Exploring Cities of the Future  -- and the Future of Cities

Last week I joined a couple hundred individuals from corporations, universities, governments and nonprofits to work on the high-minded goal of challenging "old paradigms with untold urban sustainability innovations and fresh ideas from around the world."

It's an ambitious statement, but the annual "Meeting of the Minds" (MotM) conference -- this year in Boulder, Colo. -- has been focused on big issues since it was launched five years ago by Cisco's Gordon Feller (when he led the Urban Age Institute) and Bill Reinert, national manager of Toyota's Advanced Technology Group. (You can read Matthew Wheeland's discussion of the history and aims of MotM with Gordon Feller here.)

It was a timely gathering, considering a recent L.A. Times article that pointed out that in 1900, according to the London School of Economics, 10 percent of the world's population lived in cities. Five years ago that figure reached 50 percent. By 2050, it is likely to be 70 percent, or even 75 percent. The time to challenge old paradigms is certainly now with Earth's population increasing by 50 percent (from six billion to nine billion) over the same time frame.

Is Today More Interesting Than the Future?

As Yogi Berra once famously noted "the future ain't what it used to be." Back in 1968, the magazine Mechanix Illustrated predicted we'd be commuting in autonomous cars, plates would be so inexpensive they could be thrown away, and the single most important household item would be the computer (which would mainly be used to control our homes) while we shopped via TV and telephone.

On the stage of MotM, a panel moderated by Toyota's Bill Reinert (you can read Charles Redell's coverage here) as well as a keynote from MIT's Kent Larson provided perspectives (and really cool videos) on the future of the automobile in tomorrow's cities. It's a future of sleek two-person electric vehicles that autonomously navigate, travel in packs for efficiency, and find their own parking spaces. Other presentations during the day-and-a-half conference proffered the future as a sort of Cheers-style Internet where every device imaginable not only has an IP address, but everybody knows its name.

These visions of a future enabled by interconnected technology are certainly one aspect of the increasingly important urban environment. The unique aspect of MotM, though, was to bring together a disparate group of selected corporate sponsors, NGOs, mayors and other government officials, consultants, students, and more to provide the brain trust and perspective to help rattle some old paradigms. As government officials stressed throughout the event, urban development requires both long-term vision and master plans but also the open-mindedness to reinvent your city with new ideas today.

Next Page: How technology can help cities and the people who run them.