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Top 10 Urban Innovations according to the Global Agenda Council

In the 1990s, as the digital revolution began to gather pace, some social commentators speculated that it would lead to the death of the city. People’s geographical location would become less important, the argument went, as they came to interact mostly in cyberspace.

Two decades on, the opposite has happened: human beings continue to live very much in the physical realm, and early this century passing the turning point of more people living in urban than rural areas. The UN predicts that by 2050 the world’s urban population will be as big as the world’s total population in 2002. But what will the cities of tomorrow be like?

People continue to be drawn to cities by the economic, social and creative opportunities they offer; large cities are more productive than rural areas, producing more patents and yielding higher returns on capital. McKinsey estimates1 that the world’s top 100 cities will account for 35% of global GDP growth between now and 2025.

However, urbanization also presents major challenges. The world’s fastest growing cities have seen problems adjusting to growth and industrialization, choking under the burden of pollution, congestion 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 magnify global threats such as climate change, water and food security and resource shortages, but also provide a framework for addressing them.

If the future of cities cannot be one of unsustainable expansion, it should rather be one of tireless innovation. This report chronicles 10 of the best examples from around the world of how cities are creating innovative solutions to a variety of problems. Many of these solutions are scalable, replicable and can be adapted to a variety of specific urban environments. Some are possible only due to new technologies while others apply technology to ideas that are as old as the city itself.

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 the renting out of 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% of capacity sits idle for much of the time ready to cope with demand peaks; cutting out these peaks with technology-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 smallscale infrastructure – from cycle lanes and bike sharing to the planting of trees for climate change adaptation – can also have a big impact on an urban area.

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