As happens each year in a significant city somewhere in the world, an amazing array of networks and thinkers came together this year at the 2016 #UrbanAge conference – like in previous years, it was an urbanist’s extravaganza carefully choreographed by Ricky Burdett and his excellent team from LSE Cities. This one took place in yet another extra-ordinary building, this time, of course, in Venice within the Venice Architecture Biennale precinct. Loaded with history, contradictory meanings, historical self-importance, convenient memories of heroic pasts and the kind of crumbling denial of glitzy modernity that the chattering architectural community prefers, the inner sanctum of the space was assembled around a fish-bowel oval table where speakers and panelists sit while blue downlighters fade out the crowd in the background where they sit mesmerised by the three giant screens that project the faces of speakers straining to squash their respective messages into 10 and 5 minute sound bites, often backed by the breath-taking imagery of today’s urban porn from empty Chinese cities, to waves of Mexican slums, to floating schools in Lagos, to yet another photo-shopped airborne pic of Manhattan. As we all act out our roles in this one-time recorded performance of intense dialogical collective sense-making, we all extract what we need – sometimes just confirmations of the known, to triggers of new trajectories of thought, to discoveries of new information and personalities.

For me, two sessions stand out: on the first day there was a session with presentations by the Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Calou and Deputy Mayor of Paris, Jean-Louis Missika. The other on the second day was addressed by three internationally renowned architects – Alejandro Aravena (Curator of the Venice Biennale), Rahul Mehrotra from India and Kunele Adeyemi from Nigeria (based in The Netherlands).

Ada Calou talked about the process of transforming the Indignados social movement (that has periodically occupied Barcelona over the past years in protest against austerity economics) into a governing alliance, followed by the challenge of tackling the social and environmental challenges of Barcelona from the perspective of the majority of citizens. As she put it, “we transformed a feeling of indignation into a movement of proposition and action”.

In his presentation on the second day, Alejandro said “diagnosis is fine, but the role of design is to come up with a proposal – that is the essence of architecture.”

Like all my experiences this sabbatical, I think I was listening for clues about the ‘the how’ of change – or what I have referred to in my talks as the evolutionary potential of the present that we work with to shape possible futures. What I like about both these quotes is the way they capture the essence of ‘the how’, i.e. that after understanding the enormous complexity of a given context, the politician or designer has a duty to galvanise action by making a specific proposal that does not deny the complexity but recognises that a hard choice must be made as to what specific (inevitably simplified) action is required to make the biggest impact. This means what is proposed is never a final resolution – it is, rather, a provisional solution that will create a new set of complex conditions for ongoing contestation and transformation.

Returning to Ada Colou, she talked about “moving the politics of the street into the institutions” which gave rise to the new municipalism where progressive alternatives can be articulated. Her target? – the model of urban development that emerged during the years of neo-liberalism when property development driven by financialisation resulted in rising inequalities and social exclusion. Her focus now is what she called the ‘social emergency’ caused by the financial crisis, austerity economics and mass evictions resulting from property repossessions by the banks. A key action has been to reclaim the properties confiscated by the banks.

Her overall strategy is about fighting social exclusion and making Barcelona an international innovation capital. A key instrument is the procurement criteria that are used when the municipality sub-contracts contractors for particular services – these criteria now include social and environmental criteria. At the global level, she envisages exerting policy influence by participating in global networks of cities, such as United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) which is now based in Barcelona in a building made available by her administration.

The Deputy Mayor of Paris talked about an extra-ordinary initiative to use properties owned by the Municipality to leverage innovation. 22 properties were identified and calls for proposals to develop them were issued. It was made clear that successful bidders would be those who demonstrated the most innovative idea for each property. Criteria were included that specified that designers and developers must collaborate with start-ups, artists, communities and social enterprises, and that the result must include facilities/spaces of common interest, and materials used must be more environmental. They received 850 expressions of interest from all over the world. They selected 22, and some of the projects have already started. Importantly, this programme is motivated by a desire to mobilise private sector investments to achieve public purposes in light of the fact that the municipality does not have the funds needed to meet the needs of the city.

For Alejandro Aravena, our greatest challenge is to “build homes for 1 million people per week with a budget of $10 000 each.” This, however, will not be achieved if completed home structures are built. Instead, the approach should be incremental housing that provides services and a core house/apartment. His conclusion is that we need three things: good design, rule of law and patient capital – he’s adamant that impatient capital (i.e. a financialized economy) will not enable appropriate investments to meet the challenges of our times. I hope Deutche Bank, sponsor of Urban Age, was listening!

Kunle Adeyemi and Rahul Mohatra followed up, both emphasizing the importance of innovation by working with rather than against complex urban dynamics. For Adeyemi it means recognising that most cities are coastal cities, which means designing for rising water levels as climate change accelerates. For Mohatra we need to take more seriously what he calls ephemeral cities, i.e. pop-up or temporary cities that get quickly assembled, some of which get dismantled after use (e.g. after religious festivals), while others – such as refugee camps – can last for decades.

Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for Water of the Kingdom of the Netherlands summed up the challenge of action when he said “we dont start because we are too scared of making mistakes.” He based his talk on his experiences as a member of President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Task Team which did not have such fears, but a $60 billion does help if you anticipated mistakes!

Enrique Penalosa, now once again Mayor of Bogota and a regular at Urban Age conferences, made the final presentation of the conference. He argued that Latin America as the most recently urbanized region is a good example of what other still urbanizing regions like India and Africa should NOT do.He made a loud and passionate call to avoid building highways for cars, advocating instead comprehensive bus systems, wide pedestrian sidewalks and formal bicycle lanes. There is something so compelling about his sentence that “a bus stuck in traffic is as undemocratic as not giving women the vote”.

My own talk on the resource requirements of future urbanization (based on our work for the International Resource Panel), was one of the few that addressed resource and environmental issues (which surprised me). True, Aravena also did when he said that building houses for the newly urbanized may be our biggest challenge now, but if we succeed we’ll have another challenge – a climate crisis if we don’t find ways of using low carbon building materials and building systems. Curiously, some found what I had to say very new, i.e. the resource rather than climate perspective on the sustainability challenge. Many, for example, had not heard the now familiar figure for those in the sustainability world that China used more cement in 2011-2013 than the USA used in the whole of the c.20th – a figure I always use to help groups focus their minds on the data and approaches that I talk about. But I could not help getting very angry when I heard Ed Glaeser (Harvard Professor and author of the influential neoliberal text The Triumph of the City) repeat once again his singular message that cities have always been good for economic growth and always will, without a single hint that proven predictions of climate science and many other branches of sustainability science fundamentally contradict his hyper-optimistic ultra-modernism. With his bow tie and aggressive male style, he really does not seem to have come to terms with the dynamics and intellectual cultures of the c.21st. Sue Parnell from South Africa, who was the discussant of his contribution, gently tried to suggest this.

As an African, the Urban Age conference seemed to reinforce what I often feel at these international events – a sense that I’m invisible because none of the stories seem to be about where I come from (despite talks by Africans). Talking the next day at a cafe on San Marco’s Square to a young Ethiopian architect (who lives with her husband in Switzerland), we discussed Ben Okri’s novel Astonishing the Gods which is about a young man growing up somewhere in Africa who reaches the conclusion he must be invisible because none of the stories he sees and reads all around him are about him. It’s almost impossible to articulate what’s missing because in some ways the African stories have yet to be told in these kinds of fora. But feeling the same absence after walking through the exhibits of the Venice Biennale, I found myself telling the Ethiopian architect the story of the 10 minute film that Edgar Pieter, Tau Tavenga and I assembled for the Rotterdam Biennale – I promised to send her the link because, I said, it captured for me one of the more successful attempts at expressing what is almost inexpressibly specific about so many African cities that defy the analytical categories of mainstream urban studies. The good news is that the next Urban Age will be somewhere in Africa. Hope that allows for a better engagement with a continent where 800 million more people are expected to be living in urban settlements by 2050. Indeed, as one of the most renowned chroniclers of African urbanism, Abdou-Maliq Simone, made clear in his talk: what it means to be urban for those who live in Africa’s teaming informal settlements may be very different to what we who attend Urban Age conferences assume this to mean. And yet, as in Okri’s novel, what we sense may still be invisible, and may in fact still need to find its own way of expressing itself. As the Ethiopian architect sipped her latte gazing onto the famous urban square in the world, she told me of her dream of publishing a book on Ethiopia’s vernacular architectural traditions. Inspired, we agreed below the iconic clock tower on San Marco’s to make a pact to ensure she finds a way to tell this story.