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Cities: drivers of change

  • Rome
  • 17 November 2023

        Not only is the urbanization boom showing no sign of slowing down, but by 2050, 66% of the world population is expected to be living in urban areas. In an era of ecological, social and economic transition, cities will be more sustainable and resilient – that is, human- and environment-friendly.  

        To date, responsibility for urban planning in Italy falls within the purview of the Ministry of the Interior; yet institutional level governance in the form, say, of an urban planning department, is still lacking. Yet, the responsibility is not only of institutions; there is a need for the emergence of a public, private and civil society level leadership capable of making firm, holistic, system-wide – sometimes even unpopular – decisions.

        Existing examples of successful public/private collaboration, such as the Milan Innovation District (MIND), must be taken as models and replicated. It is equally necessary to align public decision-making with that of the private sector and the market.

        Successful governance can galvanize the community around a unified and shared vision, and participation, attention and dialogue are the instruments of inclusive transition. Key is the involvement of young people with passion and curiosity who must – and increasingly want to – take the reins of this transformation; policies must therefore target this segment of the population, improving accessibility to housing and jobs.

        Urban renewal, moreover, is a political issue that concerns the entire population. In this era of “permacrisis” – the permanent succession of crises that has marked the last 15 years – it has become abundantly clear that cities need to be more flexible and adaptable. In sweeping renewal projects, social integration must be fostered through public spaces and services that create community. 

        Major public works and infrastructure have, over time, been the maximum form of population democratization. It is urgent to once again nurture the urban fabric through regeneration, but also through reconciliation and strategies. In this context, cities must become laboratories where transformation takes place through changes in mindset and culture, and technology becomes a means for generating innovation, increasing efficiency and reducing environmental impact. 

        It is also important that these innovations be scalable and reproducible in a variety of locales, with a view to nation-wide change. At the same time, it was underscored that the factors that drive change in rural areas and small towns with fewer services and infrastructure are a strong social fabric and a predisposition for adaptation: forces that should also move cities. 

        Given this framework of change, it is also important to point out that depopulation is one of the effects of the current demographic crisis in Italy, where the population drops by approximately 180,000 persons a year due to a flagging birthrate that is unable to offset deaths. 

        Yet, there are still questions about the potential for technology to strip cities of their identity. Notwithstanding our appreciation for digital technologies’ capacity to push major works and simplify maintenance, caution is essential to ensure they are not invasive and that the privacy of personal data is protected. Digital tech has been recognized as the fundamental catalyst in improving the quality of urban living and security, but Italy has legislative limitations that foreground the need for policies more attentive to data and to increased support for innovation.  

        In any case, technology remains a powerful tool for urban progress, in addition to being necessary for the survival of the country’s rural areas. The open innovation incentivized by major corporations was deemed a positive factor, with concrete examples of success such as the Rome Advanced District (ROAD) project.

        Despite the current incentives however, the principal challenge that emerges is not exclusively economic in nature, but cultural as well. Indeed, resistance to digitalization and change calls for redesigning processes, habits and approaches. In this context, Artificial Intelligence is a key resource for optimizing environmental facilities.

        Finally, it is clear that sustainability and digital technology need to be joined in a single systemic vision, and that the key word for the future is awareness, which points to a holistic salvaging of the territory. Moreover, the pandemic showed how companies that strive for sustainability and digitalization are the most resilient and growth-oriented, and these are elements that open new prospects for the future of cities.

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