Wednesday, October 16, 2013

• The Quest for Arab Knowledge Cities

            Humanity s awareness of science and the world changed as ages changed. Scientists have been describing ages according to the major innovation that occurred in it: the printing age, the machine age, the Industrial Revolution age, the technology age, the computer decade, the atom age, the Internet age, up to the ages of measuring extremely short time scales in the femtosecond, robot artificial intelligence and smart phones.

 These names have been related to the age s main developments, significant innovations and brilliant inventions that changed man s life. Each century ushers something new which is now commonplace, like air and water which we use the way children used their dolls in past centuries. But the key concept which I regard as worth discussing, away from continuing talking about current events in the Arab world - though this issue is closely related to our needs and requirements of progress is the subject of the book Knowledge Cities , as we can live with all such old and new science in those cities. We are today in a pressing need of cities which carry us from condition to condition and from age to age and promote development rather than just import the products of technology.
A translation of the book appeared last October in the World of Knowledge series published by the National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters in Kuwait. Its editor Francisco Javier Carillo gives an account of the ideas in which academics and experts describe these cities, as well as examples of them worldwide.
At the outset Carillo describes the 21st century as the century of cities, in view of the increasing rate of migration from the country to cities which began at the age of the Industrial Revolution and has reached an extreme degree. Two centuries ago the population of these cities was as small as half per cent of the world s, and three decades ago the population of urban areas accounted for just 30% of the world s. The rate is over 50% today and is expected to rise to 75% by 2025.
He describes the 21st century as the century of knowledge, as after World war II over 50% the GDP of an increasing number of industrial countries changed from material development to knowledge based development, and the UN, the EU, OECD and World Bank have been stressing the crucial importance of knowledge based economy since the end of last century. We are now experiencing a new stage in civilization in which knowledge related values are the key driver of the economy, life and communities.
We had our own cities
Before I go into detail about the examples of modern knowledge cities, an idea occurred to me that such cities are not something new. Nations, progress and civilizations in their heydays were the product of knowledge cities which were built by such nations and civilizations.
As far as Arab science is concerned, it was the most advanced in the period between the 8th and 14th centuries AD and outdid Western and Chinese science and contributed to all of cognitive and experimental fields of knowledge, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine and optics. The Arabs progress then was attributed to their knowledge cities which provided all necessary research, experimentation and innovation tools and started the great movement of the translation of Greek science which remained unknown since the fall of the Greek empire (and its knowledge cities) in the 5th century AD.
Such Greek scientific heritage was the starting point for progress. Arab astronomers, e.g., thanks to the work of the timekeeper of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus Ibn Alshater (d.1375), improved the Ptolemaic system through their own effort in the observatory of Maragha in west Iran. A hundred and fifty years after Ibn Alshater, Copernicus copied the models produced by Maragha astronomers, including Alardi (d.1266), Altoussi (d.1274), Qutbudin Alshirazi (d, 1311). No one before Alhassan Ibn Alhaitham (d, 1040) had ever reached his level of achievement in optics, which was as important in the ancient world as physics in modern science. I m not going to give the names of eminent figures in Arab and Muslim capitals, such as Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Cordova, or those of non-Arab civilizations, from Xian in China to Florence in Europe. The conclusion is that it is knowledge cities that attract civilization makers and promoted development.
A valuable lesson from a small city
The authors presented a number of models of new knowledge cities , one of which gives a historical lesson. It is Ragusa, as presented by Lev Advenson, who considers it an outstanding historical state of a knowledge city . It was a city/republic on the Mediterranean, or more exactly on the Adriatic coast. It enjoyed top standards of living and independence for five centuries, and its intelligence and safety from 1301 to 1806 were similar to those of the 21st century. It was a legend in terms of diplomatic relations and had an outstanding political power, and its merchants went through the wide Ottoman empire enjoying privileges denied to other Western nationals. The politically smart and commercially powerful ruling class made every effort to double its wealth, and by the end of the15th century it had the biggest merchant navy. In the second half of the 18th century it had sixty ambassadors and diplomatic offices in most of the major cities on the Mediterranean. In 1806, and for the first time, it was occupied by Napoleon s forces and it disappeared two years later and had been replaced with present-day Dubrovnic in Croatia.
One of the author s students attributed Ragusa s sustainability to factors of intelligence and organized strategic security, political power and government diplomacy, the spirit of the city and social cohesion, diversity due to many immigrations, rich cultural life, various alphabets, academic environment and traditions of knowledge, good geographical and political position and transport and communications infrastructure
I ve chosen the above model to show two things: First, that a country s size is not synomymous with either strength or weakness; second, Ragusa was destroyed by war, and the promotion of peace thus gives an added value to a city to avoid clinical or historical death, as happened to cities that flourished then disappeared or waned and declined.
What is a knowledge city?
However, this definition of the civilizations which rose and fell is radically different from the one given by the book. In Chapter One,. Out of 20 chapters, Costas Iragazakis, Cost as Metaksios and John Saras (National Technical University, Athens, Greece) give a precise definition of a knowledge city as the city designed to support knowledge-based development through encouraging creativity, partnership and on-going evaluation, innovation and updating of knowledge as well as continuous interaction among the city s population and between them and the residents of other cities, as the culture of joint knowledge, appropriate city design, information technology network and infrastructure support such interaction.
The above definition is also found in the introductions to all models of knowledge cities in the other chapters covering more than 450 pages which describe the hospitable scientific climate of knowledge cities. The source of wealth no longer comes from mineral resources or putting up capital in factory equipment or manufactured goods, but from information networks. The creation of wealth in an ideas-based economy depends on the infrastructure or solid components to a much lesser degree than we think. A knowledge city may be a oasis of technology which combines the most advanced technologies in the area of utilities and facilities, with its infrastructure well connected to as many forms of communications and transactions as possible; a smart city engaged in the development of information and communication; and knowledge community in which the acquisition of knowledge at any age does not depend on a previously achieved level of education; a learning city which adopts a sustainable development approach and regards learning as having a basic societal function; a research and an international research centres city; a knowledge events city.
The building of a knowledge city is not an easy or quickly done task, as it requires effective support from society as a whole. In Barcelona, e.g., the city council and executive committee put establishing a leading knowledge city as part of the city s development plan and made that idea an integral part of the polities of other domestic sectors, such as tourism, culture and urban development. More than 200 institutions employing 1,600,000 people shared in that endeavour.
In the Swedish capital Stockholm a common agenda was adopted under procedures entitled the green city , knowledge city , events city , design city and information technology city with an initial cost of about 2 bn, which made it one of the world s best destinations and most popular conference and event venues in 2004.
In Munich, thanks to its economic prosperity and research and development institutions, the city succeeded in providing continuous funding for theoretical knowledge and information production, organization, transfer and storage. The city today has more than 700 libraries offering such sources of knowledge that boost its transfer and spread. Munich today is Germany s No.1 as far as high-speed Internet is concerned.
Montreal s (Canada) rich industrial history has witnessed a remarkable development in recent decades, as industries moved to countries with cheaper labour, which led the city to invest in the major sectors driven by innovative knowledge activities and create an environment which combines universities, advanced technology factories and cultural institutions.
World models
The book tackles Singapore s wonderful economic growth experiment carried out in the last four decades of he 20th century through continuous industrial restructuring and raising of technical standards. Knowledge-based industries helped raise GDP from 48% in 1983-1985 to 56% in 2001 (as reported by the editors of the study Caroline Wong, National Australian University, Chong Jo Choi, National Higher School of Administration, Canberra, Australia, and Carla Milier, Twenty University, Enschede, the Netherlands).
Singapore s commitment to knowledge economy-based development from 1995 to 2005 helped it rapidly and successfully change to a new industrial economy. The future growth in many sectors like health care, information technology, communications, educational services, photonics and nanotechnology is attributed to Singapore s knowledge capabilities. In this way Singapore is a place where knowledge production, acquisition, spread and application interacts with the economy and is the key driver of growth, wealth and job creation in all industries which transformed Singapore from a fishing village in the early 19th century to a very successful free market economy in the 21st century. Singapore is remarkably free from corruption and enjoys price stability and one of the highest levels of per capita income in Asia ($ 5,979 in 2004, according to Singapore s statistical office, 2004). Singapore s economy is to a great extent the product of the interaction of the vision for development, institutional preparation and business climate.
That was achieved through strategies to integrate Singapore into world economy to benefit from world experience, knowledge and technology and the provision of such a business environment that enhances companies ability to meet challenges and helps ideas and innovation to create unconventional business and boost growth, along with cooperation with prestigious multinational as well as local companies in special fields. In this way Singapore has become a leading regional centre which attracts such companies and a base for the production of high-value goods and related industrial services for their regional branches.
A model which is related not only to knowledge in the areas of investment, industry and technology but to high culture as well is given by Bilbao, in the Basque region in northern Spain. In contrast to existing capitals, ports and industrial regions, science cities were not founded according to geographical factors but rather due to their adaptation ability. Many cities, particularly national capitals, leading international financial centres, major ports and historical centres are clearly able to become science cities, but they don t guarantee success, as that requires the choice of destiny and task and local initiatives, as Bilbao s urban development was designed.
As was the case during the Middle Ages, cities provided the main ingredient for the development of civilization. As agriculture is the business of rural areas, culture is that of urban ones. That s what made the Guggenheim Museum project a success. The Basque community in the old neglected city have provided new regional spaces for citizens coexistence, and the new city will promote creativity, education, research, social aid, culture, recreation, sport, tourism, transportation, logistic services, business, a skilled labour market, production or industrialization and a generation of advanced services.
Thanks to an agreement between Basque institutions and Solomon and Guggenheim institution the unique Guggendheim Museum was set up. The museum enables the Basque and European communities to hold one of the world s largest modern and contemporary collections of art. It also offers mobile education in a wide range of arts and helps develop a new concept of art exhibition, promotion and finance. Up till now the museum offers a unique opportunity for cultural integration and is above all a leading landmark of world architecture and demonstrates well the separation between the 20th and 21 centuries. The project s leading charactrer and natural harmony within Bilbao s development structure help the city fulfil the above objectives which will govern future economic areas.
The knowledge city of Manchester as reported in the book (Blanca K. Garcia, Manchester University) rekindled memories of study days when I experienced the start of part of the transformation which made it a university knowledge city when its huge library was inaugurated under the patronage of the queen of Britain.
Manchester, which lay on the fringe of the Roman empire, was founded by a Roman legion in Mamiosium fort and was regarded as a border province by governors of the south and was not looked at as a town until 1838, and the Industrial Revolution was the driving force of its rapid transformation to a city. By 1850 its population had been 316,000 and it became the twin of the town of Stephen Blackpool with its machines and tall chimneys. Manchester had a black canal and a purple river giving off an unpleasant smell of dyes as well as extended blocks where monotonous steam engine foundries worked like the head of an elephant which went mad , as Charles Dickens put it. But the most terrible places were at the edge of the city where heaps of rubbish, abattoir waste and dirt were piled among stagnant ponds everywhere, in addition to foul air and darkness caused by the smoke of tens of tall factory chimneys. Those places were filled with raggedly dressed women and children. As it was the hub of cotton and the northern centre of commerce, industry and communications in the UK during the Industrial Revolution it became the shock city where isolated textile devil factories were set up under the worst living conditions for the working class in the world at the time.
However, as Manchester was the hub of different strands of radical thought, the place where a large working class lived, the home of the modern labour movement and the city which inspired the German Friedrich Engels, the founder of communism with his friend Karl Marx, with whom he collaborated on the Communist Manifesto, Manchester has always been on the pioneering or bloody threshold of change. Studies have shown a huge skills gap, as there are about 120,000 people without educational qualifications, which is above the national average in England. In addition, there is a wide gap in business institutions as the area needs further 40,000 companies to reach the national average. There are also gaps in the areas of innovation, knowledge, and employment as the number is the number of persons is 80,000 less than the national average. Researchers have also found that Greater Manchester has been suffering from deprivation for over two hundred years due to the above deficiencies in human and social capital, arguing that social capital will not be the Trojan Horse which achieves social and economic progress in the absence of enhanced higher skills, knowledge and education in schools, organizations and communities.
That s how thinking about the future of the knowledge community began, and Manchester has recently raised most of its basic social capital through a partnership between Greater Manchester and the government and private sector officials concerned, which had a positive impact on the city s main socio-economic infrastructure areas. Partnership expanded to include other cities in the UK, the central government and representatives of the EU and other European cities. Such social capital is expected to mark the most important moment in Manchester s transformation to a knowledge city. We shouldn t ignore the current standard of university education and sporting status, particularly in football, in Manchester and how it attracts investment and tourism.
The last model comes from the Far East: China (Stephen Chen, National Australian University), where foreign companies play a key role in the development of advanced technology industries. To that end, the Chinese government established regional science and technology parks which offer many incentives to encourage investment and set up companies there. The incentives include general income tax exemption for two years, tax-free import of the materials and parts used in exported goods and converting intangible assets, such as intellectual property, into cash capital.
The first technology park approved by the Chinese central government was opened near Beijng University, Tsinghai University and many centres of research of the Chinese Academy of Science in1988.In 1991 and 1992 the Council of the State approved another 26 and 25 parks respectively. Yang Lee agricultural technology park was opened in 1977, raising the number of national technology parks to 53, in addition to a number of science parks set up by local governments, most of which (35) are in coastal provinces, and only five in western China. Provincial capitals and stage-run central municipalities which host 22 parks, except Yang Lee, are large cities with a strong industrial base. The diversity of host cities and knowledge parks in China provides a good opportunity to assess the relationship among them.
Out of the world s 500 largest institutions, 160 have investments in Beijing. The value of direct foreign investment rose by 19.8% to $2.1 bn in 2003. Beijing attracts foreign investment in a lot of areas, mainly: manufacturing, information transfer, computing and programming, real estate, rent and commercial services. Hong Kong is the major foreign investor in Beijing, followed by Korea, the USA, Japan, Singapore and Germany.
The future of our cities
As I conclude this discussion of the book I wonder about our future amid all that. Now that we have succeeded in founding cities in urban areas in the Arabian peninsula, will we be lucky enough to convert these cities, or some of them, into knowledge cities with knowledge capital-based economy not relying entirely on oil deposits? Can we plan other Arab cities which flourished for centuries to restore their status? Easy questions and answers, but the march seems long, but we should begin and try and do our best to build Arab knowledge cities which allow future generations to engage in a dialogue with a world which has been making ever-increasing giant strides in the development and progress of humanity day by day.
Sulaiman Al-Askary 

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