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.

On the Ground, Here and Abroad

Technology was certainly the highlight of many of the presentations, but not always in ways that one expects. Bill Moggridge, director of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and co-founder of IDEO, highlighted examples of how to "design with the other 90%" representing what is often referred to as a city's poor and disenfranchised. You can download his presentation here or find more information here, but I'll highlight three unique projects:

  • Floating Community Lifeboats. By 2050, 17 percent of Bangladesh will be under water, but by using their traditional skills and designs, boats are being used to house schools and libraries.
  • Incremental Housing. In Chile and Mexico, architects have designed structures that are "half-built" with residents completing the structures to meet their specific needs and reflect their personal style.
  • Ground Truth Maps. Both Bill and the Rockefeller Foundation's Benjamin de la Pena called out the work being performed by Shack/Slum Dwellers International. By creating ground truth maps that enumerate the favela and slum dwellers of a city, this organization advocates for the urban poor to be at the center of strategies for urban development.

Technology Helping Cities Learn

In addition to the technology one would expect at a conference hosted by Cisco and Philips (ubiquitous connectivity and lots of lighting), there were a number of examples presented of technologies that are shaping how cities evolve. International panelists (via Cisco's telepresence) described information technology (IT) as a sustainability game changer as well as a means of sharing information across long distances. Some of the more interesting projects are:

  • Code for America. According to their website, this NGO creates web applications that enable cities to connect with their constituents in ways that reduce administrative costs and engage citizens more effectively.
  • SeeClickFix.com. This for-profit company helps citizens report problems to their local government agencies and track how the issue is resolved. Whether it's a pothole or obscene graffiti, it's a direct connection to improving the neighborhood.
  • Change by Us NYC. A website run by the City of New York, Change by Us NYC provides a Internet-based platform to share ideas, create projects, and find resources to make good ideas a reality.

Meeting With Their Minds

Getting two hundred people together for a Meeting of the Minds doesn't mean you also get all the answers. But it's encouraging that Gordon Feller and Bill Reinert have created a place to entertain a wide range of ideas that should be considered by policy makers and city planners as well as corporations and NGOs.

We continue to follow the increasingly connected world of vehicles, energy, buildings and the IT networks that bring the technology together in the built environment. GreenBiz Group calls this concept VERGE and we'll be following the efforts of Gordon, Bill, and the many other thought leaders who are pushing the technologies and ideas behind VERGE forward. As always, we'd love to hear your thoughts on the future of this big idea we call VERGE, either in the comments below or by email.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user vl8189.