In the 1990s, as the digital revolution began to gather pace, some social commentators speculated that it would lead to the death of the city. People’s geographical location would become less important, the argument went, as they came to interact mostly in cyberspace. Two decades on, the opposite has happened: human beings continue to live very much in the physical realm, and early this century passing the turning point of more people living in urban than rural areas.
The UN predicts that by 2050 the world’s urban population will be as big as the world’s total population in 2002. But what will the cities of tomorrow be like? People continue to be drawn to cities by the economic, social and creative opportunities they offer; large cities are more productive than rural areas, producing more patents and yielding higher returns on capital.
McKinsey estimates that the world’s top 100 cities will account for 35 percent of global GDP growth between now and 2025. However, urbanization also presents major challenges. The world’s fastest growing cities have seen problems adjusting to growth and industrialization, choking under the burden of pollution, congestion and urban poverty.
In the developed world, urban sprawl can lead to individual levels of resource consumption far exceeding those in the developing world. Urban settings magnify global threats such as climate change, water and food security and resource shortages, but also provide a framework for addressing them.
If the future of cities cannot be one of unsustainable expansion, it should rather be one of tireless innovation. This report chronicles ten of the best examples from around the world of how cities are creating innovative solutions to a variety of problems.
Many of these solutions are scalable, replicable and can be adapted to a variety of specific urban environments. Some are possible only due to new technologies while others apply technology to ideas that are as old as the city itself.
Within these innovations, four principles surface again and again. They can be seen as a core framework to find innovative solutions to complex urban problems:
- Unleashing spare capacity: Many innovations cleverly make use of existing yet underutilized resources. Airbnb, for example, enables the renting out of unused private homes; co-locating schools and recreational facilities enables public-private sharing of space; and the circular economy provides opportunities to reuse, recycle and upcycle.
- Cutting out the peaks: From electricity and water to roads and public transport, upwards of 20% of capacity sits idle for much of the time ready to cope with demand peaks; cutting out these peaks with technology-enabled demand management or innovative pricing structures can significantly limit the burden on financial and natural resources.
- Small-scale infrastructure thinking: Cities will always need large-infrastructure projects, but sometimes smallscale infrastructure – from cycle lanes and bike sharing to the planting of trees for climate change adaptation – can also have a big impact on an urban area.
- People-centred innovation: The best way to improve a city is by mobilizing its citizens. From smart traffic lights to garbage taxes, innovations in technology, services and governance are not ends in themselves but means to shape the behaviour and improve the lives of the city’s inhabitants. All innovations should be centred on the citizen, adhering to the principles of universal design and usable by people of all ages and abilities.
The top ten urban innovations are:
- (Digitally) Re-Programmable Space
Example: A multi-story car park in Miami Beach also plays host to parties, yoga classes and weddings. The concrete building with floor slabs supported on wedge-shaped columns was completed in 2010 to offer naturally lit parking levels that can also be used for other activities above a row of shops and restaurants.
- Waternet: An Internet of Pipes
Example: A team of MIT researchers, led by professors Carlo Ratti, Director of the Senseable City Lab in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and Eric Alm, Director of a laboratory in the Department of Biological Engineering, have developed a system to collect and analyse biochemical information from sewage water, what could be thought of as a “smart sewage platform”. The project, called Underworlds, is being tested in Cambridge, MA.
- Adopt a Tree through Your Social Network
Example: Melbourne has developed a new website, Urban Forest Visual, which details the location, genus and lifespan of the city’s urban forest by precinct. The interactive tree map allows users to explore Melbourne’s tree data, learn more about the life expectancy and diversity of trees in the city, and submit questions.
- Augmented Humans: The Next Generation of Mobility
Example: The Copenhagen Wheel transforms your bicycle into a smart electric hybrid. The Wheel contains a motor, batteries, multiple sensors, wireless connectivity and an embedded control system. The Wheel learns how you pedal and integrates seamlessly with your motion, multiplying your pedal power.
- Co-Co-Co: Co-generating, Co-heating, Co-cooling
Example: Sydney’s Trigeneration Masterplan. The project will contribute to Sustainable Sydney 2030 by reducing the city’s annual carbon emissions by 3% and reducing energy bills for Town Hall and Town Hall House by an average of 320,000 USD per year over the life of the project.
- The Sharing City: Unleashing Spare Capacity
Example: The internet makes it much cheaper for individuals to offer traditional goods and services to a larger market. As websites such as Airbnb show, making it possible to connect with customers anywhere in the world cuts transaction costs and shrinks the advantage of scale that larger chains hold.
A recent initiative by the MIT SENSEable City Lab in partnership with Audi and GE, HubCab analyses taxi trips to explore the benefits and impacts of vehicle sharing in New York City. The data was derived from the records of over 150 million trips made by 13,586 registered taxis in Manhattan during 2011 (HubCab, 2014). The GPS-enabled taxis reported on the geographic coordinates (longitude and latitude) and time of each trip’s origin and destination, creating a map of pick-up and drop-off points.
- Medellin Revisited: Infrastructure for Social Integration
Example: Medellín’s Metrocable was designed to improve transport and quality of life in informal settlements located on the mountainside, home to some of the city’s most disadvantaged communities.
- Smart Array: Intelligent Street Poles as a Platform for Urban Sensing
Example: The Array of Things (AoT) is an urban sensing project, a network of interactive, modular sensor boxes that will be installed around Chicago to collect real-time data on the city’s environment, infrastructure, and activity for research and public use. AoT will essentially serve as a “fitness tracker” for the city, measuring factors that impact liveability in Chicago such as climate, air quality and noise.
- Urban Farming: Vertical Vegetables Contributors
Example: Freight farming allows practically anyone to grow fresh produce inside of a standard 40’x8’x9.5’ shipping container. Brad McNamara and Jon Friedman proposed the idea after realizing that the world needed a more efficient way to grow and receive food. The idea was originally to create farms on rooftop greenhouses; however, after running into several logistic issues, the two decided to change the scene of farming to shipping containers.
For a detailed explanation of these innovations, have a look at this report from World Economic Forum, prepared by the Global Agenda Council on the Future of Cities.
*) This article was written by Alice Charles, Cities & Urban Development Expert, Urban Development Lead, World Economic Forum & External Board Member, NAMA