4 Innovations to Build Thriving Cities

We can create a core framework for innovative solutions to complex urban problems.

Alice Charles | World Economic Forum

Economic, social and creative opportunities draw people to cities in this increasingly urban world.

Today, 54 percent of the global population lives in cities and with another 3 million people per week moving to urban centers, the U.N. estimates two-thirds of the global population will live in cities by 2050.

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Diversity of cities can instill social tolerance and provide opportunities for civic engagement.

This trend is particularly evident in Africa and Asia, which are experiencing an unprecedented transition from predominantly rural to urban living.

If managed well, urbanization and city living can have many benefits. Cities provide an efficient way of organizing people’s lives: They enable economies of scale and network effects and reduce the need for transportation, thereby making economic activity more environmentally friendly.

The proximity and diversity of people can spark innovation and create employment, as exchanging ideas breeds new ideas. The diversity of cities can also instill social tolerance and provide opportunities for civic engagement.

Already today, cities form the backbone of global trade, and cities generate the majority of the world’s GDP.

However, if managed badly, cities can be left choking under the burden of pollution, congestion, sprawling slums 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 also magnify global threats such as climate change, water and food security and resource shortages.

How can our cities respond?

For the future of cities to be sustainable, it must be one of tireless innovation. Innovative solutions need to be scalable, replicable and capable of adaptation in a variety of specific urban environments.

Some solutions will only be possible due to new technologies, while other solutions will apply technology to ideas that are as old as the city itself.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Cities chronicled a list of Top 10 Urban Innovations from around the world, which are providing best practices of how cities are creating innovative solutions to a variety of urban problems.

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 renting 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 percent of capacity sits idle for much of the time ready to cope with demand peaks. Cutting out these peaks with tech-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 small-scale infrastructure – from cycle lanes and bike sharing to the planting of trees for climate change adaptation – can also greatly influence an urban area.

People-centered innovation: The best way to improve a city is by mobilizing its citizens. Innovations in technology, services and governance are not ends in themselves but means to shape the behavior and improve the lives of the city’s inhabitants. All innovations should be centered on the citizen, adhering to the principles of universal design and usable by people of all ages and abilities.

Transformative strategies  

Cities are expected to provide a better standard of living, increase community cohesion, wellness and happiness while progressing toward sustainable development.

To be successful in meeting these requirements, cities need to transform their strategies to include innovation and enable the convergence of the digital and physical dimensions.

Cities need to support the design and development of cutting-edge solutions and processes in collaboration with the private sector, scientific research institutions, academia, citizens and startups to maintain the competitive edge while progressing toward better performance and urban service deliveries.

This article first appeared on World Economic Forum and was republished with permission.

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Alice Charles is Community Lead of Infrastructure and Urban Development Industry at the World Economic Forum.

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