By Matthew Claudel, a designer, researcher, and writer affiliated with the DesignX innovation accelerator at MIT, where he is a PhD candidate
This essay introduces my brief series of “Urban Innovation Dispatches,” snapshots of my ongoing investigation of three cities — Boston (United States), Aarhus (Denmark), and Reykjavik (Iceland) — and their new seaport redevelopments. The project documents how these areas are being reimagined, shifting from a focus on heavy industry to the creation of “innovation districts,” and how the catch-all vision of “innovation” actually plays out in practice. Each dispatch will spotlight a particular element that is vital to one of these new districts.
Introducing the dispatches: From smart cities to urban innovation processes
Urban challenges — environmental sustainability, social equity, public health, economic systems — are also opportunities for urban innovation, as reflected in new approaches to designing, building, and living in cities. The rapid diffusion of networked technology during the early 2000s seemed to provide a silver bullet for improving cities. Pioneering digital-physical innovation was all about technological sophistication — designing the best sensors to aggregate the most data and achieve the greatest efficiencies. This vision of a digitally suffused metropolis was labeled the “smart city,” and some (Songdo, Masdar) were even built.
Over the past decade, however, the smart-city approach to city design and operation has largely been dismissed by academics and practitioners, who made scathing critiques of social inequality and dystopian surveillance, along with sterile, unappealing places. But as we move forward from the smart-city concept, there is little consensus on how to actually implement urban innovation.
The challenge is to leverage global-scale technologies, best practices, and the power of markets, and merge them with local conditions, neighborhood knowledge, and the history of a place. Smart cities offered an off-the-shelf urban technology product, but I believe that the very process of innovating can benefit stakeholders. Whether or not a project delivers the latest technology, its impact will be greatest if it is developed locally. High-tech or not, it must be something that people need, want, or feel a personal connection to. That kind of embedded innovation is as much about physical space, policy, zoning, neighborhoods, and community as it is about technology.
Unlike the rationally modeled smart city, which can be examined in the abstract, urban innovation processes are, by definition, unique. That is to say, I don’t know what “urban innovation” really looks like. To preconceive it would be just another top-down theory. The only way to approach this phenomenon is to observe activity on the ground. Through the noise of urban technology products, I’m listening for signals of urban innovation processes, and I want to tell the stories of people who are innovating in their local environments.
So if my aim is to discover how local challenges, opportunities, and stakeholders have catalyzed urban innovation, where should case studies be focused? It stands to reason that new areas of the city provide an opportunity, and a tool, to support the urban innovation process. This is the starting point of the seaport innovation district project.
Seaport innovation districts
In each city that I visited, I considered how the innovation district was envisioned (politically), how it materialized (the built form), and how it has been activated (operation and evolution over time). With reference to four primary stakeholder groups — universities, businesses, citizens, and government — I document political processes, innovation strategies, bottom-up projects, academic research, zoning revisions, startups, and as much as I can find in-between, looking for evidence of innovation. Some basic questions guide my investigations:
Is there innovation in how new areas are politically defined? Do they break with the status quo?
New urban areas are an opportunity for innovation. When city planners write a tender or issue a call for proposals, they have the opportunity — perhaps an obligation — to optimistically question development as usual. As city-makers define what the city will be, they explore what the city could be, and steer it toward what the city should be. Imagine an entirely new process for community participation in defining the zoning for each parcel, or giving preexisting communities the opportunity to co-design elements of public space. In each new city, I engage with city hall and look at the public process around new redevelopment areas.
Is there innovation in how new areas are designed? Are they experimental?
Next, I consider how the tender translates into a physical development plan, and more specifically, whether the scheme facilitates experimentation. Urban innovation is unique in that it has to be tested in real public space (not only a controlled lab). New spaces could potentially enable that kind of testing, whether of products, methods, or systems. Experimentation could be embedded in each city’s innovation district — defined by local conditions or communities, and designed into the physical space. Imagine a rapid process for regulatory exemption, or an open data portal to benchmark prototypes against long-term data. To understand innovation in the design process or outcome, I interview developers and architects and citizens.
Is there innovation in how new areas are managed? Are they activated?
Urban development is a long chain of hand-offs — from city planners to developers to architects, and finally to residents. It is traditionally a linear, unidirectional, and contentious process that defers to the financial bottom line. In other words, it fundamentally obstructs innovation, because the end user is disconnected from the entire process. The first two questions examine how this could be reintegrated, through the politics and design of a new district. Once a place is built, it must be activated.
Smart cities were based on the idea that a new place would self-activate — without enough attention to creating the networks, communities, and social interactions that drive innovation. No matter how innovative the design is, sparking civic life raises many questions: what is the first-mover to occupy a district? How does the district gain an identity? What existing communities find a home there, and what new communities emerge? I am interested in discovering the people, projects, and ideas that bring the district to life.
I am sending an “urban innovation dispatch” from each city — a snapshot of a program, policy, or person. In some cases this might look like a wired sidewalk for data-driven energy-efficient streetlights, and in other cases it might look like a messy maker space. Each will contribute, in some key way, to the urban innovation narrative of the city.