tech trends

In Response To: Will The UK Become The World’s Leading Urban Innovation Lab?

August 7, 2014
by Alison KotinJason Lee

On July 18th 2014, Forbes published a web article (primarily a synopsis of the detailed report Future Cities: UK Capabilities for Urban Innovation) stating that the UK, specifically London, is becoming the world’s leading urban innovation lab. Although the technologies and perspectives outlined in the article are innovative, most are not unique to the UK.

Programs like CCHPs (combined cooling and heating power plants), wireless electric charging pads embedded in the street for public buses, and open civic data policies have been piloted or even implemented in other cities for some time. In comparison to the numerous world cities that are at the leading edge of urban innovation (Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Seoul, Masdar, Stockholm, Singapore, etc.), London is playing catch up.

To be a leader in urban innovation, London—or any city—needs to focus on interventions and technologies that can be implemented in a way that empowers stakeholders and enables everyone to share in the potential benefits. These initiatives should happen on two levels: system-level changes implemented and supported by municipal government and privately funded ventures that foster behavior change among the citizenry.

For example, a number of sustainable technologies for urban systems are predicated upon a high degree of access to technology. And since access to technology is directly connected to relative affluence, the big question is, who will benefit from all this thinking? Innovations may seem technically exciting, but are they sustainable and realistic for their context? For a number of years, Amsterdam has incentivized citizens to purchase electric cars through large government subsidies. These subsidies take the form of a designated charging station parking spot in front of a driver’s residence and place of business. Since parking in the center of Amsterdam is a valuable commodity (cost can exceed 30,000 Euros annually), it makes financial sense for the wealthy to purchase electric cars for their daily commute, thereby getting free parking in front of their home and business.

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Another example comes from Seoul, where the city piloted road-embedded wireless charging stations for public buses, but concluded that the infrastructural investment makes this solution unrealistic for most cities

Finally, Rio de Janeiro’s IBM Smart Cities monitoring system and control center is an incredible example of a government-driven initiative to improve the functioning of the city. Smart Cities integrates data and monitoring for over 30 municipal agencies to provide real time feedback and control to city officials. The impact has been to improve traffic flow, reduce response time for emergency calls, improve air quality, and more. These kinds of improvements benefit all segments of the population.

In addition to large-scale rewiring of connections between infrastructure systems to make them more efficient, can cities leverage local leadership and low-cost infrastructure to support grass-roots innovation? Behavior-driven urban innovations based in resource sharing or barter economies (car or bike shares, CSAs, etc.) provide multiple opportunities for participation by community organizations, neighborhood residents, and businesses. When cities engage with urban innovation on many levels in this way, and are willing to share research findings, best practices, and even raw data with others, they can become global leaders.

In our hometown of Boston, private ventures that promote behavior change by augmenting the sharing economy are arguably having a larger impact on urban innovation that government driven initiatives (remember the Big Dig?). Things like Zipcar, Airbnb, and Uber are enabling individuals to participate in the success of new systems and revealing the economic benefits of doing so. Our local bike sharing system, Hubway (a joint effort between New Balance and the municipal governments of Boston, Cambridge, Brookline, and Somerville), has publicly shared ridership data since its inception and for a number of years has held a data visualization competition that is open to the public . Campaigns like this not only help develop insights for how to improve service but also encourage public engagement.


Arguably, the European context—where government is more effective and has thus garnered more faith from citizens— favors large-scale urban system changes implemented and managed by a centralized authority. In the United States, which rewards economic excellence above all else, privatized behavioral change initiatives can take advantage of the gap between municipal services and the private sector. Regardless, we believe that it will be a combination of high-level systems changes and grassroots behavioral change businesses that leads to robust and durable urban innovation.

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About the Author

  • Kotin Alison
    Alison Kotin

    Alison’s background as a writer, educator, and visual artist informs her design practice. She's fascinated by technologies that facilitate communication, collaboration, and engagement. Alison design websites, apps, interactive objects, and environments that provoke exploration, play, and synergy between digital and physical experiences.

    Alison has created curricula to encourage students to incorporate in-depth research into the design process and explore emerging digital tools. She’s also been a researcher at the Harvard AIDS Institute and as the leader of development and marketing at The Urbano Project.

    Alison holds an MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s Dynamic Media Institute, a diploma in design and studio art from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and a BA in English literature from Brown University.