In 1879 Thomas Edison invented the light bulb and built the first power station in Pearl Street in Manhattan in 1882, while the German inventor Werner von Siemens installed the first electric elevator in Mannheim in 1880. Since then, electricity has powered – directly or indirectly – the shape and dynamics of urban life. In cities of the developed world, we take for granted that electricity feeds the complex systems which sustain and sometimes spectacularly fail us. In emerging cities of the developing world, a light bulb is still embraced as a symbol of civilisation by some, while others celebrate their urbanity in a visual cacophony of neon. The Electric City is, in many ways, the crucible of patterns of production, consumption and pollution of the 21st century ‘urban age’ as cities struggle with their impact on the social and environmental well-being of the planet.
After having tackled the urban economy, health and well-being, violence, security, social inclusion and design at conferences held in – amongst others – Hong Kong, Chicago, New York, São Paulo and Johannesburg, the Urban Age returns to London for its eleventh conference since 2005. We turn our attention to the challenges and responsibilities faced by cities in the digital age as Climate Change and economic pressures continue to define our everyday urban realities. Since its inception, the Urban Age has studied the spatial and social dynamics of over 30 cities in the developed and developing world, collaborated with over 40 academic institutions and municipal authorities and been attended by over 5,000 speakers and participants from urban design, policymaking, research and practice.
In London we welcome over 60 speakers from 30 cities in 15 countries across four continents who take part in the two-day Urban Age Electric City conference in the aptly named Shoreditch Electric Light Station in central London – a building that in its own history reflects the connections between power and the city. It opened as an electricity generating station in 1896 to burn rubbish, giving steam for generating electricity with the waste used to heat public baths next door. The motto above the door is ‘E Pulvere Lux Et Vis, or ‘Out Of The Dust, Light And Power’, reflecting a trajectory of sustainable resilience that parallels the themes and issues debated by the protagonists of the Urban Age.