Urban Innovation and Change

By Brooks Rainwater

Brooks Rainwater is the Director of the City Solutions and Applied Research Center at the National League of Cities. The Center strengthens the capacity of municipal leaders to create strong local economies, safe and vibrant neighborhoods, world-class infrastructure, and a sustainable environment. As a strong advocate for vibrant and successful cities, Brooks frequently speaks and writes on the subject, and has published numerous research reports and articles on the creation of innovative, sustainable, and livable communities. Follow Brooks on Twitter @BrooksRainwater.

Oct 5, 2012 | Smart Cities | 6 comments

The world is urban. Currently over half of the world’s inhabitants live in cities and this is projected to grow to 70% of all people by 2050. Not only are people increasingly gravitating towards cities for economic opportunity, but they are moving to cities because of the unique opportunities they provide in design, culture, and quality of life. Cities are the centers of economic growth and the urban environment is becoming increasingly smarter. Worldwide, cities are facing increasing global challenges in promoting public health, seeking sustainable outcomes, and incorporating resiliency strategies. Architects are uniquely positioned through the use of collaborative design thinking and the ability to work at multiple scales to envisage future development, help solve these challenges, and plan innovative solutions.

City leaders, on a global scale, are entering a new era of unprecedented collaboration and competition: in order to thrive, they need to create great places. Local governments everywhere are working with creative professionals, including architects, urban thinkers, technology experts, and other important players in the private sector to design and construct unique new sustainable buildings and districts that serve as platforms for the future. Exciting policy choices are being pursued, harnessing creativity, lowering economic barriers, and generating productive energy with healthy, inspiring environments. The AIA’s new initiative, Cities as a Lab, seeks to highlight and support these policies. This project aims to demonstrate the power and importance of urban areas and elevate the fundamental idea that cities have become the laboratory for innovative change.

Examples of this innovative change can be seen in forward-looking cities across the country. Innovation Districts are sprouting, with Boston’s new Innovation District boasting some 100 firms and 3,000 new jobs. The district hosts the largest start-up accelerator and competition in the world; its Innovation Center offers a supportive environment for entrepreneurs. The city’s once stagnating waterfront is rapidly becoming an economic powerhouse, a place to be, with livable mixed-use infrastructure, micro housing, restaurants, and cultural venues to attract a high-energy workforce. Public-private partnerships are spawning new opportunities with successful efforts like Chicago’s, which will leverage $20 million in capital raised through the financial markets for loans to city departments on projects that cannot be funded from existing budgets – but will lead to revenues or cost savings. The City’s new Infrastructure Trust is also the first in the U.S. to use private capital in order to retrofit over 1,000 buildings to make them more energy efficient, create nearly 2,000 construction jobs, and save $20 million a year in fuel costs.

Cities are working with property owners, architects, engineers, utilities, and other stakeholders to pilot replicable new models for the way that new and existing buildings are planned, designed, and constructed. Among these are the 2030 Districts in Seattle and Cleveland; the EcoDistricts in Portland, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.; as well as the Living City Blocks in Denver and New York City.

The newly emerging local governance issues in economic revitalization, public health, and resource efficiency are predicated on strong civic engagement. Powerful design can engage our 21st century public and create the communities that meet people’s needs. Beyond larger and more permanent urban redesign, municipalities are tapping the creative energy of architects and their citizens with smaller scale initiatives like San Francisco’s rapid-approval parklets. Better block projects are also happening nationwide and provide opportunities to re-imagine communities through an exciting demonstration tool, with over 35 done to date. Such redesign helps explore the necessary changes in complicated ordinances and zoning codes, enabling temporary expansion of civic space in unused buildings and lots.

To further existing efforts and imagine and design new initiatives that will positively impact communities, the AIA is working on a Clinton Global Initiative Commitment, Decade of Design: The AIA Global Urban Solutions Challenge. This commitment seeks to enrich global growth with far-reaching urban policies and focuses on creating great cities by leveraging design thinking, technology, and community participation. The focus of this commitment is to design and implement solutions that cities now face to promote public health, and enable efficient use of natural, economic, and human resources. In order to do this, the Global Urban Solutions Challenge is a commitment to address current and real situations, in specific communities, to demonstrate innovative and lasting effects.   Current partners on this Commitment include the Rocky Mountain Institute and Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, and we welcome additional partner organizations in the collaboration.

The Global Urban Solutions Challenge will engage cities by leveraging partnerships between large cities and universities worldwide, with an innovative integration of design and technology focused on the key areas of health, sustainability, and resiliency. There are three approaches included in the Commitment. The first area is funded university research on solutions based outcomes. In the first year we have funded three research grants focused on: measuring the health effects of a new transit oriented neighborhood development in Austin, Texas; long range food scenario planning in Fayetteville, Arkansas; and developing a university cross-disciplinary curriculum on healthy community development.

The second approach mobilizes interdisciplinary university teams to engage with community and professional partners in a selected city to address a complex problem through a collaborative community planning process known as a charette, using design thinking and technology innovation. Teams will propose projects involving academia, practice, and community partners to identify a complex problem that can be addressed with innovative solutions. The charette will demonstrate through on the ground community involvement, visioning, and demonstration how a 21st century city can prepare itself for the radical changes that are upon us all as cities get smarter and design serves as the key integrator between technology and experience.

The third part of the commitment draws on the idealism, technological aptitude, and collaborative spirit of university students, by creating the “Show Us Your APPtitude hack-a-thon.” The hack-a-thon springboards from the charette by providing scaled design and technology solutions related to the challenges and recommendations identified in the process. Students across multi-disciplinary boundaries will have the opportunity to join together and compete and have their ideas elevated to the national level and be seen and evaluated by those that can take these ideas to market. These real world interventions can then be put directly into use by the city, offering achievable inventive solutions for urban areas.

Within the framework of the Clinton Global Initiative, this commitment seeks to use the selected cities as a lab for change that can radiate outwards. The AIA has a deep commitment to making cities better by offering design assistance services and working with communities to identify and address problems. Through our partnerships with the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), we have a global network of architecture schools working at the forefront of research that can enhance this effort and a deep pool of design and technological leadership excelling in resource efficiency and activating the civic realm through innovation. Ongoing collaborative partnerships will help expand and grow the reach of the Global Urban Solutions Challenge Commitment. By combining this wellspring of dedication in offering solutions to urban leaders, bringing forth the latest knowledge and research, and involving leaders of the world’s largest cities, this initiative offers the potential to achieve large-scale results that can be replicated worldwide. 


Leave your comment below, or reply to others.


  1. Kudos to AIA for supporting both Cities as a Lab and The Global Urban Solutions Challenge. Cities are clearly where the action is, and a city is just the right scale of organization to have both the capacity and agility to execute on emerging innovations. The potential for engaging a wide variety of stakeholders is apparent: designers, builders, technologists, policy makers, planners…and of course ordinary citizens who ensure we deliver the solutions they need.

    I would offer one challenge: ensure that these innovations are shared beyond developed economies. In many cities, the massive influx of new residents has taxed all manner of infrastructure to the breaking point. We’ve seen, meanwhile, how cell phones have opened up possibilities for commerce and banking even in rural areas. So we need to ensure that already-deployed technologies are used in as many innovations as possible. This builds on the work of some US cities to ensure all residents have the ability to partake of new services.

  2. You mentioned that a number of public-private partnerships are using capital raised through the financial markets for loans to city departments on projects that cannot be funded from their existing budgets. I’d be curious to know more about how financial tools might be better leveraged to facilitate the kind of innovative urban projects you’re talking about?

  3. @psdanalytics Great commentary. From our research with senior government administrators, it appears that infrastructure is, without equivocation, at the center of every new discussion on how cities will be advancing. You mention that “economic revitalization, public health, and resource efficiency are predicated on strong civic engagement.” I would add that economic revitalization is predicated first, and foremost, on strong asset and infrastructure management. If we treat cities as labs, I think the real experiment will be seeing which cities are properly and creatively managing their critical infrastructure.

  4. This discussion is so prescient for how our cities and regions take shape over the next generation. We are going back to the future, where cities will once again be at the center of all policy. This will look very different in many ways for the cities across the planet and there is a great need to stay as connected to each other as possible so waves of cities can advance from each other simultaneously and not have to re-invent the wheel each time. I am sad to say that this kind of discussion and focus on the city is sorely missing from our federal government right now. I hope it changes very soon to take full advantage of this global trend.

  5. Innovations in urban centers bring the change much needed to improve lives.

  6. Support for municipal and county governments is guaranteed.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Read more from the Meeting of the Minds Blog

Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology

Change the Rules of Housing and Let Tiny Houses & ADUs Flourish

Right-sized living is far from a new idea. The architect Le Corbusier was a pioneer, from his cabanon at the Cote d’Azur to the super-efficient and well-designed density of Unite d’Habitation. This was a good idea then, as it is now. This is a classic case of the importance of the underlying rules of the game – the land use regulations, zoning, and building codes that guide our built environment. These more technical matters aren’t nearly as sexy as the shelter porn in Dwell magazine. But you can’t have one without the other.

5 Ways to Democratize Access to Clean Energy Technology

California recently became the second state to pass a 100% clean energy standard, three years after Hawaii passed a similar law. As the fifth largest economy in the world, California has a tall order to fill in terms of making the transition to clean energy. How can California, and other states that wish to follow suit, fulfill this ambitious task? They will need to provide affordable, relevant, and accessible energy options to every one of its residents, prioritizing those who have historically been overlooked and left out of the clean energy conversation due to economic circumstance or social inequity.

7 Recommendations from Health and Transportation Focus Groups

Planners, engineers, and public health professionals all speak different languages. They may even use different terms to express similar ideas: for example, a planner may recommend tactical urbanism to improve neighborhood walkability, whereas an engineer may ascribe experimental countermeasure terminology to the same scenario, and a public health professional may view the solution in terms of an intervention. And community members may find all these terms unintelligible. In our focus groups, we heard that practitioners need to “get people on the same page” because of the differences we carry in our heads about transportation concepts.