The Key to Humanity's Future? Asian Cities

This post originally appeared in the Indonesian Journal of Leadership, Policy and World Affairs: Strategic Review.

Some 10,000 years ago, just as our planet emerged from the last ice age, human beings began to experiment with an entirely new and innovative form of social organization. Instead of constantly roaming around in packs, they grouped together in one place to live in settled communities -- the first proto-cities. Since then, humans have steadily become more and more urban, to the point that sometime around 2010, the number of urbanites passed 50 percent of the total human population for the first time. Within another 100 years, the world's urban population will expand to around nine billion out of a total human population of 11 billion.

We are thus living through the most frenetic and intense period of urbanization in human history -- and this is largely an Asian story, a story of countries such as China, India and, of course, Indonesia. North America, Latin America, Western Europe and Russia are already as urbanized as they will ever likely be. This is why the New Cities Foundation chose to hold its annual meeting in Jakarta in June. This bustling metropolis, like other megacities around Asia, has been growing at an explosive and unprecedented rate. It is estimated that by 2025, Indonesia's total urban population will reach 182.6 million, meaning that 68 percent will be located in urban areas -- and many of those people will reside in Greater Jakarta.

Jakarta, with all its acute problems such as traffic congestion and lack of housing and access to clean water, but with all the opportunities and energy that are so evident in the vast city, could indeed be a poster child for 21st urbanization. The focus of urbanization is now completely concentrated in the developing world. Between 2010 and 2050, the urban population of developing countries worldwide will double from 2.6 billion to 5.2 billion.

The rise of cities in these continents will go on to define the world as we know it. Therefore, it is essential for city leaders in these areas of rapid urban growth to take active measures to curb and solve problems, because if these problems are not addressed now, they will only worsen in the future.

When considering the challenges that come with rapid urbanization, one might wonder why anyone in their right mind would opt to work in city government. A myriad of obstacles block the way to achieving prosperous, competitive and happy cities. These include insufficient infrastructure; lack of funds to realize infrastructure projects; outmoded forms of governance; citizen disenfranchisement; climate change; pollution; crime; and security.

Most of the world's population already lives in urban areas, with the percentage increasing, and they are often by default perceived as the root cause of the issues listed above. However, this should not be the case. I would argue that, if envisioned and managed with creativity, cities could actually take the lead in solving major 21st-century challenges and help shape a more equal, livable society.

To address the seemingly insurmountable urban challenges we face, urban leaders and decision makers must, first and foremost, cultivate an ecosystem that nurtures innovation. Often it is the pioneers, inventors and thinkers of the world who find solutions to perennial problems by their capacity to challenge the status quo and imagine new approaches. Transportation is one example. It is evident that most urban transportation systems are not equipped to cope with rising populations and increased density.

Take Jakarta, where the average car speed on main roads is five kilometers per hour. According to the Jakarta Globe newspaper, the number of vehicles in the city has grown by almost 11 percent annually, while the road network has expanded by less than 4 percent annually. With its lack of sidewalks and insufficient public transportation system, the Indonesian capital is in dire need of an overhaul. Other cities across the developing world such as São Paulo, New Delhi, Beijing and Nairobi face their own mobility challenges. Even in cities in the developed world, where existing public transportation infrastructure is relatively good - New York, London or Paris, for example - existing systems are required to deal with expanding urban populations. What can be done? Certain innovators are taking it upon themselves to come up with new solutions that are already having a positive impact on how cities solve the mobility challenge.

One example of an innovator taking on the transportation challenge is Massachusetts- based Matthew George, co-founder of Bridj, the world's first smart transit system. George and his team use big data and network optimization to develop direct transit routes within a city to cut trip times in half without a car. Another innovator who is utilizing the promise of big data is Rand Hindi, founder of Snips. This 30-year-old Frenchman spoke at our New Cities Summit in São Paulo in 2013 and soon after went on to collaborate with the Paris regional train system to develop an app, Tranquilien, that helps people pick which train and even which carriage to travel in to avoid congestion - all thanks to the tracking of algorithms. These examples strengthen the idea that when it comes to improving cities, good ideas often come from the bottom up.

In light of this, the New Cities Foundation decided to use the New Cities Summit in Jakarta, which was held in June, as a springboard for scouting original, practical solutions to traffic in the Indonesian capital. We called for innovators across Indonesia to send us their practical outline of a project that could dramatically improve transportation in Jakarta. Thanks to a partnership with Connect4Climate, a wing of the World Bank Group, we were able to offer up to $20,000 in prizes for the winning idea. The winner was announced at the New Cities Summit in Jakarta - full information and updates can be found on the New Cities Foundation website.

In an increasingly connected world, citizen participation is another important factor that city leaders must consider. Today, new technologies enable people to express themselves and connect with each other in ways that were not previously possible. Social media, web platforms and apps offer multiple ways for people to express ideas, animate communities and launch projects and businesses.

The communications revolution has also impacted the business world. Customers now have more opportunities to provide feedback and voice complaints, while companies can crowd-source ideas and improve performance in unprecedented ways thanks to sophisticated marketing tools. In turn, technology is allowing city authorities to collaborate with citizens in ways not possible before. New platforms, led by public and private actors alike, are springing up, tackling diverse urban issues such as access to basic utilities, resilience to disaster, social inclusion and well-being.

One local example includes the recent launch of Jakarta Smart City, a web-based platform that provides information on transportation, culture, entertainment and more. This is a promising initiative spearheaded by Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, which relies heavily on participation from government officials, the private sector and the public.

Then there is the Indonesia-based private startup PetaJakarta, which provides an open-source, community-led platform that collects and disseminates information about flooding and critical water infrastructure in Jakarta. Jakarta has one of the world's most active Twitter populations and PetaJakarta taps into this community to distribute real- time data, pinpointing locations on a map and enabling the city's disaster management agency to respond more quickly. The government offers financial incentives to neighborhood associations that actively tweet information.

These Indonesian case studies point toward a wider global trend of citizenship platforms and apps. Other noteworthy initiatives include the citizenship apps Colab in Brazil and PublicStuff in the United States. Thanks to photo capturing and GPS, citizens can quickly report urban problems to local authorities, such as vandalism or potholes. Public authorities benefit from this real-time feedback on problems, while also demonstrating their concern for public well-being.

These projects demonstrate what can be achieved when innovators and city authorities team up. In Paris, this notion is being taken one level further. Under the leadership of Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Paris is running the world's largest-scale participatory budget. The project began with a test run in 2014, where the city offered up a range of public projects that citizens could vote for and choose how an envelope of 20 million euros was spent. This year, Paris called upon citizens to come up with project ideas themselves, covering many different aspects of city life ranging from community centers to green spaces. The public will then vote on projects with the best benefit with a pot of 65 million euros. Each year, new funds will be made available and new project ideas collected from the public and assessed by citizens and the city.

By 2020, Paris envisions allocating a total of 500 million euros toward projects suggested and voted on by the public. It is too early to analyze the success of the initiative, since the winning projects for 2015 will only get the go-ahead two months after a public vote in September. However, going by the 2,300 project ideas submitted online this year, it has certainly succeeded in triggering dialogue between the city and its citizens.

The above examples illustrate how public- private partnerships will be central to solving urban challenges today and in the future. This could not be clearer then when it comes to bridging the investment gap for urban infrastructure projects. McKinsey Global Institute estimates that globally, investment required to meet infrastructure needs between 2013 and 2030 exceeds $57 trillion. New solutions are urgently needed to tackle this shortfall, and if they are to be sustainable they must involve collaboration between public and private stakeholders.

Interesting new projects include Pusan Centum City in South Korea, where a 300- acre former air force base was converted into a major "economic incubator," and the Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District model in California. The New Cities Foundation is currently working with a senior academic from Stanford Global Projects Center who has hands-on experience in these two pioneering projects and many others to provide a handbook of case-based recommendations for public and private stakeholders in this space.

Finally, one vital ingredient cannot be missed in the recipe for shaping future cities: knowledge sharing. As the above examples illustrate, it is through collaboration that we will seize this extraordinary urban moment. This begins with exchange between individuals, communities and leaders within each city. However, this ultimately extends to a wider sharing of knowledge between cities within the same nation, and then between different cities across national borders. And this exchange should not be framed by outdated postcolonial relationships between West and East.

While cities in developing countries can learn from those in developed ones, the exchange can be equally fruitful the other way around. This conviction was confirmed for me when I chaired a panel of mayors from Europe, the United States, Asia and Africa at the New Cities Summit in Dallas, Texas, in 2014. Despite their very different cultural and historical backgrounds, the mayors shared a common belief in the importance of learning from their peers and building a more collaborative urban ecosystem for the benefit of all. It is upon this principle that I co-founded the New Cities Foundation. I hope you will join us to help build a more collaborative urban future.