Prototyping the City

By Gabriella Gómez-Mont

Laboratorio para la Ciudad

Our future is urban. As has been said over and over again, more than half of humanity is now living in cities, and by 2050 the number will jump to an astounding 70%. In this context, discovering different answers to the fundamental question of “What is a city is for?” poses an interesting challenge. We are long past the days where we thought a city’s purpose was to be as practical and efficient as possible, zipping us in cars from point A to B, from one bubble to the next. We have come to realize that a city is a multifaceted and complex cultural invention that we are constantly creating, all together, with many other possibilities to explore. Additionally, we now also have a better understanding of the effect of cities on the world—for better and for worse.

In this shifting paradigm, in which cities can be great change-makers, where urbanity is suddenly seen as desirable again, but when the future of cities still needs urgent reinvention, what are the new ideas, areas, disciplines, technologies and ecosystems that cities could explore? What needs to happen for cities themselves to become intensive traveling surfaces and enablers for ideas? What type of prompts, strange attractors, experiments and conditions are necessary and how do we go about generating them?

During the collaborative sessions between the London and Mexico City teams, we found our explorations of these questions leading us to extended contemplation of the realities of Mexico City. We realized this has to do with how Mexico City epitomizes so much of both the great potential and the many challenges that the City of tomorrow holds. As a megalopolis of the developing world, it shares many of the problems faced (or soon to be faced) by cities in Latin America, Africa and Asia; it emerges as an opportune place to try out future scenarios in the present. Because as one of the most important city economies of the world, it also has the necessary infrastructure to create important experiments and become a city capable of prototyping, testing and implementing ideas that can later be exported to other cities. In that sense, Mexico City is the perfect bridge between first world and emerging world, since it exemplifies a complex and enticing mix of both.

In recent years, Mexico City has quietly become one of the world’s most socially progressive and creative urban areas in the global south. Its energy continues to amplify as it embraces its density and cultural roots. Mexico City is getting bigger, more imaginative and is starting to defy stereotypes of what a Latin American megalopolis can and cannot do. Yes, we can pass progressive gay rights in DF despite Mexico being religiously conservative. Yes, we can have a successful bike-sharing program (with more than 20,000 rides a day, a number that continues to grow) despite our size. Yes, a metropolis with 22 million inhabitants can win international green transportation awards and significantly improve the quality of its air in less than ten years.

At the same time, Mexico City also faces the many challenges that come with a city of its size and complexity, including social inequality, problems related to urban sprawl, a possible health crisis related to obesity and many other urgent issues. These difficult and complicated truths of contemporary urban life show there is still much to be done to realize this city’s full potential, and provide us with opportunities to rethink the way we make decisions and interact with the many facets of our urban environment. This is the crux of the work of an urban laboratory (in whatever city it operates), and the motivation behind its many activities, from gathering, analyzing, interpreting and visualizing data (as seen in the chapter Applying Legibility to the City’s Complex Systems, p. 141) to its forms of thinking and problem solving based in creativity, synthesis, collaboration and intuition (as described in Hacks and Probes, p. 125).

As the natural course of the London-Mexico collaboration tended toward examining issues facing Mexico City and their implications for legible policy, much of the work presented in this publication considers this specific context from a binational point of view. The conclusions drawn and tools identified and developed will be the subject matter for future collaborations to contemplate in relation to London and other cities across the world.