Cities as a Lab: Designing the Innovation Economy

by Sep 20, 2013Smart Cities

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.

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Cities can thrive in the 21st century by building transformational places that incubate creativity and adapt to future challenges and opportunities. As political and economic power increasingly finds its greatest expression through municipal governments, cities have become the laboratory for innovation and change. The fabric of the city, with its people, buildings, commerce, and transportation networks, promotes relationship formation, business creation, and game-changing ideas.

The American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Cities as a Lab: Designing the Innovation Economy initiative demonstrates how design can foster innovative approaches to American cities’ changing needs. This report, released during the National Leadership Speaker Series: Resiliency & Security in the 21st Century at the National Press Club explores policy trends and experimentation taking place in cities around the globe. By melding innovative design with the increasing power of technological solutions, cities have the ability to adapt, innovate, and lead the way.

A truly innovative city must not only react, but prepare for unexpected eventualities. And, cities cannot prepare for the future without being ready for what may come and integrating resilient design to prepare for an uncertain future. The National Academies’ Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative report notes that long-term planning, land use, zoning, building code enforcement, and even much of the physical infrastructure that collectively factors into the equation of resilience are all controlled by cities.

The coming decades foreshadow more frequent natural disasters, limited resources, and public health challenges. The good news is that we have the tools at hand, with no shortage of drive and ideas to respond to these changing realities. Our cities will rise to the challenge. We just have to remember one point: we can no longer meet all of our needs by solely working within traditional frameworks for local government processes. Leadership in these times calls on one to take chances and experiment. Life begins at the edge of our comfort zones and innovation isn’t about perfection, it’s about courage and the willingness to try.

Cities as a Lab illustrates the design and policy choices now creating the great places of the future: urban design interventions, visionary planning efforts, and public-private partnerships. Ideas and energy are flowing, because cities are the place to be, and great design serves as the critical linchpin. Innovative cities welcome and anticipate the social and technological shifts that have reshaped how people interact in the 21st century. These cities are reconfiguring urban spaces to fit these new patterns. These shifts are already transforming cities in numerous ways:

  • Economy. The faster pace and more distributed nature of invention relies on knowledge networks to both generate new ideas and bring them to scale.
  • Education. Rapid technological change requires learners to exchange skills and tools, both in school and through life-long education.
  • Health. Active living instigated through design interventions can encourage healthier behavior and improve well-being.
  • Technology. Ubiquitous mobile data access can unlock the secrets of the city, increasing its livability and user-friendliness.
  • Sustainability. District scale solutions connect buildings and people to shared services and spaces, cutting distances and minimizing wasteful duplication.
  • Design. Lively spaces, ideas, and energy are elevated when design serves as the key connector integrating urban assets and amenities into great places.

In order to grow the innovation portent of U.S. cities, so they can compete and collaborate with international cities, it is necessary for American cities to learn from practices taking place worldwide. Leading cities across the world are innovating and Cities as a Lab highlights these global innovation cities to provide a framework for further examination here in the U.S.

One such example is Amsterdam, which has been innovating in the area of resilience planning for hundreds of years. When thinking about the changing environment and the need to design resilient places with climate adaptation in mind, there are few cities more familiar with this reality than Amsterdam, which has no choice but to innovate owing to its topographical realities. Being a city located below sea level created inherent physical conditions that transmorphed themselves into the culture of the city itself. The people of the city understand climate change because they are experiencing it firsthand. For centuries, the residents of Amsterdam have been reclaiming land and developing protective barriers from the sea. This historical innovation and resilience to natural forces couples with the economic need to live on water, which have spawned impressive urban models.

Ijburg is a development for 18,000 residents, 12,000 of whom are working within the boundaries of a city developed based on McDonough Partners’ Cradle to Cradle sustainability concept. This model has been built on eight islands, all with a different character, and since they are floating homes they are able to use 15-percent less energy as a result of energy storage embedded in the water. Not content to just focus on what is necessary for growth, Amsterdam is also wiring itself for the future with smart city technology through their own version of an EcoDistrict, the Amsterdam: Smart City project. This effort, started in 2009, seeks to save energy and reduce CO2 emissions by focusing on four key areas: Sustainable Public Space, Sustainable Mobility, Sustainable Living, and Sustainable Working.

Innovative cities globally and here at home scale at different levels with policy and design choices, ranging from district scale solutions to smaller urban interventions like temporary architecture. Creativity is the key factor providing the intellectual resources for thriving communities. Architects with their unique ability to use design thinking are poised to continue collaborating with city leaders to seize the future. Cities as a Lab is an examination of the innovation happening at the urban level, where we are seeing a myriad of policy choices informing the future urban environment.

Innovation districts are being formed, with examples like Boston’s Innovation District leading the way with pioneering designers reshaping derelict wharves into a multidisciplinary hub for innovation and manufacturing. Co-location is happening as the sharing economy infuses so many aspects of our daily lives. The 5M Project in San Francisco a key example of this where a budding intentional community of artists and techies is inverting the development process to reinvent underused offices. At the same time

workspaces are being transformed and re-imagined while innovation housing designed for people at all stages of life is popping up. In tech hubs from the Bay Area to Pittsburgh, tinkerers are launching a resurgence in American product design and small-scale manufacturing at TechShop, with businesses from start-ups to Ford leveraging this resource for invention and innovation.

A re-imagination of streetscapes and empty lots is taking shape with a fresh focus on street design giving architects a new canvas for creative placemaking. EcoDistricts are scaling sustainability to a larger area, and resilient design is tying it all together as we prepare for an uncertain future. The policy choices that need to be put in place to make this happen are paramount and collaboration between the design community and city leaders is creating innovative practices across the country.

Our cities need to be able to adapt to the future. A resilience of place can be and should be embedded into the urban fabric through innovative policy prescriptions and design choices. As design thinking becomes more and more engrained in the way we make decisions at the municipal level we will live in communities where buildings, neighborhoods, districts, and cities can perform at their highest level of capacity. Cities are the incubators of great ideas and the labs for change that will make this happen. Read Cities as a Lab to learn more.


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  1. Please keep me updated with the latest research, findings and insights.

    Mihir Bholey


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