If not a unicorn, then what? The secret to what makes urban transformation happen

In an increasingly urbanized planet, understanding cities has never been so high on the agenda. The uniqueness of each city as complex sociotechnical systems is the result of intricate networks where phenomena from a variety of domains like psychology, physics, sociology, culture, politics or biology intersect differently.

“The Guggenheim is not a unicorn, it is part of a large portfolio” said Itziar Moreno from the Agirre Lehendakaria Centre (ALC) during the “Deconstructing the Bilbao Effect” webinar. With this session, we kicked off the Unpacking Urban Complexities webinar series to better understand what is needed to generate lasting and sustainable urban transformation. 

Urban complexity

In an increasingly urbanized planet, understanding cities has never been so high on the agenda. The uniqueness of each city as complex sociotechnical systems is the result of intricate networks where phenomena from a variety of domains like psychology, physics, sociology, culture, politics or biology intersect differently. 

This may seem obvious, and yet when we design urban solutions we tend to be overly reductive in our approach, looking for a silver bullet to address complex issues. Not only that, these solutions are often designed based on an insufficient understanding of the local context, narratives and perceptions—information that can make or break the adoption of any new intervention.

In the words of Charles Landry, an international authority on city making and author of “The Art of City Making”, there is a fundamental misunderstanding between hard science and reality when it comes to developing urban initiatives: rather than operating under a simplistic business logic, cities, which are probably our most complex creations, do not follow linear rules. This is because every city has a set of unique yet often elusive characteristics and conditions. What functions perfectly well in Yerevan, might not be appropriate for Almaty. Adhering to methodologies is inappropriate; predictability is out of place.

Deconstructing the Bilbao Effect

A good example of this is the case of Bilbao. Who hasn’t heard about the Guggenheim Museum singlehandedly transforming the entire city? And yet, as Itziar Moreno and Gorka Espiau from the Agirre Lehendakaria Centre explain, “the Guggenheim is not a unicorn, it is part of a portfolio approach.”

In the 1980s the city was experiencing  all sorts of crises—economic, social and political. The unemployment rate rose to 25% and the infrastructure had become obsolete. Violence was commonplace and there were seemingly more challenges than any city could handle. And yet, 20 years later, in the first decade of the 21st century, Bilbao  was bragging about having an income per capita that was above the EU average, unemployment had diminished and many social challenges were only a (not so distant) memory. 

This did not happen by chance, and undoubtedly it did not all happen because of the Guggenheim Museum. As ALC experts explain, “the transformation was possible due to a comprehensive strategy based on public/private partnerships, an endogenous reactivation of the economy and a social innovation movement.” How exactly this came about and what we can learn from the Bilbao case is the focus of the first Unpacking Urban Complexities webinar, which you can rewatch here. 

Watch the webinar here.

What’s next?

In an attempt to make sense of this and other complex questions around city making, the City Experiment Fund takes inspiration from our current moment of reconfiguration and uncertainty to launch our Unpacking Urban Complexities webinar series. By selecting insightful case studies from the Eastern Europe-Central Asia region and beyond, the series of webinars aims to introduce participants to the common challenges and misconceptions around city transformation. We won’t provide one-size-fits-all solutions, but a way to reflect on the past and be ready to explore the uncertainties of the future.

Stay tuned for what’s next in our webinar series and explore past episodes gathered on this board

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