A Human Centric MIND Behind Innovative Cities

MIND is Milan’s the newest Silicon Valley-style area under development that makes us question the cost of innovation.

MIND, Milan. Photo courtesy of Lendlease.

Technology and digitalization are being considered the frontier to cities that are meant to provide advantageous support to the communities living within. Such as the concept of 15-minute cities where urban essentials are meant to be accessible for anyone living in any part of the city at a maximum of 15 minutes distance by all forms of transportation.

When we consider issues such as environmental sustainability, there are concerns. The way transportation is meant to be constructed, social inequalities that these cities can create, and so forth. The positive element of these cities is the fact that personal modes of transportation could decrease since families and individuals will be more inclined to use bikes.

Local governments are responsible to provide support for social inequalities, as the World Economic Forum explains, “Communities that foster and maintain social and economic relationships don’t have to be wealthy, but they do need to be walkable and safe, with both residential and commercial buildings intact. And, I would add, for 15-Minute Cities to thrive, not just survive crises — and this cannot be stressed enough — they must also have plenty of mixed-income and equitable housing, as well as digital access.” Thus, while we cannot discredit the 15-minute cities we must take a few elements into consideration. Similarly, we should dedicate the same attention to ‘Silicon-Valley-looking’ cities viewed as the mandatory future for all.

In Italy, Milan is taking the leap by transforming the former Milan Expo abandoned area into the newly called Milano Innovation District (MIND) described as the “sustainable, post-pandemic technology center.” Predicted to cost €4.5 billion, the area will include research labs, a startup accelerator, and a science campus.

The future of science?

The developers of MIND are a public-private consortium led by Australia’s Lendlease Group. This new space will provide the housing and working space for 60,000 people, including accommodation of 3,000 students and connected to the longest linear parks in Europe. It declares to be designed to be powered by renewable energy and will be car-free with a second metro station by 2025.

Human Technopole, a research institute for the life sciences present in the area, has welcomed more than 100 scientific staff. Another present company called Illumina Inc, a U.S. genome-sequencing company, is opening in the spring next to a hospital that is set to start operating this September.

If we think back to 2015, the area, planned for Expo, was ‘welcomed’ by protesters who declared alleged corruption and wasteful spending.

A human-centric place

On the website of the project the developers do agree on the challenges that exist. When we speak of sustainability there is an environmental, social, and economic balance to maintain and to take into consideration.

They write, “What does a healthy community consist of? It consists of people who look after themselves and others. It has access to beneficial services: healthy food, agile mobility, sports facilities, medical care. It relies on a network of active social relationships — the engine of opportunity. It works and lives in human-scale environments designed to feel good. MIND demonstrates that a theoretical idea like holistic wellness can be transformed into something truly concrete.”

Interestingly the website uses the term “human-centric place” as a space that does look at humans’ well being within the community. While we do comprehend the importance and relevance of providing spaces for scientific research to progress that will provide us with the knowledge to use in medicine and technology, I sense we are losing track of those elements, such as the needed green ‘wildness’ generally more present in the countryside, in addition to a lost track of social and environmental issues present.

The city of Milan has taken steps to resolve some of the environmental and social challenges, such as the “Piano Area Clima” where citizens and organizations were invited to provide input for improvements. This innovative city does feel a useful, yet utopical, development. We cannot deny the importance of MIND, but it does pose some questions about what we are leaving behind and purposely ignoring, because other types of developments are viewed as more important.

Possibly those ‘no expo’ protesters could have a point that some funding could be dedicated elsewhere — to restore those buildings falling apart that could be given to those needed. To green spaces that are now decreasing leading to a further loss of biodiversity and further leading to many more environmental issues, but also to the people who feel the weight of the negative aspects of urbanization.

So when we speak of innovation, which is the true cost? And who is being favored the most? After all, MIND does remain (only) human-centric. And its definition is quite up to debate.