How cities are becoming theatres for innovation

Sensemaking / How cities are becoming theatres for innovation

Citizens are projecting their dreams onto urban landscapes, and taking up the challenge of local improvement

By Corina Angheloiu / 01 Aug 2016

This article was first published in The Long View 2016. Please share your thoughts here and join the conversation on social media with #longview2016.

Cities have captured our imagination in depicting possible futures where a DIY ethos can be applied to tackle complex urban challenges. No longer is their design the sole territory of architects and urban planners. Just as these places become increasingly homogenised by world brands and top-down design, appetite is growing to start initiatives that bring back the feeling of a living city, nourished by the diverse lifestyles of its inhabitants.

Citizen-driven, community-based initiatives are exposing the limitations of traditional centralised services, using their creativity to transform and multiply existing resources. Mediated by digital technology, people are reimagining the structures that support their chosen lifestyles. DataKind in New York harnesses the data analysis skills of citizen volunteers to mine public data in areas such as health, education and the environment to identify important civic issues and problems. Critical Pixels in Auckland, New Zealand, uses open-source 3D printing and design solutions to meet the needs of local communities.

Shifting citizen behaviours, such as sharing and collaboration, nudge urban governance to accommodate a contemporary culture that demands flexibility, sustainability and participation – and responds well to those spaces left blank for surprise and serendipity. The key is an open mind as to what a city can be, as well as who it should be for. In Birmingham, UK, #RadicalChildcare aims to reimagine the possibilities for childcare provision. In 2016 it will support the development of up to 10 project teams to develop and test solutions, engaging with doers and thinkers in childcare along the way – from parents to childcare professionals, from kids to grandparents, from employers to regulators.

Starting small

This process of reimagining the city starts with residents and users seeing them-selves as ‘citizen-experts’ and appropriating the territory that once solely belonged to professionals – becoming urban developers in their own right and interpreting current boundaries not as design limitations but as opportunities. The 1950s policy-making term ‘incrementalism’ is now used to describe small but potentially game-changing citizen-led innovations.

Incrementalism as understood today brings together existing social capital, activities and small-scale enterprises to generate innovation requiring minimum resources and start-up capital. Many citizen-led enterprises that set out in this temporary way become permanent through time, rather like the post-1989 transformation of Berlin’s city centre from divided urban fragments to flourishing local initiatives pioneering new ways of living, growing food, working and sharing resources, skills and knowledge.The success of some practices, such as custom-built housing, urban agriculture, local business micro-loans and sharing services, saw them adopted and further developed in many other cities, many years after they were tried and tested in Berlin. Incrementalism responds best to an open city that promotes the unexpected encounter and the chance discovery. More walls could fall to enable this.

Who’s afraid of participation?

There is great social and economic potential to be unleashed by harnessing the hyperlocal ethos, incorporating locally generated knowledge and fostering place-based innovation. Proximity strengthens weak social ties, enabling agile collaborations to crystallise and for new initiatives, projects and businesses to arise. Enabled by social media and digital tech, we can argue there has never been a better time for people to organise on their home turf.

Sustainability demands human-scale socioeconomics, led by aspirations other than profit. Equally important are citizen innovators motivated to take on the challenge of local improvement. As the urbanist and social theorist Jane Jacobs once framed the challenge, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because and only when, they are created by everybody.”

By Corina Anghelou, Designer and Project Manager in the Systems Innovation Lab, at Forum for the Future.

Read more by Corina on how innovation in governance is changing how places function.

Image Credit: Unsplash / Diz Play

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