The World Cities Summit is missing one ‘World City’: Hong Kong. What is Hong Kong missing in return?

by Waltraut Ritter, Knowledge Dialogues

The number of large, international gatherings on city-related issues is increasing; today city leaders have plenty of choices to engage with each other on a global level. Cities face similar grand challenges, and although their resources, needs, priorities and clout vary widely, there is a belief that knowledge sharing across different economic, geographic and political realities is possible and useful.

This emerging space of cities interacting with their international counterparts and engaging in global governance processes has led to the new field of “city diplomacy”.

The biennial World Cities Summit, organised by the Singapore government, is all about city diplomacy, not only providing a stage for municipal leaders, international organisations, and industry experts, but also showcasing how well the city state is doing with its whole-of-government approach to address complex and pressing urban issues.

On top of the list of such issues shared by the participating 120 participating countries and cities are: sustainable mobility planning, economic development and job creation, housing supply, financing climate change resilience and infrastructure, ageing population. All these challenges are also listed under the UN Sustainable Development Goal 11, but what can be achieved until 2030?

Can cities “disrupt” themselves to speed up decision-making and taking bolder steps to secure their future?

New forms of collaboration across all societal sectors are key to achieve this. Seoul is a promising example of a city that has continuously changed towards an inclusive, environmentally sustainable and people-centric city.

Mayor Park Woon-soon calls for each citizen to “be like a mayor” and actively participate in the city’s development through a digital citizen engagement platform that allows bottom-up urban planning. He believes scaling up this experience of deliberative democracy from small groups in a district to a megacity with millions of residents is possible.

Cities such as Barcelona, Madrid and Helsinki are also experimenting with online participation platforms, using new, open source, distributed and privacy-aware tools for participation and empowerment of citizens.

The digital transformation of cities can lead to open and transparent city-making, however, without good governance, technology can also lead to surveillance, control, information and data monopolies and decrease of public space.

Geoffrey West, expert in the “Science of Cities” at the Santa Fe Institute says cities are there to produce social interactions, while the technical and physical networks are meant to support this social dynamic of cities.

For Michel Lussault, an urban geographer at the Lyon Urban School, the smart city narrative is “running empty”, as technology can solve neither social inequality, gentrification, “plutocratisation” of cities nor social and environmental degradation of fast growing cities. Strenghtening a city’s learning capacity is critical to achieve social inclusion and resilience.

Collaboration models needed

Collaborative learning with real, visible impact is also at the core of the Future Cities Laboratory, a cross-disciplinary research network for cities, set up by the ETH Zurich and the National Research Foundation of Singapore.

City leaders should focus on scaling up collaboration and learning rather than believing that technology can magically solve most urban problems.

Hong Kong’s Smart City Blueprint does include new forms of partnerships and collaboration, however, the knowledge-doing gap is still wide. For example, while most universities have in recent years set up some form of interdisciplinary urban research units, better incentives for territory-wide, inclusive collaboration and data-sharing, are needed.

With so many global leaders gathered at the World City Summit, the absence of “Asia’s World City” from the city diplomatic circles is in some ways a missed opportunity, both in terms of sharing good ideas from Hong Kong, but more so in gaining insights to overcome persistent urban challenges here.

Waltraut Ritter, Knowledge Dialogues, conducts independent research on broad range of topics related to the digital/knowledge economy. She is founding member of the New Club of Paris, a knowledge-economy think tank.