How city-level innovation is creating business opportunities

Editor's note: To learn more about city-level innovation, be sure to check out VERGE@Greenbuild, coming this fall to San Francisco, November 12-13, 2012.

If you want to visit the future, go to Philadelphia.

The city of brotherly love has published more than 100 datasets since April, when Mayor Michael Nutter issued an executive order requiring city branches to release their once-buried information through an online portal accessible to anyone. The site includes data from nonprofits, universities and businesses, as well as municipal data from maps of enterprise zones to a searchable database of childcare providers.

"Helping government become an enabler and a platform for innovation" is what his job is all about, Adel Ebeid, Philadelphia's first Chief Innovation Officer, told attendees at the GreenBiz Cities 2.0 webcast on Wednesday.

The intersection between local governments, big data and innovation was the key theme of “Leveraging City Investments in Technologies," part one in the three-part series of presentations.

As urbanization accelerates, cities are poised to play a crucial role in fostering innovation, even as their swelling populations and sometimes-creaky infrastructure create a massive business opportunity for the corporate sector, webcast speakers said.

The world will undergo a huge demographic shift over the next four decades, said Eric Woods, a director of Pike Research, a global market research and consulting firm focused on cleantech. Currently, a little more than half the global population lives in urban areas. By 2050, the share of the world's population that's urbanized will rise to 70 percent, with the fastest urban growth taking place in Asia, he said.

“We’re going to be adding around a million people a week to the urban population for the next 40 years,” he said.

As a result, new market opportunities are blooming. According to Woods, more than $100 billion will be spent on “innovative infocentric technology” worldwide over the next 10 years. By 2020, almost $16 billion will be spent annually on that core technology.

Plus, cities of the future will need to provide infrastructure and services on a larger scale than ever before, he said.

That includes working with companies and citizens to harness data, lowering operating costs and delivering needed services as efficiently as possible.

“Cities have become a learning laboratory of innovation and new kinds of capabilities,” said GreenBiz chairman and webcast moderator Joel Makower.

Makower cited a report published by GreenBiz Group and London-based SustainAbility earlier this year focusing on how cities are “vital to the future of sustainability.” Turns out, the report concluded, that sustainability needs cities just as much as cities need sustainability.

How, then, can cities leverage their investments in technologies to provide the greatest benefit possible? And what are the opportunities for business to partner with cities in pursuit of a more sustainable future?

Illustration of city tablet concept provided by hollymolly via Shutterstock

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