Benjamin de la Peña considers the future of cities and the power of philanthropy

communities / Article

Benjamin de la Peña recently joined Knight Foundation as director of community and national strategy. Below, Carol Coletta, vice president for community and national initiatives, interviews de la Peña about the transition to Knight from his role as associate director for urban development with the Rockefeller Foundation.

Carol Coletta: You've spent your last few years at Rockefeller Foundation leading two major pieces of global work: Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and the Informal City. Describe the deep dives you took into each.

Benjamin de la Peña: We explored Bus Rapid Transit in U.S. cities as an offshoot of our work on federal transportation policy. We realized that U.S. cities were facing myriad challenges to rolling out mass transit projects. Apart from funding, there was also the challenge of building and maintaining local coalitions committed to seeing the project through. Rail projects were costly, and the planning and construction would take seven years or more—well beyond the term of a mayor or a councilman. It was hard to get elected officials to champion projects that they would not complete in their first or even second terms.

Bus Rapid Transit had a proven track record in delivering high-quality transit, for the fraction of the cost of rail, in as little as 18 months. BUT, despite its success in other countries, the brand was very watered down in the U.S. Many cities claimed to have BRT when all they invested in was fancier-looking bus stations and a differently colored bus. So, we set out to clearly define BRT—and what it can deliver—for ordinary citizens. We made it aspirational—rather than just a compromise service.

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Then we picked the cities that had the most promising potential for high-quality Bus Rapid Transit and provided support so they could raise their aspirations and so they had the technical capacity to deliver high-quality BRT, on time and on budget.

We also invited housing advocates, design professionals and other citizen groups—anyone committed to the city, really—to ask for their help in imagining how BRT could reshape their communities. This was not going to be just about a better bus service; transit projects really are about the future of cities.

In the Informal City Dialogues, the challenge was to begin changing the conversation about the role of informality (the informal sector and informal settlements) in cities. The informal sector represents huge parts of the economy in cities in the developing world (more than 50 percent in some cases), and yet the sector is ignored in policy and planning. 

Every city with cosmopolitan ambitions will have a planning document that shows the vision for the future of that city. That vision will, almost invariably, have the same elements—bright shiny skyscrapers, verdant parks and gardens, wide boulevards and efficient mass transport. What it will not have are the souks and the tianguis, the auto-rickshaws and the pedicabs. Somehow these have all been imagined away as backward elements of poverty. And yet, the informal economy is itself global and cosmopolitan. Ghanian traders go to Hong Kong and Guangzhou to buy products that they then sell in the markets of Accra, Lagos and Abidjan. Leather-makers in Chennai sell their products to belt- and bag-makers in Mumbai who then export to Dubai. 

In 2009 the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated that the informal economy employed at least 1.8 billion workers, which would make it the largest labor sector in the world. Some estimates put the size of the informal economy at $10 trillion. If it were aggregated into a single country, it would be the second-largest economy in the world. 

So we set out to start conversations about the future in six cities (Accra, Ghana; Bangkok; Chennai, India; Lima, Peru; Metro Manila, Philippines; and Nairobi, Kenya)—through scenario planning exercises with small but diverse groups. We asked them: What will the city look like in 2040 (when the teenagers of today will be the leaders of the community)? What are the most important drivers shaping that future? How will the relationship between the formal and informal shape that future?

We also began to tell stories about the Informal City—about the people who live and work there. The hope was to begin to change the narrative of what the future holds and who the city is for, and, eventually, to help these cities create a more inclusive vision of their own future.

Now that the Informal City work has drawn to a close, what did you learn that you believe will apply to your work at Knight?

That, as vital as philanthropic resources are in encouraging meaningful change, the most important weapon we have as program officers is the ability to create surprising—and powerful—connections between people.

What do you hope to achieve at Knight?

De la Peña: I hope to help nurture the creative disruptions (which is another way to describe civic innovations in action) that will reshape the relationship of citizens and cities to deepen and redefine democracy.

If you could answer one question about cities, what would it be?

De la Peña: How is networked information going to change how we participate in the life of our cities and communities?

You were very early to the realization that information technology is a valuable overlay for cities. Is there still undiscovered and unrealized potential there?

De la Peña: Networked information is going to radically change ALL of our institutions and organizations and relationships, and I think we are still in the very early stages of the process. If Clay Shirky is to be believed, this will be as momentous and as far-reaching as the invention of movable type. That last change brought down the idea of kings as absolute rulers, brought on the rule of law and ultimately the modern state. I believe that in a few decades, the role—and expectations—of what a “citizen” is and what she does will be as different as how we imagine our role as citizens now vs. the role of “citizens” in the Middle Ages.

I started my life on the Internet pretty early, and was running an ISP in the age of dial-up, when AOL and Compuserve were the reigning kings of cyberspace. That was less than two decades ago. Look how integral all of networked information has become. As they say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

You’ve worked with one of the world's best-known foundations. What do you want to do better next time?

De la Peña: I want to do an even better job of partnering with grantees and working on the ecosystem of actors around any given challenge. The problems that need philanthropic resources are never easy; they are complex and non-linear. They resist simplistic approaches. I want to do a better job of using both logic and intuition in choosing where to make investments in these ecosystems, and I think one way of getting there is to listen better to partners and grantees.

You are moving your family from Brooklyn to Miami. What will you miss most?

De la Peña: I’m probably going to miss the 10-minute neighborhood where everything, and I do mean everything (even an MRI), is within a 10-minute walk. I’m going to miss the ubiquitous and very convenient public transit. We’ve lived without a car in the last 12 years in each city we’ve lived in (Cambridge, Mass; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; and Brooklyn), so having to accommodate a car (or two) in our lives will be a change.

What has living in Brooklyn taught you about cities?

De la Peña: I learned that cities don’t run on a single clock. Some parts of the city move fast—a 50-story building may go up in a year’s time—and some parts of the city move slow, such as 150-year-old, wood-siding town homes holding their own. Genuine cities live with these paradoxes, and have old gum on their sidewalks and new pavement next to bricks.

What do you look forward to about Miami?

De la Peña: The weather. The (possibly) slightly less insane pace of life. And my son loves the water and the beach.  

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