The Generative City

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By Ayesha and Parag Khanna February 2013 | Urban Solutions

In recent years, ‘smart cities’ have risen up the agenda as demonstration projects for sustainability and showcases for innovation in new industry clusters. At the same time, there is a growing realisation that most cities coping with rapid urbanisation, ageing infrastructure, and scarce finance struggle with the enormous challenge of retrofitting and modernising in and affordable manner. For both old and new cities, technology is only part of the solution; policy matters just as much.

As the price of technology falls, sensors become increasingly ubiquitous, and data analytics widespread, what will increasingly differentiate cities is not how ‘smart’ they are in terms of technology penetration, but the extent to which they leverage technology to bring about innovation, sustainability and inclusiveness. Why do these normative elements matter in evaluating the management of urbanisation? Historically, great cities of the world have been determined by geographic location, demographic diversity, infrastructure quality, industrial innovation, vibrant culture, and global connectivity. Yet in the age of mega-cities featuring not only large populations but also great stratification of incomes and disparities of access to essential services, the extent to which all of a city’s population shares in technological progress and its material benefits becomes an important qualifier as cities benchmark against and learn from each other. Indeed, the rapid acceleration of urbanisation in recent decades correlates directly to the rise in income inequality within nations, even as it diminishes between them.

The essential approach to harnessing technology to serve the goals of innovation, sustainability, and inclusiveness is called generativity. Generativity is a broader property of systems that denotes the capacity of agents within them to connect to others and produce unanticipated outcomes and change. While the term’s origins lie in psychoanalysis and linguistics, the Internet is now commonly understood to be a nearly universal and generative system. Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard Law School writes that the Internet is generative because of its “capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.” Indeed, the Internet is open to all participants, technically accessible to users producing code and content, and amenable to extension in un-predetermined ways. Such generative characteristics have enabled the Internet to become a kaleidoscope of applications created by a global community of users.

Today we can witness how technology is advancing the generativity of a wide range of social systems. In our governance, economy, healthcare, and educational domains, new producers and users of services are emerging, as citizens are empowered to leverage modular designs, lower cost production, and peer-to-peer exchange to disrupt traditional hierarchies and patterns. From flip-teaching in the classroom to virtual currencies in the marketplace to citizen activist networks, human social organisation is increasingly generative in nature. As some have already observed, it is beginning to resemble the Internet itself.

Nowhere is this truer than in cities that are experimenting with new technologies to cope with the pressures of urbanisation.

engagement bring us beyond the ‘Internet of Things’ to the ‘Internet of People’. Only through such generative civic engagement with technology can successful programs such as ‘See-Click-Fix’ emerge across multiple American cities in which citizens respond to each other’s inputs and problems as much as the government does. One sees such innovation in developing countries as well. One leading example is the Bangalore-based Map Unity, a civic initiative to geo-locate not only transportation services, but also information about heritage sites, educational engagement bring us beyond the ‘Internet of Things’ to the ‘Internet of People’.

Only through such generative civic engagement with technology can successful programs such as ‘See-Click-Fix’ emerge across multiple American cities in which citizens respond to each other’s inputs and problems as much as the government does. One sees such innovation in developing countries as well. One leading example is the Bangalore-based Map Unity, a civic initiative to geo-locate not only transportation services, but also information about heritage sites, educational engagement bring us beyond the ‘Internet of Things’ to the ‘Internet of People’. Only through such generative civic engagement with technology can successful programs such as ‘See-Click-Fix’ emerge across multiple American cities in which citizens respond to each other’s inputs and problems as much as the government does. One sees such innovation in developing countries as well. One leading example is the Bangalore-based Map Unity, a civic initiative to geo-locate not only transportation services, but also information about heritage sites, educational institutions, agricultural sites and prices, and health clinics.

Successfully creating such an integrated information system fundamentally requires the presence of both hard and soft infrastructure elements, ranging from reliable power supply to widespread broadband Internet and mobile connectivity. As cities in developing country expand their basic infrastructure, their investment models should focus on sustainable technologies such as LED street lighting and low-emission building construction for commercial and residential real estate, while also ensuring adequate allocation for affordable public housing. Though the obstacles to major infrastructure finance include its long time horizon and high start-up costs, innovative financing models are emerging at the intersection of public and private actors such as infrastructure banks, covered bonds, credit risk guarantees, and corporate financing arms.

Sustainable infrastructure is not only about technology but citizen and consumer behaviour. Even as Stockholm and Copenhagen strive towards zero-emission buildings and port facilities, they have also expanded public cycle access through schemes such as Copenhagen’s ‘bicycle superhighway’. As demand for private vehicles grows in emerging markets, cities such as Singapore are offering a rebate of up to 40% on the purchase of low-emission vehicles, and expanding plans to deploy a fleet of shared-use electric vehicles. The ‘Trees Across Toronto’ program has planted 300,000 trees across the city, while New York City authorities and citizens are halfway towards their goal of one million trees by 2017. New York also not only has mandatory energy audits for government, commercial and residential buildings, but is creating ‘solar maps’ that allow residents to measure the solar power potential of buildings in which they live and work, presenting opportunities for cost savings and entrepreneurial innovation. Similar initiatives are underway to promote vertical farming projects that can boost the resilience of food supply, and the use of biomass for waste-to-energy power sources. Especially given growing demand for fresh water supply, Singapore’s distribution of do-it-yourself kits to reduce water leakage – earning it the lowest rate of home water leakage in Asia – needs to be replicated across the Middle East and South Asia as well.

Infrastructure innovation and job creation will be most necessary in precisely these highly populous regions where urbanisation rates are highest, property rights weakest, and social protections most fragile. Already one in five people in the world live in urban slums, a number that will only diminish if policies are designed with inclusivity as a priority. Here generativity implies approaches that legitimise the transactions of the informal sector and provide financial support and incentives for the provision of safe water and sanitation and adequate housing. In Mumbai, new housing is being developed to help shift residents of the city’s largest slum, Dharavi, into permanent settlements. In Rio de Janeiro, new cable cars are in place to connect favelas to central districts, increasing both mobility and economic opportunity.

Many other facets of urban life will take on attributes of generativity in the years ahead. For example, an estimated three times as many workers will telecommute one decade from now as service sector employment grows and broadband Internet access spreads. Also, private vocational institutes in emerging markets are training thousands of potential entrepreneurs in critical fields ranging from programming to construction management. Such trends suggest the possibility of a virtuous circle of less congestion, greater employment, and more innovation.

While this scenario is one of many involving the intersection of urbanisation and technology, it reminds of the need to act with foresight in infrastructure planning. Here we have attempted to raise questions that must always be answered along this process: How transparent and co-governed are new technologies deployed in urban environments? To what extent are innovation, sustainability and inclusiveness strategically incorporated into new infrastructure investments? Ultimately, balancing the desire for control with the need for healthy chaos and experimentation are the essence of empowering a progressively

We must remember that generativity is a value-neutral property. Systems that are open to all can become vehicles for egalitarian policies but also monopolistic actors. From the prevalence of upgraded security cameras with facial recognition technologies in major cities such as London and Beijing, to the fierce competition among ‘Silicon Superpowers’ such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook to dominate hardware, software, search engines, and consumer data, it is far from certain whether cities in the future will more resemble the ‘City of Control’ or ‘City of Trust’ from David Brin’s noted 1998 novel The Transparent Society. It is therefore most incumbent on the residents of generative cities themselves to harness their increasingly technological environment to shape urban life in directions that are innovative, sustainable, and inclusive.

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