Cities for the imagination

As cities grow in size and significance, they can become sites of complex social problems – but also hubs for exploring possible solutions. While every city faces distinct problems, they all share a need for innovative approaches to tackle today’s challenges.

This essay is one in a series on future trends for innovative cities, written by the leading thinkers of the Mayor of Seoul’s Social Innovation Global Advisory Committee. Next up: Gabriella Gomez-Mont, Founder of Labatorio para la Ciudad, Mexico.

There is a palpable tension between the world that we have been handed over and the world to come: a battle between protecting the status quo and the realisation that we can no longer let things go on as they are. In this state of affairs, it becomes important to remember that our urban futures are not only to be predicted, but to be created, to be rehearsed. So rather than trying to protect things as they are it is best to reimagine them as they could be. 

That is why we need cities for the imagination. Cities rehearsing out loud what they could become. The creative capacity of a society is perhaps one of it’s most intangible and undervalued assets. Much has been spoken about “creative cities” but little has been done to collectively and systemically augment, articulate and unleash this creative ethos into the city itself, unbound from the spheres of arts, culture, academia, business; reaching other social micro-territories, beyond the usual suspects. But cities in and of themselves can and should function as the great traveling surfaces for ideas, provoke new possibilities and become a prompt for experimentation and for heterotopias to be seeded, in the form of social R&D, and as an inherent part of their urban DNA… Instead of this homogeneous “cityness” we have been generating, still under the hypnotic spell of modernist values. So how can we rethink the role of social and political inventiveness for our urban futures? Can we reframe the role of both government and citizens under this context, and come up with new social articulations – beyond even deliberative and direct democracy, and into creative governance? Could we possibly come up with a league of cities for the imagination? 

These are some of the provocations that have kept me up at night for the last five years heading Laboratorio para la Ciudad: the experimental arm of the Mexico City 

government, reporting to the Mayor. The Lab is a place to reflect about all things city and to explore other social scripts and urban futures for the largest megalopolis in the western hemisphere, working across diverse areas, such as culture, mobility, governance, civic tech, public space, spatial justice etc. In addition, the Lab searches to create links between civil society and government, constantly shifting shape to accommodate multidisciplinary collaborations, insisting on the importance of political and public imagination in the execution of its experiments. And hence highlighting certain dynamics of humanities, cultural and artistic practices, at their constant encounter with other fields of knowledge. Which is why at the Lab we have artists working hand in hand with political scientists, urban geographers, architects, designers, internationalists, writers, activists, lawyers. 

Why bring back the artists and creatives deep into the heart of government and policy? Not everything is about efficiency, productivity, velocity. Evolving and complex realities entail the need for a blending of unconventional and multidisciplinary and hybrid practices that can both take into account the objective realities of our cities, as well as the subjective way we relate to everything around us; how we make individual and collective meaning. Experimental practices are understanding that we need better ways of making other social and urban realities come to life. 

Experimenting cities. Cities where the place of politics is to help fuel collective visions full of vitality and to continuously replenish the urban commons; where governments also have the capacity to identify and articulate social energy with political will and resources. Moving even beyond representative democracy and into creative governance – where the place of citizen participation can be more about helping create the cities and social realities that we want. The ultimate right to the city: a place to be collectively imagined and brought to life. New urban typologies, new forms of citizenship, new social practices. 

There is an even larger conversation to be had: the underlying construct of society from which all else stems must also be rethought. Rampant neoliberal agendas have shown its ugly and ungenerous edges. The need for new models and visions is There is an even larger conversation to be had: the underlying construct of society from which all else stems must also be rethought. Rampant neoliberal agendas have shown its ugly and ungenerous edges. The need for new models and visions is pressing. But we cannot be caught in the urgency of the present. We must risk, experiment, make cities not only for the human body but for the human imagination. 

This is no place for the cynics. They do not have the energy or the imagination for it – though their criticism can serve as an initial x-ray of where things broke. The true rebellion against the status quo is to remain inspired and inspiring. 

And I believe the single most powerful and positive force we could unleash is to be inspired by the cities we live in. 

In the past years it has also been fascinating to see several forward-thinking Mayors and progressive social actors create mechanisms for new ideas to be tested; new policy, new methods, sometimes even creating new types of government offices and creative teams, immersed both in day to day solutions as well as thinking about the future of cities. 

From cities like Seoul rethinking the urban commons, to “rebel cities” such as Barcelona exploring new rights; or Montevideo with some of the most interesting experiments in communal housing; Bologna revisiting urban governance; Helsinki, Paris and Mexico City housing experimental offices. 

We must claim not only the city and its streets – not only its institutions and its policy – but also its possibilities, its social potential, its symbolic and imaginative capacities of our societies. 

Photo credit: Laboratorio para la Ciudad