TED talks offer the latest thinking on future-proofing the city. Jason Sayer summarises the talks worth listening to

Talking heads

Alastair Parvin

Architecture for the people by the people

Designer Alastair Parvin asks: ‘What if, instead of architects creating buildings for those who can afford to commission them, regular citizens could design and build their own houses? His solution is WikiHouse, an open-source construction system that makes 3D models accessible to download and 3D print for construction use. ‘We’re moving into this future where the factory is everywhere. That really is an industrial revolution.’

Amanda Burden

How public spaces make cities work

‘One of the more wonky things about me is that I am an animal behaviourist,’ declares Amanda Burden. ‘And I use those skills not to study animal behaviour but to study how people in cities use city public spaces.’ Burden has helped to plan some of New York City’s newest public spaces (where such land has to be fought for to begin with) employing her belief that lively, enjoyable common ground is key to planning a great city.

Mark Raymond

Victims of the city

Looking at the evolution of the Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago, architect and local Mark Raymond asks us to do away with outdated barometers for success – typically financial return on investment – and design cities for social change. ‘We need to encourage all types of activity: spaces for performance, spaces for children to play in and learn that it’s cool to be around other people regardless of their social or economic circumstance’, argues Raymond. He shows how design can impact on the lives of people who can no longer afford to live in the centre of cities and are unable to participate actively or fully in a consumerised, capitalised system. ‘If everybody feels part of the society, then we have a much better chance of ensuring a sustainable future.’

Parag Khanna

How megacities are changing the map of the world

As our expanding cities grow ever more connected through transport, energy and communications networks, we evolve from geography to what Parag Khanna calls ‘connectography’. It is ‘connectivity, not sovereignty, that has become the organising principle of the human species’. This emerging global network civilisation holds the promise of reducing pollution and inequality – and even overcoming geopolitical rivalries.

Mara Mintzer

How kids can help design cities

In most of the developed world, you get to vote aged 18. Yet you can start work (and paying taxes) much earlier. Kids make up a quarter of the world’s population, so they ought to have a say in how the world they’ll inherit is going to look. Urban planner Mara Mintzer asks: what would happen if we asked children to design our cities? As this talk demonstrates, kids and adults think about the issues in completely different ways. Adults focus on constraints: time, money, cost and how dangerous it could be. Kids consider the possibilities.

Tom Hulme

What can we learn from shortcuts?

Designer and Google Venture general partner Tom Hulme lives by Highbury Fields in north London. ‘It’s absolutely beautiful. There’s a big open green space. There are Georgian buildings around the side. But then there’s this mud trap that cuts across the middle. People clearly don’t want to walk all the way around the edge. Instead, they want to take the shortcut, and that shortcut is self-reinforcing.’ Shortcuts – desire lines –  are signifiers of what people really want. But what can we learn from this? In this talk, Hulme lays out three examples of the intersection of design and user experience, where people have developed their own desire paths out of necessity. Once you know how to spot them, you’ll start noticing them everywhere. ‘Our job is to watch for these desire paths emerging, and, where appropriate, pave them.’

Yale Fox

Home renters are powerless, but the problem can be fixed

Income inequality is the highest it’s been in nearly a century. Wage declines are making home ownership more and more difficult, leading to increasing numbers of renters. Housing advocate Yale Fox thinks this is a huge problem, since most renters have little power to change fluctuating market prices or the condition of their rentals. Furthermore, landlord negligence in New York City and Toronto causes $750 million of damage, which is falling on the taxpayer in the form of building inspections, legal issues, health issues and tenant displacement among others. In this talk, Fox introduces his company Rentlogic, a system that uses city data to rate apartments and landlords – and helps renters to find the best places to live.

Justin Davidson

Why glass towers are bad for city life – and what we need instead

Imagine that everybody in a room looked almost exactly the same: ageless, raceless, generically good-looking. ‘That is the kind of creepy transformation that is taking over cities, only it applies to buildings, not people,’ says architecture critic Justin Davidson. From Houston, Texas to Guangzhou, China, shiny towers of concrete and steel covered with glass are cropping up like an invasive species. Davidson explains how the exteriors of buildings shape the urban experience – and what we lose when architects stop using the full range of available materials. Glass towers enrich their owners and tenants, but not necessarily the lives of those of us who navigate the spaces between the buildings. ‘We tend to think of a facade as being like make-up, a decorative layer applied at the end to a building that’s effectively complete. But just because a facade is superficial doesn’t mean it’s not also deep.’

Devita Davison

How urban agriculture is transforming Detroit

Once an industrial giant, Detroit today has become a poster child for urban decay. A scarcity of retail, particularly fresh food retail, has resulted in 70 per cent of Detroiters being overweight and obese. Fearless farmer Devita Davison explains how the city’s plight has left pockets of land ideal for urban agriculture. Join Davison for a walk through neighbourhoods in transformation.

Robert Muggah

The biggest risks facing cities – and some solutions

With fantastic new maps that show interactive visual representations of urban fragility, megacities expert Robert Muggah articulates an ancient but resurging idea: cities shouldn’t just be the centre of economics – they should also be the foundation of our political lives. There’s a reason why three million people are moving to cities every single week, they are where the future happens first. Megacities are punching above their weight economically, but below their weight politically. And that, Muggah argues, is going to have to change. Looking around the world, from Syria to Singapore, Seoul and beyond, Muggah submits six principles for how we can build more politically resilient cities. ‘Cities are open, creative, dynamic, democratic, cosmopolitan, sexy,’ Muggah says. ‘They’re the perfect antidote to reactionary nationalism.’