The balancing act

Three complex dilemmas have emerged with greater force. They are the balance of power between the city and state; the evolving balance between the virtual and the real and the balance between focusing on risk aversion or on promoting creativity.

The nation state is still essential in an interconnected world to negotiate the global rules systems and broader national frameworks within which cities operate. This ensures cities have a common legal platform, which enables them to operate nationally and globally.

The predominant narrative for cites focuses on their triumphant achievements. Yet there are looming threats facing cities involving a series of interlinked environmental, social and financial crises mostly out of their control. This new global pattern of risks is global in scope and forms a collective systemic crisis. It cannot be dealt with by a business as usual approach. To avert the worst a shift in power to cities is required, as they can act more nimbly in delivering an integrated response. They are the natural magnets to drive the necessary innovations and they have the critical mass to implement them. But significant changes need to be made in the relations between cities and nation states and our cultural mindset to allow this to happen.

Paradigm shift is a concept to be used sparingly. Yet there are moments and movements when the idea is apt, and full-blown digitization and its capacity to simulate and virtualize experience is one. Indeed it is the most crucial topic in contemporary culture—the mental and social transformation created by our new electronic environment that allows us too to blend and mix the ‘virtual’ and the ‘real’ especially given the advances in robotics and artificial intelligence. Simulated products, services and augmented reality experiences are extending everywhere even creating virtual social networks, relationships and feelings. Why fall in love with a real person and its attendant difficulties when I can invent emotions? Or why play football outside when I can use my XBOX? The link between reality, symbols, and society were questions Jean Baudrillard already presciently examined in the early 1980’s in ‘Simulacra and Simulations’.

We are caught between a rock and a hard place. Creativity, openness and risk taking is demanded of us and at the same time denied. The evaluation of everything from a perspective of risk is a defining characteristic of contemporary society. Risk is the managerial paradigm and default mechanism that has embedded itself into how companies, community organizations, the public sector and most cities operate. Risk is a prism through which any activity is judged. Risk has its experts, consultants, interest groups, specialist literature, an associational structure and lobbying bodies. A risk industry has formalized itself.

It subtly encourages us to constrain aspirations, act with over caution, avoid challenges and be sceptical about innovation. It narrows our world into a defensive shell. The life of a community self-consciously concerned with risk and safety is different from one focused on discovery and exploration.

Risk consciousness is a growth industry, hardly a day passes without some new risk being noted. It is as if risk hovers over individuals like an independent force waiting to strike the unsuspecting citizen. The urban environment is a risk zone. The notion of an accident seems to have gone from our vocabulary. Cleansing the world of accidents means scouring the world for someone to blame.

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