Episode 6: Cities of Tomorrow

Antoni Vives: We are at the heart of the Old City. This is the Born. B-O-R-N, Born. It used to be the old fruit and vegetable market at the Covent Garden or [foreign language 00:00:15] in Paris. It was abandoned 30 years ago.

Speaker 2: Meet your guide for today, showing you a side of Barcelona, Spain, you probably knew existed.

Antoni Vives: Hello. My name is Antoni Vives. I am the CEO of the City Transformation Agency of Barcelona.

Speaker 2: Barcelona. You’re probably thinking Gaudí, tapas, La Rambla, Picasso, maybe soccer. Did you know that under Antoni’s watch, this deeply historical city has also become one of the most hyper-connected urban centers in the world? For example, the area around the Born market has gone from a derelict heritage zone with lots of social challenges to one of the most technologically advanced neighborhoods in the city.

Antoni Vives: These lampposts aren’t just posts that support lighting. They have sensors for noise. They have sensors for pollution. They have people counters. They have cameras. They have WiFi and the waste bins have their own sensors. Even the electrical car that’s beside the waste bin has its own sensor so everything is connected, even with the bicycle sharing that you have over there. So, the whole city is connected.

Speaker 2: All of those sensors feed back into Sentilo, the city’s open-source platform. It collects, monitors, and shares everything with the public. Walking outside the market, Antoni gestures to the surrounding plaza. It’s lined with cafes with enough seating to accommodate a huge party.

Antoni Vives: Before, this place used to be crowded with all sort of cars, trucks, delivering all of them at the same time because there was no smart logistic system.

Speaker 2: It was noisy, polluted, and bad for business so the city decided to create a feature in their open Barcelona app. Antoni pulls it open on his smart phone.

Antoni Vives: This is [ahrehya 00:02:09] dome here in which you say who you are, what company you are, which are the groups that you’re going to be putting there, and how long for how much time you’re going to be using the public space to park. Of course, it’s going to be crowded. Of course, there’re going to be shouts and people discussing. But nothing is going to be as it used to be before when everybody came at the same time … I don’t think that you would’ve heard the birds 15 years … not for sure.

Speaker 2: Welcome to the Front Row in the Future of Cities. By the year 2050, more than 60% of the world’s population will live in cities. These urban centers already consumed two-thirds of the earth’s major resources. Cities have always been and continue to be incubators for innovation and progress, but also fertile ground for inequality, social unrest, and economic decay. As the globe warms, cities, especially coastal cities will be facing new pressures, rising tides, food shortages, and possibly destruction. Today on the Front Row, we people who are working to make cities greener, healthier, smarter, and even more fun. We’ll be returning to Antoni in Barcelona throughout the episode and meeting urban problem solvers from Los Angeles, Montreal, and New York. This podcast is brought to you by 2U, a company working with top-tier universities to create digital education programs like Design@USC.

Chances are if you spent time in a major city, you’ve encountered this problem. Bangkok, Moscow, Mexico City — they all consistently top list for worst traffic congestion. For Los Angeles, bad traffic seems to be woven into the identity of the city. When you hear this stat, you’ll know why.

Ashley Hand: As of 2016, the average Angeleno spent about 104 hours stuck in traffic.

Speaker 2: That’s Ashley Hand. She’s trying to drastically reduce those 104 hours. That’s more than four days stuck in traffic. Ashley’s an adjunct professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy. She’s also co-founder of CityFi, a consultancy that helps urban leaders and communities figure out how to use technology to meet the many challenges of the future. Los Angeles hired Ashley as their transportation technology strategist.

Ashley Hand: The reality is is with the growing city in the region, which is expected to grow by four million people by 2035, we’re going to run into this problem of physics. We just don’t physically have enough space to accommodate all the new cars that could potentially go on the road if we maintain the model of single occupancy vehicles.

Speaker 2: While L.A. is working on improving public transit and encouraging bike and vehicle sharing programs, experts have found about 30% of traffic congestion is people circling around looking for a spot. Enter, smart parking.

Ashley Hand: Smart parking is a great way to make it a lot easier to know with certainty that there’s available parking and how much it’s going to cost and you can even pay for it through your smart phone. It also introduces this idea of surge pricing so that when things are more expensive, people may be dissuaded from driving alone because it’s peak period or there may be an event going on. Smart parking enables the city the flexibility of changing the rate that it costs to actually park.

Speaker 2: So, maybe you decide to share a ride with friends or take an uberPOOL or public transit. The city’s experimenting with ways to encourage Angelenos to get out of their cars and make the road safer and less congested. Ashley is also concerned that not everyone in L.A. will benefit from smart city improvements. To combat that, they’re piloting an electric vehicle sharing program in a low-income community, where people depend on public transit.

Ashley Hand: They have been looking at how do they stand this up in a way that allows people the option of using a car share instead of using their own vehicle, which can have a huge impact on alleviating the need to even purchase a vehicle or purchase a second vehicle for households. That’s a big deal.

Speaker 2: Especially when funds are tight, the pilot team is figuring out how to connect with this community and actually get people using the car shares and giving feedback. That’s smart technology applied intelligently. You’re listening to the Front Row, a podcast brought you to by 2U. Imagining a world with no back row. We’ve been talking about the future of cities and the people who are making them smarter like Antoni Vives in Barcelona.

Antoni Vives: We are in one of these cozy piazzas of Barcelona. We have five-story building with a very nice terrace for having coffee and there are some tourists and some locals. There are chatting, but it’s Sunday and it’s 8:13 in the morning and people want to rest. They’re in bed.

Speaker 2: For Antoni, people and the character and culture of the city are at the heart of its smart transformation.

Antoni Vives: Smartness is not about technology. Technology’s just an enabler to improve people’s life and the live of our citizens is not just about traffic lights and WiFi. It is about the way we live together. It is about our identity. It is about what we share. The public space is what we share.

Speaker 2: In a public space like a piazza surrounded by apartments, noise can become an issue.

Antoni Vives: How can you control that very easily? You put a sensor in the light pole that you have beside the terrace and this sensor informs at the same time who … the municipality, the bartender, and the neighbors. So, they all get a message in their telephone saying, “The terrace is generating more noise.” They won’t allow. So, everybody’s aware of it. If you are the bartender, you have to identify yourself and you have to say, “Yes, I got the message.” There’s a digital ID that says, “Yes, it’s me. I know it, and I’m going to make them stop yelling.” From that moment onwards, you don’t need to have an inspector or a policemen at each one of the terraces so the community starts to work again as it used to work in the old days but with new technology.

Speaker 2: The city has also revived the idea of the community taking care of the elderly.

Antoni Vives: In Barcelona, people, elders, and 75-years-old, they have a necklace with a button that this is what we call the emergency button or the tele-assistance button when they bothered, when their refrigerator is empty, when they feel alone, because we’re not only made of flesh and bones but also of a soul and we need to interact with other people. They push the button and they have people around them.

Speaker 2: Mouna Andraos and Melissa Mongiat also use technology to build community. They cities almost like people with personalities.

Melissa M.: We like to think that the smart city is not just super intelligence but it’s also witty and like a smart person.

Mouna Andraos: Poetic.

Melissa M.: Poetic.

Mouna Andraos: Plays tricks on you.

Melissa M.: The smart city is someone you want to hang out with.

Speaker 2: Melissa and Mouna are the co-founders of Montreal-based design studio Daily Tous Les Jours.

Mouna Andraos: We focus on creating large-scale interactive experiences, mostly for public spaces. Our aim is to create collective experiences that bring people together.

Speaker 6: Oh my God.

Speaker 2: Like floor tiles and a public square that play music activated by a shadow or giant musical swing sets that have been touring cities around America, you could be meandering through a park or a public square and spot these swings. Whether you’re a toddler or a senior citizen, they’re really hard to resist. Hop on and the swings play music.

Speaker 7: My daughter and I were synchronized with one other woman when we got within a certain maybe a range of synchronization. It seemed to me so that there’s some sort of event that sends the piece into something else. That was a real reward for synchronizing with other people. It’s too bad it has to leave.

Melissa M.: In designing the system, we have these secret melodies that emerge only when people cooperate.

Speaker 2: Cooperation, especially with strangers is a key goal for Daily Tous Les Jours

Melissa M.: That’s often our ultimate goal is to have people who don’t know each other to have a conversation or just have a sense that they are sharing an experience. Through projects like the swings, what’s nice is that you can measure it by understanding if we’re people in a conversation or that they actually do something to change the melody, which is the ultimate level of strangers interacting together.

Mouna Andraos: We do feel that the problem of tomorrows will not be solved by single individuals, but we need to feel like we’re a collective cohesive, ultimately, but at least a collective force. So, in having these everyday encounters where you put a face on your neighbors and you understand a little bit who are these people I’m sharing this city with, that you can have a sense that you’re sharing this space with them. When problem arise, you can have a conversation with them to see how we can solve this.

Speaker 2: For Daily Tous Les Jour, a playful city where you encounter and interact with, possibly cooperate with strangers. That’s a city of the future, even the future of democracy. Another important result of their work, happiness.

Mouna Andraos: It’s often that that we hear back, people are happy, or they’re happy to see people happy. They say, “I never seen so many people smile.” Just that for that for us is important.

Speaker 2: You’re listening to Front Row by 2U. In this episode, we’re looking at the challenges cities are facing now if they want to thrive in the future. Dickson Despommier, an expert in health and microbiology thinks we all need to face some tough questions sooner rather than later.

Dickson D.: Where do you live and how high is the sea level? Because I will tell you what’s going to happen over the next 150 to 200 years. The ocean will continue to rise. Land that’s particularly susceptible to flooding now will be completely underwater by then. People who live along coasts will have to move inland. A number of people will continue to go up perhaps, maybe not. Nonetheless, the amount of food that the world will be able to produce is reduced just by flooding.

Speaker 2: That doesn’t include climate change, where temperatures will rise above the optimal for most of our current crops. Plus, droughts and floods will become more frequent and severe.

Dickson D.: And by the way, as our population increases, we need more farms. Therefore, we need less forest. Cutting down forests cuts off the earth’s ability to sequester carbon, which then accelerates climate change even further. So, every way you look at it, if we continue down this road, there’s a cliff at the end and we’re all destined to jump off it.

Speaker 10: Breaking news.

Speaker 11: President Trump is expected to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord signed by 192 nations.

Speaker 2: That’s not helping either, but Dickson does have a solution that could relieve some of the pressure.

Dickson D.: I’m an emeritus professor of public health and microbiology at Columbia University in New York City. I’ve published a book called The Vertical Farm.

Speaker 2: In Dickson’s future city, you might shop for your fruit and vegetables by entering a multiple-story building, say, 15 or 20 stories tall, taking up about a quarter of a city block. You walk into the ground floor and all around you are glass cases full of plants, lettuce, asparagus, tomatoes, potatoes. You’re handed a tablet. Let’s say an iPad. It lists everything grown in this building, a vertical urban farm, and you can select what you want, how much, and even request a sample of anything to taste.

Dickson D.: At the end of your trip as you’re checking off how much cilantro and how much bell pepper and how much lettuce and stuff you want, this information is being sent to the floor in which that’s being harvested. That is being harvested as you walk so that by the time you finish ordering, it’s already waiting for you to check out.

Speaker 2: Unless you’re growing it yourself, it’s hard to get more fresh than that. The building I’ve described here is actually in the making in Germany, but Dickson hopes all city dwellers will be shopping like this in the future. The idea for vertical farm started in one of Dickson’s classes over 10 years ago.

Dickson D.: So, this class started, it was a public health course, emphasizing the ill effects of damaging the environment on our health. Deplete the ozone layer and you get the skin cancer. If there’s too much ozone at the surface, you get asthma. About halfway through, the class decided they had enough of this and they wanted to work on something that at least appeared to be uplifting, so they asked me if they could work on rooftop gardening to see if they can feed New York City.

Speaker 2: The students in the original class quickly found out there just aren’t enough rooftops in Manhattan to grow enough of a basic staple like rice to feed even two million people, let alone New York City’s 8.4 million people. The project continued with successive classes. They explored greenhouses on roofs. Better, but still not enough.

Dickson D.: I actually responded to their disappointment when they found out, of course, that there aren’t enough rooftops in New York City to grow rice a single crop a year to feed the entire city. I said, “Well, why don’t we just move it indoor?” That’s when the vertical farm moment actually came about.

Speaker 2: To recap, a vertical farm is any building taller than a single story inside of which food items are grown, usually hydroponically or aeroponically, two methods that don’t use soil. There’s no limit on the type of vegetation you can grow. If you want some inspiration for what a country could accomplish if they got behind vertical farms, look to Japan, the poster child for what to do when an emergency threatens your agriculture.

Speaker 12: [crosstalk 00:17:27] world news now. Breaking news. A violent earthquake off Japan’s northeast coast has rocked the nation.

Speaker 13: A tsunami warning is at central [crosstalk 00:17:35].

Speaker 14: We’re looking at this extraordinary wave, another tsunami wave moving toward the Japanese-

Dickson D.: When that event occurred along with the tsunami that caused that event, the city of Sendai, which is not too far away from Fukushima, actually was flooded. The flood in about an hour trashed 5% of Japan’s farmland. At that moment, people began to doubt where their food was going to come from. In fact, they were definitely afraid that it would be radioactive because of the meltdown of the nuclear reactor so the food was rotting on the shelves for weeks and afterwards because they wouldn’t buy it.

Speaker 2: The Japanese government quickly identified some indoor farming projects already happening in the country. They threw money at them to accelerate results. Plus big corporations like Panasonic and Toshiba stepped up and offered empty warehouses for conversion into indoor farms. Now-

Dickson D.: You can find vertical farms in almost every city. Throughout Japan, you can find grocery stores with grow systems. You can find whole buildings that have nothing to do with farming whatsoever. One is called Pasona O2, in which they grow food in a building where people go to work in suits and ties. For lunch, they go from floor to floor and pick their lunch, and then they get their lunch delivered to them at the table. It’s quite astounding.

Speaker 2: Other countries are catching on: China, Singapore, Germany.

Dickson D,: I can tell you right now that in another 10 years, you won’t be able to go to a city where no vertical farm still exists. I can tell you now that they will be all over the place.

Speaker 2: Partly because of the environmental imperative, partly because the food actually tastes great and stays fresh longer, but also because vertical farms can take a city to a whole new level.

Dickson D.: Cities produce 70% of the world’s CO2 emissions. CO2 is the beginning of plants. They love CO2. So, as a city could take their CO2 emissions and put those emissions inside of a grow system, you would have a perfect way of recycling CO2 that’s given off by a city. Buildings that recycle all their water generate oxygen rather than CO2 because of their grow systems, and then that means every single building’s off the grid. There is no grid. At that point, your vulnerability to anything goes to zero. That’s a super smart city.

Speaker 2: The last stop on Antoni’s city tour is a place you usually go to, to get away from technology.

Antoni Vives: So, we are at the park of [foreign langage 00:20:14]. It’s an old waterway in one of the, I would say, workers, neighbors, neighborhoods of Barcelona. We are right at the top of the park in which solar panels that we have above us produce two very important things in the city. One is shade. We need shade. Barcelona is a very sunny place. The second one is energy. So, this electricity generated by these solar panels is moving the cars and the vans that clean our city.

Speaker 2: Underground, huge water tanks store rainfall runoff from the mountains, an important resource in a place where water can be scarce.

Antoni Vives: So, Barcelona generated this modern watering system three or four years that now is spread all over the city, thanks to which we water using the amount of the water that plants need, and allows us to save a huge amount of money, millions of Euros of water that are used, of course, to being invested in other social services.

Speaker 2: Beyond these features, Antoni explains why he considers the park the epitome of smartness.

Antoni Vives: There’s a reason why we started this [inaudible 00:21:35]. It was after the big bubble burst that we decided that we had to generate a new economical sector to generate jobs. Job creation had to be linked to something needed by the people. We needed to improve our city and we decided that the city had to become an economical sector by itself.

Speaker 2: Spain was hit particularly hard by the 2008 financial crisis. Unemployment rate soared as high as 25%. Antoni became the vice mayor of Barcelona in 2011. The dark days of the recession. He staked state his career on smartifying the city to save it and give it a future. Looking around the park and surrounding neighborhood, he sees success.

Antoni Vives: This part of the city is a place in which now many people start to put their startups. So, it means that people are discovering that Arta, the name of the neighborhood, is one of the most silent, healthy, and beautiful places in the area of Barcelona to live in.

Speaker 2: In fact, Barcelona generates more startups related to smart cities than any other place in the world. This is no Silicon Valley. Antoni has fought to keep exclusive smart zones out of Barcelona.

Antoni Vives: We discovered that living together, living by where we work, having something to share, walking … having some trees, having an interaction with nature, but having these human approach, this human speed approach to life, now, with digital revolution is meaningful again. I think that we have to regenerate cities that talk to us in a human way and that’s what the digital revolution allows us to do.

Speaker 2: The next 20 to 50 years are going to put a lot of stress on cities. Climate change, population growth, economic, political and social tension. The smartest cities around the world are working on these issues and figuring out how to keep their citizens safe, healthy, and happy. Ashley Hand is using technology to tackle L.A.’s legendary traffic snarls. Daily Tous Les Jours creates joyful opportunities for urban citizens to work together. Dickson Despommier wants to bring food production back into the city. Antoni Vives demonstrates how a smart city is really about helping its residence live their best lives.

Next time on the Front Row, we’ll look at the future of journalism and fake news. This podcast is brought to you by 2U. 2U is a company that partners with great colleges and universities to build the world’s best digital education. To find out more or to get in touch, visit us. We’re at 2U.com/podcast. That’s the number 2 and letter U, or tweet us @2Uinc. Listen on Apple Podcast or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.