This week, The Guardian published a new piece on city-level innovation by Network member and Nesta CEO Geoff Mulgan. The article, with a particular focus on the need for increased innovation in UK cities, describes the ways in which mayors and cities are driving innovation and new forms of problem-solving around the world.
Mulgan argues that the most imaginative cities, rather than simply and exclusively placing sensors throughout the urban landscape, find ways to “link the top down and bottom up in creative ways,” including through participatory budgeting and open APIs.
“These are much more attractive redefinitions of what it means to be a smart city than the ideas with which the label is usually associated, which range from sensible schemes to manage energy or traffic more efficiently, to technocratic utopias that often seem almost like parodies of the worst habits of city planning, in which glossy blueprints for cities packed with sensors are designed and built with no inputs from the people who’ll live in them. Songdo in Korea was meant to be the symbol of future cities, packed with smart hardware, but has lacked soul and failed to attract new residents. Masdar in Abu Dhabi was another very costly failure – which, again, didn’t grasp that what makes cities buzz is their openness and messiness, their chaos as well as their order. China’s 192 smart city projects are now trying to avoid repeating these mistakes, involving citizens in things like measuring air pollution or coordinating car pools. For them, the great challenge is to find routes to inclusive growth that spread opportunities far beyond the central business districts and the creative clusters.
This is the heart of the challenge for any great city: how to link the top and bottom, the rich and the poor, the fast and the slow. Not long ago, everywhere wanted to copy Silicon Valley, and it remains true that every city would love to give birth to the next Facebook or Twitter. But they also now recognise that the Silicon Valley model achieved very little “trickle-down” of wealth. Most Americans now earn less than they did a few decades ago, even as a tiny proportion have become immensely rich. And so the search is on for better models of economic growth that overhaul schooling to better fit where the jobs are coming from, and get big firms to open their doors to the poor and marginalised.”