Urban planning expert Charles Landry talks about the impact of the digital world and the need for new spaces in cities, while on a recent visit to Kochi
By Shevlin Sebastian
At a hotel in Fort Kochi, the urban planning expert Charles Landry, from England, points at his friend, Vinu Jose, a director of the Qatar-based Synergy International, who is looking intently at his mobile screen. “Vinu is now working with his team in Doha,” says Charles. “So, he is in Fort Kochi physically, but mentally in Doha. He is an example of the new means of production.”
It is a strange world, says Charles, when the world’s largest taxi company, Uber, owns no taxis, when Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content, when and Airbnb, the world’s largest hotel chain, owns no hotels.
The digital world has created immense possibilities. But it can also overwhelm, because there are so many alternatives. “It reduces the attention span, and fragments the mind,” says Charles, who had come to Fort Kochi to give a talk at the Kochi Biennale. “We end up losing focus.”
This tendency to lose focus has already become evident in the West. So companies are taking action. The German car-maker Volkswagen has come up with a new rule. No manager or employee can access company e-mails or Whatsapp messages from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. “The management realised that their staff were not being efficient, because of endless distractions,” says Charles. “So, they felt a ban was the only way out.”
Meanwhile, this connectivity will change the way cities will operate. “Cities will need to have many more spaces, apart from the office or the home,” says Charles. “People will meet in clubs, hotels, bars, and parks, because that is where all the work will take place. Nobody needs the old-fashioned office. Why should I take a place and pay rent, when I can link up with everybody through my Wifi connection.”
Asked what a 21st century city will look like, Charles says, “One of the most important infrastructures is digital connectivity. There will be sensors everywhere. A smart city, in Amsterdam, will keep the lights switched off, at night, to save energy. But the moment a person is 100 metres away, from a road, the lights will start coming on.”
Meanwhile, in the couple of days he spent at Fort Kochi, he liked the town. “Fort Kochi has a historical weight,” he says. “Its strength lies in its international cosmopolitism. For hundreds of years the town has had connections with the outer world. There are very few places that are like that, probably cities like Amsterdam, London and New York. The question is: which part of Fort Kochi's history can be translated into the future?”
And then he gives an off-hand suggestion. “There are so many old and unused warehouses in Mattancherry,” he says. “Maybe, an eco-system for start-ups can be started there. It could become a creative hub.”
However, for a society to be creative, there should be freedom and openness. But, today, there are many regions in the world, like the USA, under President Donald Trump, Britain, through its Brexit vote, and Europe, with the rise of nationalistic forces, which are putting up barriers and opposing diversity.
“However, it has been seen that most successful companies depend on staff which comes from diverse environments,” says Charles. “The number of Indians working in Google is very large. They have conversations with Italians and Australians and something good always comes out of that. Studies have shown that companies, which have diverse staff, tend to be more innovative. So, when a society puts up people barriers, it ends up in a creative stagnation.”
Who is Charles Landry?
Charles Landry is best known for his books, 'The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators', 'The Art of City Making' and 'The Intercultural City: Planning for Diversity Advantage'. The creative city has now become a global movement. The idea is to rethink the planning, development and management of cities. Prof. Landry is a Master of International Urban Creativity with The Beijing DeTao Masters Academy at Shanghai.
(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thjiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)