VoD: Learning from Copenhagen

Earlier this month, Fast Company named Copenhagen, Denmark, the smartest city in Europe. What can Denver learn from this remarkable city that might -- someday soon -- become one of Denver’s Sister Cities?
An artist, architect and writer, Rori Knudtson is also one of the founding partners of the School of Critical Engagement, an experimental and context-specific action-based think tank. Knudtson is the recipient of grants from the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Danish Arts Council, the Jennifer Moulton Foundation, fiscal sponsorship with the New York Foundation for the Arts and was awarded the Alpha Rho Chi Medal. 

I fortuitously began working in Copenhagen in 1999 on a fluke. I had friends there. They were interested in what I was up to in my architectural studies in the United States. I was intrigued by their lives. We schemed on the future. 
At that time, Copenhagen was fairly dingy and grey. It felt a heavy-handed immersion in northern Germanic industrialism during the 20th Century and it was rusty and worn out. The affect of being in the city at that time was a mix between pockets of cozy Danish quaintness -- tea candles in windows and open-faced fish sandwiches -- intermixed with sea air corrosion and kitschy storefronts. I knew under those layers there was a rich design history and when walking into the interior spaces of Danish home life, the timelessness of their design vernacular greeted me. It was an interior affair, an experience a foreigner could only witness by being invited in.
Little did I know at that time that the city had progressive planning initiatives in the works to turn this former industrial harbor city into one of the world’s "smartest" cities in 2013. Copenhagen decided to embrace the richness of its astute organization, keen to the ins and outs of everyday life, into a way to show the world how things can and should be done to make cities more livable. 
Led in many ways by the movement to drastically reduce automobiles as the main mode of transportation, and taking a concerted effort to build a new myth of Copenhagen as a progressive and innovative international player in the new century and new millennium, Copenhagen has catapulted its global visibility as a hip, intelligent, economically and ecologically enlightened metropolis. And this is exactly the type of friend Denver needs.
I began taking art and architecture students from the University of Colorado to Copenhagen in 2009. Initially, it was in the quest to give my students a glimpse into a geography that seeks to design for the greater good of society. I wanted my students to know that design was addressed as an intrinsic necessity in everyday life -- from the transportation infrastructure to the coffee cup -- and even more, the design of living. 
As life would have it, what started as a study-abroad course changed immediately into a platform for evolving working partnerships between Copenhagen and Denver creatives, entrepreneurs and innovators. Westbrook Development Partners and Forest Room 5 as well as RedLine have all forged relationships with like-minded Danes. We welcome our first group of Danish organizers in February to meet local creative and social entrepreneurs. We have a lot we want to explore, and even more, to work towards investigation of tangible and active collaborations and engagements. 
What We Can Learn
Copenhagen has configured a way of allocating municipal funding for urban renewal projects -- cultural, educational, ecological agendas all mashed together -- and handing the decision making to the people that live and work in the area designated for funding. The intent is to activate social and cultural vibrancy while adhering to municipal objectives of carbon neutrality by 2025 and getting 90 percent of commuters on bicycles by 2015, all examples of smart city planning. 
We have much to learn from Copenhagen’s actions, but this also has the potential to be much more significant if we align economic partnerships between the geographies. Colorado is already home to manufacturing facilities for the Danish company Vestas (the international wind turbine producer) and the Colorado-based Spirae has opened an office in Copenhagen.

With strong partnerships growing between sustainable energy developments, it only seems fitting that these similarities could trickle down into the cultural and social entrepreneurial sectors to really focus on making Denver a clear player in the international “livable cities” market. We surely have better weather than Copenhagen.
What We Can Teach
Danes are socially democratic. They trust their government and the tax system as they get so much in return for being a part of the system. However, given the economic climate globally, Danes are looking ahead to develop and nurture forms of resiliency. And what better place to look than to the free market and beneficial aspects of capitalism to see how they might use the best tested and implemented tools that Americans have generated. 
Denver is receiving a lot of great press internationally, from the BBC featuring our demographic and political shifts as a state, to positing it as the next cultural US capital between New York and Los Angeles. I also might add that our public school system is one of the top 25 in the nation despite our state being 48th in educational funding nationally. Denver is making itself known as he home to innovators working towards the greater good without a lot of government support.

This is true in the cultural sector as well. We rank 49th in the country in arts funding and yet there is an incredible synergy occurring at this moment between the vibrant entrepreneurial scene in Denver and the cultural movers and shakers finally taking a stand to make this more economically viable in the future. We have the ability to teach others how things can be done from the ground up when enough people are committed to the cause. 
What’s Next?
Denver Sister Cities International is in the midst of exploring the potential of Sister City formalization between Denver and Copenhagen. Our committee in Denver has been formed and we are gathering the respective partners in Copenhagen. This begins in February when organizers from PB43, a cultural and entrepreneurial space in Copenhagen, visit Denver to meet with Forest Room 5, Westbrook Development and organizers from Startup Denver as well as local artists and cultural producers.

This is just the beginning of making an already deep relationship between the two cities even deeper. And maybe we can figure out a way to export some Denver sunshine to Copenhagen. Once we figure out how to do that, we will be unstoppable.

Denver Sister Cities International is hosting a meet and greet Thursday, February 7 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Forest Room 5. Leadership of PB43 will be meeting with Denver stakeholders to create a plan of action leading into the Biennial of the Americas this summer and a city-wide Nordic exhibition next year. For more information, contact info@schoolofcriticalengagement.org.

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