Quick Review: WEF’s Top Ten Urban Innovations

Top 10 Emerging Urban Innovations (WEF, Oct'15)

By Renard Teipelke

The Global Agenda Council on the Future of Cities (World Economic Forum) published a short overview report on the “Top Ten Urban Innovations” last month (October 2015). Let’s see what these innovations are and let’s pose one question for each innovation:

  1. (Digitally) Re-Programmable Space (key words: revitalization, city centers, knowledge, design thinking): How much has the public sector lost influence over the built assets in a city and what would the interest of building owners be in taking up the tasks of place re-/development and reinvention?
  2. The Waternet: An Internet of Pipes (key words: smart management, whole system solution, sensors, early warning): Can these solutions be made attainable in less developed contexts or do they run the risk of becoming a ‘sustainability add-on’ for well-resourced places?
  3. Adopt a Tree through Your Social Network: Planting Networked Trees (key words: citizen philanthropy, climate change, performance indicators, neighborhood identity): Does the tree adoption oscillates between a Facebook ‘like’ and a system critique against private takeover of publicly owned goods?
  4. Augmented Humans: Two Wheeler City (key words: non-motorized transportation, sharing schemes, street safety, enhanced mobility): What needs to happen to prevent that millions of people climbing up the income ladder eventually want to enjoy the societal prestige of private car ownership?
  5. Trigeneration: Co-Generating, Co-Heating, Co-Cooling (key words: co-generation, closed-loop systems, life-cycle costs, carbon emission reduction): Where do we find designers enhancing the interaction and co-benefits of such technological solutions with the makeshift behavioral innovations by common users?
  6. The Sharing City: Unleashing Spare Capacity (key words: circular economy, unused space, shared ownership, co-location): What does the primed example of Airbnb teach us about market mechanisms inflicting on ‘low-profit used’ space mistaken for ‘unused’ space?
  7. Mobility-On-Demand: A Menu of Personal Mobility (key words: real-time information, traffic management, dynamic optimization algorithms, smartphones): When does it become normal for city governments to have data monitoring divisions informing urban infrastructure services?
  8. Medellin Revisited: Infrastructure for Social Integration (key words: spatial dynamics, place mentality, social architecture, people infrastructure): Why are there not more local champions trying out well-tested small-scale innovations?
  9. Smart Array: Intelligent Street Poles as a Platform for Urban Sensing (key words: next-generation LEDs, sensing technologies, live asset, public safety monitoring): Do experts in this field take citizens’ concerns about “Big Brother” sufficiently into account when framing and explaining the advantages of their technologies?
  10. Urban Farming: Vertical Vegetables (key words: farm-in-the-city, hydroponic systems, rooftop gardens, vertical greening): How can the agricultural sector gain again in appreciation and attention in an information technology age of distant urban knowledge workers?


Concluding from these innovations, the reports identifies four key principles to foster innovative urban development. These do also point to a whole range of open questions, with just one for each principle suggested below:

1) Unleashing Spare Capacity (key words: underutilized resources, co-location, sharing, circular economy): Do we provide students in the respective fields with a sufficiently multi-sectoral (or even cross-sectoral) perspective to identify usages beyond their sector’s primary usage?

2) Cutting out the Peaks (key words: infrastructure usage, demand management, incentives, consumer behavior): How far would both public and private sector go in diversifying work life, processes, and schedules to enable more efficient demand distributions across infrastructure systems?

3) Small-Scale Infrastructure Thinking (key words: small action, big impact, independent/decentralized systems, local individuality): Is this a paradoxical ‘action’ area, as it often requires not more but less influence and fewer regulations by higher-level government?

4) People-Centered Innovation (key words: universal design, accessibility, feedback loops, simple complexity): In how far do smart city projects actually require not more ‘smart solutions’, but ‘smart applications/applicability’ of such solutions to be used by common citizens?

You can find the full report here and the corresponding, nice website here.

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