Metrocable cable cars, Medellin, Colombia

+ Education is key to improving the social resilience of cities

Across the world urban planners are adopting ‘Smart City’ initiatives, introducing digital technology into urban life to build efficiencies, support increased productivity and bolster the resilience of vital infrastructure, like energy or transport. But I am concerned that in this singular focus on technology and systems, Smart City initiatives are ignoring the social resilience that really keeps cities together.

Social resilience can be thought of as the ability of individuals and groups within communities to cohesively re-organize and ultimately overcome the impacts of difficult situations and events. It’s clear to me that there’s little point in having a city that’s 'smart' but not socially resilient. So these two strands of thinking must be considered simultaneously to drive what we want technology to do for our cities and to make sure the smart economy reaches its full potential and can benefit everyone. 

Education is key. It lies at the heart of social resilience, and informs the coping, adaptive and transformative capacities of individuals and community groups. Water management education for example has improved the ability of community groups to cope with droughts in many geographies.

However, where smart cities are concerned, education is almost exclusively centred on helping people acquire the skill-sets that will generate higher levels of individual productivity.

Education must also mean improving people’s ability to support their communities on the often difficult road to change, providing access to services, cultivate environmental awareness and fostering social cohesion and solidarity. Take for example Songdo in South Korea where local schools have placed Internet connectivity at the heart of education through ‘Smart+ Connected’, a video-conferencing platform. This allows students to meet their peers in the USA and elsewhere and helps to expand their horizons, friendships and thinking from the earliest age. 

In a different example the Colombian city of Medellín suffered decades of social breakdown and violent crime. Inhabitants of the city’s poorest, and most far-flung hillside neighbourhoods used to face a two and a half hour walk into the city (if they bothered at all). But in 2004 a new Mayor decided all city investment should have a social dimension and within a year they’d commissioned and delivered a new cable car transit system which is a model of social cohesion in action. 

Suddenly the centre of the city was just 20 minutes away, job opportunities opened up and crime dropped. The cable car project has become a brilliant, and literal example of how to increase social mobility and cultivate a shared city experience through the application of technology. 

The conclusion is clear, to build truly resilient, truly smart and green cities we must always embrace the social potential of any project or investment.