World Cities Day, 31 October 2019 in Bilbao, Spain

Changing the world: innovations and better life for future generations


On 31 October, to culminate UN-HABITAT's Urban October, a highly motivated audience convened at the scenic Iberdrola Tower in Bilbao, Spain, to celebrate the 2019 edition of the  World Cities Day. The EUKN was invited to deliver a contribution to a Round Table of experts in urban matters.

The Department of Environment, Territorial Planning and Housing of the Basque Government organised this event in collaboration with the Spanish office of UN-Habitat, with the goal to discuss "how urbanisation can be used to achieve sustainable development" as well as to promote "the international community’s interest in implementing the New Urban Agenda globally [...] enhancing cooperation among countries in meeting opportunities" of urbanisation.

Each year, under the umbrella theme of Better City, Better Life, which is at the heart of the Day's celebration, a sub-theme is chosen. For the 2019 edition, this was: "Changing the world: innovations and better life for future generations".

EUKN Senior Project Manager, Elja Diepenbrock, together with representatives from UN-HABITAT, the Department of Housing of the Spanish Ministry of Public Works; the Department of Environment, Territorial Planning and Housing of the Basque Government; IE School of Architecture and Design; the Environment and Knowledge Management Unit at Iberdrola; as well as international and national urbanists, formed a panel of experts discussing the potential as well as the risk of innovation in cities, and how technology can help achieve the SDGs and enhance communities' wellbeing.

Problematising current mainstream approaches to Smart Cities, the symposium explored the Janus face of technological innovation applied to urban environments and the need to consider the unforeseen consequences for the environment and the social fabric of cities themselves.

Mr. Francisco Javier Martín Ramiro, Director General of Architecture, Housing and Land-use of the Spanish Ministry of Public Works, took the lead indicating that technologies may have wonderful opportunities, but that a critical approach is also necessary. In fact, some of the SMART technologies society has expected so much from have not yet deliver the hoped-for benefits.

Elja Diepenbrock, from EUKN, commented in line with the remarks made by the Mr. Ramiro, offering some international examples in which technology had not fully met the high expectations initially foreseen, or in which ownership of data was blurry. On the other hand, the current Finnish EU Presidency offered some interesting examples of how SMART cities foster citizen engagement and participation.

Mr. Diepenbrock claimed that, if technology in cities was to succeed, it should:

  • be pre-assessed on benefits, disadvantages and collateral effects;
  • be compared to alternative solutions, including long-term financial and societal effects;
  • somehow compensate unequal access to technology devices and technological skills;
  • be shared by bigger cities and players with smaller-and-medium cities.

 The debate then moved on to the conditions for sustainable and innovative cities. As discussed at the Round Table, if innovation is to be the engine of society, its application in cities needs “to be sustainable [...] and that goes through decarbonisation and a rational use of energy” highlighted Emilio Tejedor, Iberdrola's Head of Environment. In this regard, the contribution of Mr. Manuel Quirós Galdón, University Profesor and expert in the field of Biomimesis was very instructive, presenting some examples of the enormous wisdom of nature that holds the potential to help humanity combatting the severe challenges we are facing. 

As city planner María Buhigas evoked, "cities are not blank canvas” contrary to what policy makers often seem to think: one should first look for problems and solutions that are already there, not start from scratch. 


Read more on El Correo and La Vanguardia (in Spanish). 


Note from the EUKN Team: The Urban Agenda of the Basque Country (“Bultzatu 2050”) was adopted by its Governmental Council on 19 November 2019. Its adoption was celebrated and presented to the press in San Sebastián on 25-26 November. EUKN delivered a video message as part of this celebration.