11th April 2019


Failure can be instructive. Barcelona, for example, has grown from a smaller center to a vibrant must-see destination over the past 25 years. But with this growth has come problems, specifically traffic problems. So it was noticeable when the mayor of Barcelona could not negotiate an agreement between ride-share companies such as Uber and city taxi drivers. The affair came to a head earlier this year when taxi drivers started a strike, leaving an already underserved population without a source of reliable transportation.


“Remarkable failures are often the result of five or six smaller mistakes,” Mr. Travaglini said. “In the case of Barcelona there were social issues: Catalans versus the Spanish and long-term residents versus new local immigrants. In the end Uber left and taxi drivers celebrated, but most people lost. Some invested in cars in hopes of making extra money, others are stuck with an inferior operating system in a city where traffic is still a nightmare.”


Participants in the Ideas Lab were asked to reflect on a failure of urban planning in the way a city supports its citizens that they either witnessed or were a part of. Nasser, an assistant undersecretary for housing and design in Kuwait, talked about a 40-square-kilometre, 10,000-unit city that was built without considering the community’s needs. “We built the units without services so people were hesitant to move in,” he said. “Without inhabitants, investors were scared off. It became like a dormitory city.”


Nuha Eltinay’s organization, the Arab Urban Development Institute, picked out a neighbourhood they wanted to transform and consulted stakeholders. They went to schools and spoke with children, who had great insights, but when they went to the parents for feedback they didn’t understand how child-friendly spaces were valuable. “People have a right to participate in city planning,” Ms. Eltinay said. “But changing this mindset was a problem. It is not something you follow by the book. You have a stakeholder map, you book a room, you provide tea and nice coffee, but how do you get the people in the room to understand the issues and participate?”


“Designing buildings is easy,” Mr. Travaglini noted. “Changing mindsets is a different problem. Most of my work is with corporations. Sometimes a CEO will read a book and want to institute a new program, but when he tries to implement it his front line doesn’t trust it. You need psychological safety so people can express themselves without fear. When we look at failures as experts we look at complexity not just linear.”


The mindset that new is better than old is something that frustrates Ben, a global ideas expert. When he visited Bahrain, he was struck by the old urban core, which is designed to be cooled by sea breezes. But when he visited a mosque made of mud in Saudi Arabia he noticed an air conditioner attached, which was drying out the mud.


“It’s heartbreaking when we see so much wealth of knowledge forgotten,” Mr. Travaglini said. “I was talking to Frank Gehry once and he said ‘There is nothing new. Good design is a very ancient process, but people forget how to do it.’ ” 


The participants were divided into groups representing different constituencies of a city: Youth, Elders, The Excluded, Expat Professionals, Working Class, Knowledge Workers, Families with Children, Entrepreneurs, Public Servants, Large and International Corporations, Immigrants, Minorities, and the One Percent. Each group was asked to consider the perspective of citizens in their group and answer the following questions:

  1. What are the failures for the segment in terms of their works and lives?
  2. What are the failures for the segment in terms of untapped potential?

From these questions, the groups were asked to come up with their most powerful insight and the most critical issue facing their segment. Their findings were presented in a town-hall setting in which a representative from the group was given three minutes to present.

Here are some of the comments:

Excluded People

Most Powerful Insight: “Every city has a different dimension. At the end of the day we are all ‘excluded people.’ For a city to be a city we have to give everyone a right to the city.”

Most Critical Issue: “Most cities are growing in terms of economic growth, but that’s not what they need. There is a lack of a human-value approach. A city is defined by the interaction of its people.”

Families With Children

Most Powerful Insight: “Social spaces are what make a city sustainable. Provide the proper social space, and it will attract more people.”

Most Critical Issue: “A lack of inclusive and interactive spaces. Spaces not just to shop in but to educate and entertain.”


Most Powerful Insight: “We think cities have lost the ability to provide fulfilling lives or produce culture of purpose or meaning. Many young people are in despair, and we need to empower them to contribute to nation building.”

Most Critical Issue: “Universities are still behind in providing students with skills that will be needed in the knowledge-based economy.”


Most Powerful Insight: “The four Es: Engagement, Empowerment, Enabling, and Emphasize Value. There are many policies to help the elderly, but the elderly do not always feel empowered to take advantage of these. We need to ensure that their knowledge is transferred to the younger generation.”

Most Critical Issue: “The elderly are excluded from decision-making. There are many facilities to help them cope, but there is a psychological issue as they feel neglected.”

Blue-collar Workers

Most Powerful Insight: “These people work at a certain level, and they are asked to stay there, they can never move up. There needs to also be cultural integration. They often come from other cultures yet they are excluded from the conversation.”

Most Critical Issue: “Whether it’s housing, public amenities or engagement, workers are segregated. There needs to be an understanding that we share traditions and values with all cultures.”

The One Percent

Most Powerful Insight: “Happiness and well-being with large inequality is a bubble. How long will this bubble last? Is it sustainable?”

Most Critical Issue: “Balanced planning for everyone. We must provide accessibility to all.”

Civil Servants

Most Powerful Insight: “There are lots of urban-planning projects that have no budget and no human resources, but these can be obtained by empowering civil servants, who can contribute ideas and cut costs.”

Most Critical Issue: “Why aren’t civil servants simply asked what their thoughts are? We bring in consultants, but the most important insights come from civil servants. Create a revolution for civil servants to bring forth their ideas.”


Most Powerful Insight: “If they are entrepreneurs they don’t need anything.”

Most Critical Issue: “Provide spaces, scope and security for them to grow.”

Audience members were then asked to contribute their comments about the process and the presentations. Hussain from Egypt noted that the environment was missing from most of the discussion. “Not just taking care of the environment, but linking it to the Sustainable Development Goals. The discussion seemed to neglect social issues and the climate.”

Hamad, an urbanism expert, added that many of the solutions were top-down rather than bottom-up. “There is a sense of emancipation that comes from ground-up thinking. There is too much reliance on consultants. There is a lot of potential, especially with technology, with this approach.

Ali, an economist from the University of Cairo, thought the Ideas Lab was very helpful as it brought together people from different backgrounds, ages and regions. “This creates a participatory approach, which is needed in development. We should apply this outside the lab. If we don’t listen to stakeholders, we won’t grow in a way that is sustainable.”

A woman from Beirut said: “Why do we move to a certain city? Because we can have a life there. There is a very critical aspect. Cities are for life, for people to live in.”

Waleed: “A disaster facing municipalities in this region is energy consumption. We are amongst the highest users of energy. Sustainability is a crucial issue.”

Mohammed from Amman noted that focusing on failure might not be the right approach in this region. “A lot of us have grown up with failures. Our approach should focus on what goes right rather than wrong. It’s good at events like this to hear about the mosque being reconstructed in Mosul.”

Khuri, an urban conservationist from Jordan, thought the most important thing going forward was “maintaining the diversity of cultures in this region and recognizing our overarching commonalities. What might be relevant in one region might not be in others. We have different networks and priorities, but the human being must be at the center of our projects.”

Mr. Travaglini then invited the discussion leaders to add their insights.

Mr. Dia thought there was not enough talk about the participation of women and minorities. “We cannot leave half of the population out of the conversation. Minorities and economic migrants, too, are important parts of a vibrant, livable city and they need to be better represented in urban planning discussions.”

Another aspect of sustainable cities will be the gathering and use of data. There are so many processes and hurdles just to register a piece of land, for example. Using an e-municipality approach and digitizing would better inform us about land availability and appropriateness. There are many improvements that can be achieved using data research to make transportation smarter, too. “We need to research big data and leverage its insights to understand the way cities are built,” Dr. Al Wabil said. While technology is important for evidence-based planning, we must remember the human element technology. “Data will be important, consultants can be precious, but data and technology cannot do the hard work of changing things, being accountable, making difficult decisions and tolerating losses,” Mr. Travaglini said.

The definition of culture is a set of ideas, customs and behavior of a particular people or place. “In the past we had villages that had culture together,” Mr. Zeidan said. “In cities now we have downtowns, which are mostly economic, and we marginalize sharing and communities.” Urban spaces are evolving with the traditions of new groups who use them. We need to have a discussion about what values we share and how we can share our cultures and spaces. “We design our buildings and they shape us,” Mr. Travaglini added. “We shape our cities, then they shape us. How can we reverse this perspective? From a cultural perspective how can we look at the way a community interacts and design spaces for their needs?”

To answer this question, Mr. Ali suggested we look to the environment. “There is a lack of social spaces and green spaces,” he said. “We need sustainable infrastructure and access to nature and ecosystems. This includes public transportation, especially for low-income families.”