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Urban Innovation: present challenges and the future of cities 

What does the city of the future look like?

Cities of today are facing great challenges and undergoing major transformations. With the rapid increase of population in urban areas, there are environmental issues and higher expectations in terms of services and living standards of individuals: How can our cities respond to these challenges? How can they transform and reinvent themselves to meet our needs? What will be the role of digital technologies in shaping our cities, and what principles will drive urban innovation? 

In this article we talk about present challenges, the potential of digital technologies and the importance of great urban innovation not only in shaping cities, but the future of society as well.  

The challenges of cities

For thousands of years cities have been the centers of civilizations as they have seen kingdoms, empires, governments, corporations come and go. However, in the time span of only a few decades the urban environment has been undergoing major transformations. Today’s wave of mass urbanization is historically unprecedented: half of the population on the globe lives in urban areas. By 2050, this figure is expected to rise up to 70%. 

The problems that cities have to deal with are also changing rapidly. For a long time, the most common issues of cities have been the aging infrastructures, inadequate transportation systems, lack of resources, scarce clean water distribution and waste management. Today, great numbers of the population are still missing fundamental services and care, the rate of crime and poverty in cities all over the world is still too high, and the opportunities for individuals’ realization and success are not evenly distributed.

With the population continuously  growing, environmental challenges rising, and individuals’ expectations in terms of services and life-quality increasing, we need to rethink the way cities operate and deliver services. It’s time for great urban innovation!

What is Urban Innovation?

Urban Innovation means finding new ways to deal with social, economic, environmental and governmental problems of urban environments. It is the combination of new practices, solutions and services to the problems and processes of change that cities undergo, meant to provide the impetus for cities and governments to improve the life of their citizens.

According to a McKinsey study, some of the fundamental aspects that need to be considered in urban innovation should include citizens’ well-being, the potential offered by digital technologies, environmental issues, and globalization. These factors will likely be the key shapers of the city context, determining how we build and live in our urban environments in the future. In the following we will go into the most important aspects proposed by the McKinsey study and explain them in detail.

Citizens’ well-being

If innovation facilitates the implementation of new solutions, citizens are what makes innovation possible: they are the driving source of change. Individuals are also the ones to influence, create, adopt and be directly involved with the urban environment and the services that it offers. For these reasons, the needs of citizens should become the priority when implementing new ideas and services in the city context. At the same time, the level of successful urban innovation needs to be measured by the well-being and satisfaction of the city's inhabitants.

To create effective urban transformation, it is necessary to put citizens’ needs first.  

In 2014, The European Commission launched the iCapital Awards: a contest between european cities with a minimum of 100,000 inhabitants from the EU Member States. The cities who participate in the contest are judged by a jury which evaluates their innovativeness according to four parameters: experimenting, engaging, expanding, empowering

Between the 35 cities from 20 countries that applied this year to the competition, the Belgian city of Leuven was the one chosen as the Innovation Capital of 2020. 

“Innovation for the better and for all” is Leuven’s motto

Leuven aims to develop a model of collaborative innovation between the city and its citizens. Leuven’s inhabitants are invited to participate in the innovation process of the city by proposing and testing their ideas. Different stakeholders reunite together with the purpose of innovating around complex challenges from climate change and the shift to a circular economy to ensure high-quality education and care. 

Read more at: Leuven is European Capital of Innovation 2020 | European Commission

Digital Technologies: the engine for great Urban Innovation

Technology plays a central role in society. By providing efficient, cost-effective, global services, innovative technologies highly contribute to improving the quality of our lives. In the last decades, the rise of digital technologies has granted unlimited access to information, greater connectivity, wider access to education, easier flow of capital, higher quality and time saving services of any kind. Every sector of the global economy is impacted by technological shifts, and urban innovation is one of them. For these reasons, to improve urban settings and for cities to improve and reinvent themselves, it is fundamental to take advantage of the services offered by digital technologies.

The Smart City: a livable city that can think for itself

The decision to tackle some of the most important problems in urban settings with new ideas, new ways of thinking, and the implementation of the latest technology, is at the core of the Smart City concept.

What is a Smart City?

Although there is no universal definition of Smart City, we can define it as an environment in which innovative technology is used to enhance and improve community services, infrastructures, create economic opportunities, reduce cost of consumption and increase civic engagement. The focus on innovative technology is in fact, what differentiate smart cities from other strategies and approaches of urban innovation.

The Smart City strategy is based on the principle of delivering better services and improving life quality, thereby putting individuals’ well-being as the number one priority. To do this, Smart Cities work with data and digital technologies to help us make better decisions and make our everyday activities easier.  

By analyzing dozens of digital applications, a study has found that by using smart technologies, cities have the potential to improve some quality-of-life indicators by 10 to 30 percent. In practice, this translates into less accidents, more lives saved, fewer crime, shorter commutes and prevention of carbon emission. An example of this technological innovation is real-time crime mapping which utilizes statistical analysis to identify patterns in crimes. Predictive policing goes even further, using technologies to anticipate crimes and incidents before they occur. Another example is offered by the Internet of Things (IoT) sensors placed on infrastructures around the city, which help crews fix problems before they turn into breakdowns or delays. 

Watch this interesting video to learn more about Smart Cities!

Other global trends

The Sharing City

The possibilities offered by digital platforms and the increased use of mobile apps have determined the rise and development of the sharing economy, including peer-to-peer (P2P) based activity of acquiring, providing, or sharing access to goods and services, often facilitated by a community-based online platform. 

This type of economic model is taking form for example in the urban mobility sector through ride sharing, cars, bicycle and scooter sharing. Other sectors in which the concept of the sharing economy is taking place are the real estate sector, with apps such as AirBnb. However also in other sectors you can find some forms of services and private goods that are used for sharing-focused business models (like leftover groceries and the app Too Good to Go). 

Between 2013 and 2025, sharing sectors are expected to rise ten times faster than non sharing sectors. 

In a way, the sharing economy allows communities, organizations and startups to respond to the challenges and the scarcity of resources and services by recuperating a basic human practice: the act of sharing. It is therefore an innovative approach that will transform how we live and experience the urban environment, how we value its services, allowing us to shift towards a more sustainable use of resources.

From a linear economic model to the Circular Economy 

Another trend that is probably going to determine and shape the future of our cities is the concept of Circular economy. Instead of the linear model of production and consumption on which our global economy is based today (the take-make-waste system), digital technologies could enable cities to transit to a circular economy model: where products are designed to last and resources are treated as precious. 

Also in this case, digital technologies and data collection play a central role. Through the collection and analysis of data on materials, ways of consumption, external conditions, digital technologies are able to identify where structural waste occurs (in terms of food, supplies, materials, energy) and find long-term solutions to the problems.

Controversial aspects

Although this all sounds very nice, there are other aspects to consider when talking about digital technologies governing our urban life. In a smart city in fact, there is often little to no protection of the data being collected. 

One of the problems is data breaches, the unintentional release of data and information to an untrusted environment. Identity theft, for example, is one of the most frequent types of data breaches. Another issue associated with digital technologies is the appropriation of data by big tech companies, which at the moment are the only ones to have the capacity and algorithms to work with data masses.

To contrast the appropriation of data by private companies and the leak of important information in the wrong hands, it is important that before implementing these technologies, governments and municipalities work towards creating a transparent and reliable system of data collection. 

The use of reliable and real-time data will require greater transparency, trust and close thighs between institutions and citizens

To sum it up

In the near future, cities will be considered successful if the resident’s needs and requests are met, if the principles of sustainability are respected and the potential of digital technologies are applied to create efficient services, as well as mitigate waste, incidents and crimes. Therefore, urban innovation should work towards creating environment which are: 

Environmentally sustainable: By implementing efficient construction techniques that prevent energy waste, increasing sustainable mobility solutions such as electric vehicles, increasing capacity of sharing vehicles and building new bike lanes, our cities could become more sustainable. 

Where goods are affordable and services are efficient:  Latest technologies, the rise of sharing economic sectors, and the shift to a circular economy approach would prevent waste and make goods and services easily accessible to all. 

Where there is no physical or virtual crime: The implementation of AI systems of surveillance, digital technologies and the monitorization of data as well as a transparent use of data by governmental institutions would make it possible to predict accidents, prevent illegal activities while respecting the privacy of individuals. 

Where global talents are attracted to work and live: By building new working spaces, implementing flexible working hours, investing in recreational services such as entertainment, arts, cultural and spiritual events, new generations of multi-skilled individuals would be interested in living in such a vibrant and full of opportunities environment. 

Where Active Lifestyle is promoted: Building new public spaces such as squares, parks, implementing outdoor activities, car-free neighborhoods, as well as walkable and bikeable streets, would encourage citizens to spend more time outside and help them maintain a healthy lifestyle. 

Working towards the city of the future

Cities in the future will be more technological, and will apply digital technologies across a wide range of sectors from transport and mobility to services exchange and citizens engagement. To face the number of problems of a growing population in urban settings, governments will have to make sure that every social group has access to the new services and technologies. At the same time, they have to guarantee that the collection of data and monitorization of citizens’ activities stays transparent. The level of urban innovation will be judged based on how they experiment with new concepts, ideas, tools and governance models, how they engage citizens in the decision-making process and how they are able to attract and become role models for other cities. 

Thanks to the enormous opportunities offered by new technologies, cities can now reinvent their structures and how they serve their citizens. This will require investment, risk taking, open minds, new skills and a generation of leaders ready to embrace the future. Although the future of our cities is not exactly easy to predict, it is important to understand that the choices made today, of how we shape our urban environments, will determine the lives of generations to come.