Naureen Kabir

The New Cities Summit: Putting the ‘human’ back into our discussions on the 21st century city

A year has flown by since our inaugural global summit on the future of cities, the New Cities Summit, which we held in May 2012 in Paris. Since then, the connections we’d hoped to foster by inviting such a wide set of prominent actors from all aspects of urban life flourished in ways we could not have predicted – in unexpected combinations and places.

Since that sunny May in Paris, we’ve been in touch with many participants about their fruitful exchanges at our event. For example, one of our members, Citi, recently mentioned to us that they got in touch with representatives of Waze, an innovative route navigation app, who came to our Summit last year and played a key role in our “Connected Commuting” Task Force. Citi is now engaged in an exciting project in Porto Allegre, Brazil, based on the findings from our Connected Commuting Report. This is exactly the kind of partnership we aim to foster at our events and through our wider work, and it’s just one example of many.

This year, we’re hosting our summit in São Paulo, Brazil. We aim to strengthen the international community of urban leaders and innovators that we began building last year. We will be making new connections, harnessing international expertise and showcasing innovative urban solutions that work. We will also continue discussions on the biggest challenges that cities face, particularly in densely populated and fast-urbanizing regions of the world.

We chose São Paulo as this year’s host city since it epitomizes many of our most pressing urban opportunities and challenges. As one of our trustees, the architect Daniel Libeskind, puts it, “São Paulo has incredible energy and vitality and also a vision for the 21st century”. At this year’s event, our discussions on the 21st century city will be filtered through the lens of “The Human City” – placing the human being at the center of discussions. By 2030, more than 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. We decided it’s time to discuss how this will affect the human experience of living in cities. In an increasingly technical age, the age of “smart cities” and “mega cities”, how can we make cities more human places to live, work and play? These are urgent questions we’ll address at this year’s Summit, which gather some 800 urban leaders and thinkers from June 4-6.

We learned from our first New Cities Summit that cities around the world need this kind of platform more than ever. One of this year’s speakers, Li Hu, founding principal of OPEN Architecture in China, captures this urgency: “What we do today will hugely affect the lives of generations to come. If we don’t choose to actively engage in this process, and act fast enough to prevent it from simply becoming a result of economics and short-sighted greed, the consequences could be disastrous.”

At our summit this year, we aim to engage with each other, challenge each other and be prepared in advance to act fast to address urban challenges – and also act intelligently. Our program is structured around four key angles:

Build – looking at the city’s physical form

Participate, revealing how cities can foster new modes of engagement

Play, highlighting the role of culture, sports and entertainment in making cities vibrant and unique

Include, addressing how cities can promote justice, equality and inclusiveness

Each of these will be addressed with an opening plenary, while breakout sessions and keynote speeches will plunge deeper into specific issues, projects, and ideas. For example, a breakout session dedicated to the future of work, moderated by Greg Lyndsay of NYU and contributing writer at Fast Company. In all these sessions, we aim to engage debate but most of all come up with concrete solutions to creating more human cities.

This year we’re also putting a spotlight on a group of up-and-coming urban innovators in a strand of 10-minute talks called What Works. These talks will showcase some truly original, practical urban solutions, which, built from scratch, have had a proven impact on cities. We were inspired to create this series following two great talks at last year’s summit by two Ashoka fellows: Enrique Lomnitz, who created Isla Urbana, a new rainwater harvesting system in Mexico; and Luciana Lima, representative of Ciudades Saludables, which provides employment to indigenous communities to recycle and clear waste. In the same spirit, our What Works speakers will share insight into some fantastic and very different urban solutions, including a smart parking initiative in San Francisco, an Indian auto-rickshaw collective and a Rio de Janeiro-based online platform for civic participation and increased democratic engagement.

Our program will also offer a local, Brazilian perspective to key urban issues. We are particularly excited that São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad will deliver the opening keynote address. We’ll host a panel on “large scale change” in São Paulo, looking at the massive developments happening in the largest city in the Southern hemisphere. With the upcoming World Cup and Olympics in mind, we will also host a panel on mega events and what they mean to cities.

Our program will of course stretch further afield too, sharing creative ideas and solutions from all over the world, from Beijing to Singapore, New York to London, Kuala Lumpur to Bangalore. Our speaker panel includes the mayors of Dallas and Santiago de Chile, the eminent sociology Professor Saskia Sassen of and the US Ambassador to Brazil, to name a few.

As our speaker program demonstrates, the New Cities Foundation champions all modes of urban innovation, from grass-roots initiatives to major projects run by governments, major corporations and leading universities. Most of all, we believe that when these players come together and exchange ideas, that’s when the changes can be made. This is why we organize the New Cities Summit – come join us and help us shape more human cities for tomorrow.

Naureen Kabir leads the New Cities Foundation’s Urban (co)LAB, the Foundation’s applied research wing.

Note: The New Cities Summit is an invitation-only event. It brings together a global community of urban innovators in business, government, academia, civil society and the media. Places are limited but if you’d like to be considered for an invitation, please send us an email at Please include your full name, title and why you’d like to take part.

To track the summit’s discussions, follow @newcitiesfound and the hashtag #ncs2013 on Twitter.