The European Council of Strasbourg
As guests of the Education and Culture Committee of the Conference of INGO of the Council of Europe, we spoke on the future of cities in the intercultural context that is a feature of globalisation. This encounter was arranged with the participation of UNESCO as part of work on cultural identity and universal values.
In an initial address, Manuel Montobbio de Balanzo, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Spain to the Council of Europe recalled that our (European) vision of universality was certainly no longer “universal”; that the polycentric world in which we find ourselves was inherent to different definitions of universality and it was up to us to settle on a universal definition of universality. “We are no longer in different boats, but in the same boat and we are lacking a helmsman”. A way of drawing attention to the lack of concerted governance on the issues affecting the entire planet. The Ambassador also made a distinction between “open universality” and “closed universality”, pitting the one seeking values to be shared against the one that wishes to impose its own. One of our 21st century challenges is to make the universalities compatible.
In the same vein, Marco Pasqualini and Francesco Pedro, UNESCO experts in education bodies, raised the question of opening up of populations to global diversity. Faced with the rise in nationalisms, they offered a fresh look at education in all its dimensions — school, social, media, politics, etc. They singled out the damage from weakening education and the impact of social networks. “These two phenomena are converging; they are increasingly bringing our contemporaries to view the world in black or white, losing any sense of nuances and otherness”. They believe that this reduced vision of the world is arguably causing the extreme violence that is blighting contemporary societies. They advocate three universal values: diversity, solidarity and hospitality. They also suggest the concept of “global citizenship” to stimulate the feeling of belonging to a global community and its (new) universal values. They both, in the name of UNESCO, champion the idea that this new citizenship fits squarely at the side of national citizenships and in promoting the global cultural diversity.
OING conference, education and cultural commission
Following this intervention, Claude Vivier Le Got, Chair- person of the Committee, queried the application of these issues in the urban space, giving me a chance to stress the importance of the public space as a “shared urban asset”, an essential vector for encounters and dialogue in a world increasingly stamped by individualism and isolation.
“The public space is a battlefield In a society dominated by over-enthusiastic urban concentration, for it collides constantly with the performance requirement demanded by the constraints of densification (...). It is a universal issue if we wish to avoid the degradation of social relations through technologies”.
I then took the floor with Carlos Moreno, a Franco-Colombian scientist, Professor at the University of Panthéon-Sorbonne and an expert on cities. Our allocutions were on the cities of tomorrow and their ability to embody the universal values and issues raised. Carlos Moreno set out the challenges of urbanisation, especially the social and environmental problems born of over-enthusiastic urban concentration. He traced the guidelines of an asymmetric world in which the Asian, African and American megacities influence a new global organisation. He singled out the geopolitical tensions which are emerging from this new world order. In his view, six challenges characterise the actions we should take to preserve mankind; for the planet, water, air and shade and for the cities, in particular, space, time and silence. Six challenges that resonate as new universal issues, as evoked by Ambassador Manual Montobbio de Balanzo in the previous address. It should be recalled that the idea of “happy city” should be substituted for “smart city” as it is far more in step with our deeply-held values of mankind.
My address continued with the same train of thought by querying the notion of progress — a central idea in the original concept of World Expos — compared with evolution in cities as we see them expand. “They draw us at the same time towards cultural, economic, social and environmental deadends (...). What are these cities home to millions and even tens of millions of inhabitants going to epitomise in terms of progress?” I expanded on each of these deadends by pointing out in turn the responsibility of megacities on the cultural flattening of the world, on individualism, on the weakening of the real economy by the financial economy, on the explosion of social imbalances and on the proliferation of heat islands that endanger mankind as a whole. “The megacity hails universality values insofar as it threatens all its issues”. There is another model, thanks to the technologies that potentially give each individual the licence to free himself from the urban concentration without giving up any of the services to which he is accustomed. “It is an anthropological revolution, as neither the city, nor work, nor consumption have the ability any more to be decisive factors in our living spaces (...) in the medium term, well-being will probably become the decisive factor in our life projects”. The genuine revolution is not innovation but the digital transformation, that allows us to choose where we wish to live, with our eyes wide open. How we use the digital will therefore be crucial: we shall either have it serve a life project, making it a vector of progress, or it will integrate us as dynamic data and turn us into a component in a corporate project. The choice between progress and servitude is ours alone.
I concluded by recalling that the youngsters we had surveyed on the underlying value for the French candidacy to the 2025 World Expo was “hospitality” and that this value clearly embodied our discussions during this Council of Europe session. Trust, culture and space are the main features of this universality to which we aspire.
Many questions followed our discussions. I shall retain one, on the meaning and future of global cities. My reply distinguished between cities evolving like isolates, open to other megacities but cut off from their surrounding territories, and cities focused on serving their territories, acting as connection points with the world. The first will become off-ground cities and the second will keep the promise of a new universal cause, with cultural diversity as its fundamental purpose.