The Guggenheim Musuem in Bilbao. Photo by Willie Khoo.

The Guggenheim Museum in the City of Bilbao, Spain, is one of the most iconic buildings of modern architecture. Coiled along the Nervion river under the Basque country sun, it is a writhing, breathtaking contortion of titanium, stone, and glass, all polish and sheen, all heads and tails—a monster you cannot take your eyes off. More than a museum, the building is the striking symbol of the city’s cultural, economic, and environmental transformation, a process of urban renewal that began in the 90s and has since inspired the phenomenon known as the “Bilbao Effect”.

It was fitting, then, that the inaugural Prosperity & Inclusion City Seal and Award (PICSA) ceremony, which recognizes the efforts of cities to promote growth alongside equality, took place in the heart of the Guggenheim. On 21 November, more than a hundred city leaders and urban planning experts gathered in Bilbao for the unveiling of the PICSA index. As the creator of the Urban Environment and Social Inclusion (UESI) tool, which uses high-resolution, large-scale, and spatially explicit data to assess the performance of cities at the intersection of social equity and the environment, Data-Driven Lab was invited to share best practices and provide feedback on the PICSA index. Supported by the Basque Government and D&L Partners, the index seeks to measure the progress of cities in delivering both economic performance and inclusiveness, helping urban policymakers compare and develop best practices. It builds on the work of existing organizations and indices (e.g. World Bank, OECD, UN Habitat, WHO) and presents a refined, multi-dimensional definition of ‘inclusive prosperity’ comprising three identified pillars of prosperity, social inclusion, and spatial inclusion. The indicators and secondary data sources used to measure each pillar are shown in the figure below:

Indicators and data sources used in the PICSA index. Note that the first pillar should be Pillar 1, not Pillar 3. Source: PICSA Index Report 2019

The raw data collected from the various sources listed in the above figure are cleaned and min-max normalized to produce composite scores for ranking the cities. A sample of 113 cities across five continents was chosen for this pilot study. The top 20 cities are presented below:

  1. Zurich
  2. Vienna
  3. Copenhagen
  4. Luxembourg
  5. Helsinki
  6. Taipei
  7. Oslo
  8. Ottawa
  9. Kiel
  10. Geneva
  11. Washington, DC
  12. Munich
  13. Prague
  14. Seattle
  15. Stockholm
  16. Boston
  17. Amsterdam
  18. Berlin
  19. Eindhoven
  20. Bilbao

City leaders at the PICSA ceremony. Photo by Apollo PR.

Taipei Government spokesperson Chou Tai-chu delivers his remarks after picking up the PICSA award on behalf of his city. Taipei is ranked 6th in the index, edging out all other Asian cities. Photo by Apollo PR.

It should be noted that the PICSA index only measures the actual performance of cities; in future versions, the tool could expand to analyse ongoing or new policy initiatives and take into account the potential of city governments to implement inclusive prosperity. Other indicators in the realm of transport, housing, and healthcare could also be added to flesh out the pillars of social and spatial inclusion. These were some of the model’s limitations discussed at a workshop for participants earlier in the day. Arguably more significant than the awards ceremony itself, the workshop brought together the invited mayors and urban experts to share their experiences with development at the subnational level as well as with designing robust city indices. Breakout groups were formed and impassioned discussions ensued, with takeaways shared at the end. Key takeaways included:

  • the urgency of public and private sector collaboration in leveraging inclusivity as a competitive advantage
  • the need for civic engagement and participatory governance in delivering effective urban policies
  • the importance of social inclusion to take into account efforts to mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts

The third point is particularly salient, only because it seems some countries are still lagging behind in this realization. For example, during the keynote presentation, the Mayor of Singapore, Dr Teo Ho Pin, got on stage to talk about the island city’s support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, highlighting successful policies in education and housing to emphasize the government’s consideration of social inclusion. However, on the issue of prosperity, Dr Teo unabashedly declared that Singapore has “one of the largest oil and gas refineries in the world”. The irony was not lost on many of the PICSA participants, who see climate action as heavily intertwined with inclusion. To fail to recognize how the continued support of fossil fuels can disastrously impact the lives of citizens and future generations, is to misunderstand what inclusion really means and should look like. Reasonably, Singapore was nowhere near the top 20 in the PICSA rankings (Singapore did win a special jury award for Most Innovative City).

Breakout session at the PICSA workshop. Photo by Apollo PR.

As with all values-based attempts to define or quantify inclusion, there will invariably be some level of subjectivity or arbitrariness when it comes to selecting indicators and proxies. Data models and indices will always fall slightly short, however robust or empirical their methodology. Yet tools like PICSA and UESI have the potential to challenge some of the long-held assumptions of our economic system and could even lead to the reassessment of national and subnational priorities in line with a more liveable future. Given the superwicked nature of the environmental and social challenges before us, “there is only the trying”—to borrow the words of T.S. Eliot—and perhaps, the iterative nature of meetings like PICSA could help those of us in the data-driven community try harder and faster, clarify values and limitations without falling into despair, and refine our models without slipping into excessive self-congratulation.

Data-Driven Lab is grateful to D&L Partners and the Government of Biscay for their invitation and hospitality. The next PICSA ceremony will take place in 2020, once again in Bilbao.