with diversity, a powerful financial system, innovative options for housing, and leisure centres.

The future lies in the integration of these attractions in polycentric structures that go beyond the administrative division of municipalities. We call these entities supercities or territorial diamonds.

What are territorial diamonds?

As networks improve (including trains, airports, ports, digital connectivity, even institutional connectivity) a territory gains in prominence. It is already possible to work in a big city and, at the same time, live in a medium-sized city or in a rural location. This movement has never been produced with greater intensity. In the industrial revolution formulas such as the garden city or the new town were built to make cities outside of cities. The point with the territorial diamonds is that all activities are integrated. Digitalisation allows for a hybrid model that makes it easier for medium-sized cities that are part of a diamond to attract talent, even if offices continue to be installed in city centres. Madrid, for example, will experience a rise in demand for offices inside the M30 from technology companies, but, at the same time, the demand for residences outside the M30 will also increase.

Sustainability is another great challenge for the city of the future. How can digitalisation contribute?

Digitalisation contributes actively to making cities more efficient. To a large extent, the sustainability of a city depends on the management of energy and water. Energy consumption occurs in three areas: transport, housing, and industry. Residential and work travel use is reduced by collective transport, electromobility, equilibrium, and integration. Technology and artificial intelligence play a relevant role in these formulas that improve the sustainability of cities. The important thing is to align artificial intelligence with human intelligence. There has to be leadership, vision of the city project, good design, and an ethical commitment to transformation. When artificial intelligence and human intelligence work in unison, when a city has a future project that harnesses technology, we have successful, prosperous cities.

Can you highlight a particularly relevant case study?

At Fundación Metrópoli, we carry out a project, Cities, which analyses 20 medium-sized cities in the world and 2 million people. We wanted to know what successful cities have in common. The bottom line is that successful cities use superintelligence: human intelligence and artificial intelligence. Supercities are not supercities because they are large, they are supercities because they have projects with different integrated sensitivities, with participatory processes, a good design, and a commitment to ethics. They also integrate the great power of digitalisation.

Amazing results can be achieved such as the case of Bilbao, an indisputable model of transformation thanks to the cleaning of the estuary, as well as, the conceptualisation of the city beyond the municipality itself, the integration of the territory as a polycentric space, connected physically, digitally and administratively.

Another great example is Singapore where being a city-state greatly simplifies management. Singapore is a city with some of the lowest levels of corruption in the world. Strong investment have been made in training there as well. Apart from the innovative vertical conceptualization, the most relevant lesson from Singapore is the integration from the start of the physical and digital design of the city. This isn’t a generic platform, it’s a fully integrated design. Smart Nation Singapore is a project led by 4 ministers, which speaks volumes about its value to the Government. The involvement of these ministers leads to truly relevant associated projects such as the one promoted by the foreign minister, the Asian Smart Cities Network, which involves 26 cities from 10 countries, 600 million inhabitants working together to design the city ​​of the future.

I should also mention Medellín, one of the most dangerous cities in the world a few years ago. A place which is now an example of social urbanism. The case of Medellín is another clear example how superintelligence can be a lever for change.

Will cities make the future?

Absolutely. The future will be cities, as places understood as living beyond the municipalities. The future will also be the networks between cities. Digitalisation is an important part of the creation and co-operation of these networks. Currently London has a much closer commercial, corporate, and intellectual relationship with New York than its geographic neighbours. Cities overcome the administrative and political rivalries of countries to generate flow and connections. The world of the future will be a network of cities, places to live and work with a great flow and many options. The large sector of urban solutions is now key to developing model cities based on superintelligence. In this regard, Barcelona as well can be a key model.