The whole point of medicine is tinkering with the way the body works. Aubrey de Grey

Utopolis

Building new, efficient and successful cities is the 21st century’s Space Race. There are no ready-made solutions for “smart cities”, but a lot to be learned from our past mistakes. Three easy steps for a smart urban future:

We live in a world that is both increasingly urban, and filled with digital technologies. While new technologies will enable solutions to a growing range of urban problems, a more urgent challenge looms: how do we build the places where these new technologies will be invented, tested and perfected?

Urbanization and Ubiquity

In 2008, humanity crossed three historic thresholds. For the first time more human beings lived in cities than rural areas. Humanity has finally become a predominately urban species. Yet even as we came together, we untethered ourselves from the communications grid with wireless.

2008 also marked the first time that the number of mobile broadband subscribers worldwide surpassed the number of landlines. Yet even as the Internet became more deeply connected to our very bodies, we became a minority online.

The third big shift of 2008? For the first time more things were connected to the Internet than people. The future of the web was no longer about creating non-geographic virtual spaces for people to interact, but rather interconnecting our buildings, vehicles and everyday stuff.

None of these trends are likely to be reversed in our lifetimes. And as they collide, they are forever changing the destiny of human civilization. But this historic convergence is creating an enormous market for innovation. As the world’s urban population doubles in the coming decades, re-engineering the cities we laid down in the 20th century and building the new ones of the 21st century has become the new Space Race, playing out amidst the urgent anxiety our own generation’s Cold War – the struggle amongst ignorance and avarice to achieve a sustainable triple bottom line: environmental, but also social and economic as well. “smart cities” are places where new digital technologies are being used to address timeless urban problems.

Open for Business

Not only are smart cities sound policy, they are good business as well. The most recent market assessment for smart cities technologies and services, published by the UK government’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, tallies the global market for smart city solutions at more than $400 billion annually by 2020. This is just a tiny fraction of global infrastructure spending, but it will be the wires, chips, radios and software that create tremendous new value from the concrete, steel and glass of both new and revitalized cities.

But where will these technological solutions come from? Over the last half-decade, we’ve seen a growing stream of new ideas and new inventions. With hundreds of millions of dollars of marketing and pro bono consulting, technology giants like IBM and Cisco Systems have rapidly re-purposed systems designed to handle the operational challenges of multinationals to those of local government. Yet at the same time, a growing movement of civic hackers, engineers who fuse open-source technologies and open government data in pursuit of a common good. Working alongside, but largely oblivious to each other, armies of corporate engineers and their community-based guerilla counterparts have made much progress, demonstrating the value of smart technology to make cities both more efficient and more democratic; safer and more sociable.

But both models are reaching their limits of what can be done with the materials and know-how at hand. Without a new scientific effort to understand the underlying dynamics of how cities grow, change and decline, there is only so much that can be done by the seat of our pants, using off-the-shelf parts. This is why around the world, universities are responding to this challenge by embarking on the largest sustained investment in urban studies in human history. From Boston to Bombay, and everywhere in between, a new science of cities is in the making. The challenge of building truly smart cities will lie in figuring how to take new knowledge about cities that is generated in urban research universities and turn it into engineering solutions that can be rapidly spun out into the marketplace.

The Pop-Up City

How do we build cities with the capacity to solve their own problems? During the Cold War, science and engineering were relegated to the seclusion of suburban research parks. Today, all across the world, urban technologists are setting up shops downtown.

But how can we kickstart a “Smart City within a city”? And how can it be done quickly? What might pop-up Smart City – a civic laboratory – look like? And how can it be brought into being? There are three key efforts to make it happen:

First, every successful innovation hub needs to be a good place. The history of science parks, government-led efforts to kickstart the development of technology clusters, is littered with failed efforts that forgot to pay attention to good design and the lifestyle amenities that young talent increasingly demands. A Smart City is one that reacts to changing conditions – a new campus or district devoted to Smart City innovation needs a wide variety of flexible spaces for working and living, of different sizes that can be rapidly re-purposed. It needs to have an open infrastructure for computing and communications that new prototype data, code and extensions can be plugged into. It should be heavily programmed with activities that cultivate a maker-culture. Such a community will embrace its role as a civic laboratory for testing the smart solutions it seeks to create.

Second, it needs a new charter, whose rules are designed to maximize the potential for investment in innovation. In 1977, geographer Peter Hall proposed a radical “last ditch solution” to halt Britain’s rapid economic decline – abandon Keynesianism and recreate the regulatory conditions of the third world inside the cities of the first world. The “urban enterprise zone”, as Hall dubbed the concept, sought to do away with the heavy taxation and onerous labor regulations that many believed were stifling entrepreneurship and business growth in the United Kingdom. Today, an innovation-driven charter for a civic laboratory would need to take completely new approaches to de-regulating intellectual property, urban design and planning, and forms of corporate organization to let people experiment with new technology. It would need to enable ways of building products and services, places, and companies.

Finally, it needs a new kind of university. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg spurred the development of three new university campuses focused on applied science. These universities are not just guided by the traditional missions of higher education – teaching and research – but also by a mandate for economic impact through technology transfer to the marketplace and the public sector. In an urban world, universities can no longer see themselves as mere ivory towers. They are our most important and well-financed social enterprises.

The secret to success: a pop-up Smart City that combines the creativity and permissiveness of civic hacker culture, a new set of rules to promote creativity, and the scientific infrastructure and talent of an entrepreneurial university.

Read more in this debate: Carlo Ratti.

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