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Innovation in the 21st Century City

As a global director of the Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group’s Urban Innovation team, I’ve seen how broadband connectivity can radically transform urban life, while forcing us to rethink our entire approach to designing and managing cities. I recently had the opportunity to share some of my ideas on the subject at the 2011 World Council of UCLG (United Cities and Local Governments) in Florence, Italy.

The Council represents nearly half the world’s population, from 36 countries and more than 1,000 cities—everywhere from Istanbul and Dakar to Helsinki and New York. In Florence, more than 400 mayors, along with municipal ministers, directors, innovators and other experts, met to discuss the daunting challenges facing today’s cities, while offering solutions in a creative and interactive forum. Topics ranged from transportation, utilities, and infrastructure to tourism and environmental sustainability.

Mayor Matteo Renzi of Florence, the host of the event, has worked with Cisco on innovation initiatives in his city. In addition to helping him plan the conference, I was granted the opportunity to moderate some sessions on urban innovation.

My focus was on three main trends that I have observed during my 10 years of helping to further urban innovation in Europe, Asia, and the United States:

  1. Broadband infrastructure: As little as five years ago, urban planners could go about their business without worrying about IT and the broadband network. But broadband has become such a pervasive element in our cities that the infrastructure to support it has to be considered along with the networks for water, transportation, and electricity. And more and more, the other fundamental utilities are becoming dependent on broadband, especially as grids get smart and the buildings and vehicles themselves become connected, green, and sustainable.
  2. Internet of Things: Those connected buildings and smart, efficient grids drive a second trend that will completely transform the way in which we manage cities: the Internet of Things. Cisco predicts that the number of connected things will reach 50 billion by 2020. For cities, that means every brick, every lamppost, every road, and every water pipe could be wired to the Internet, feeding a constant and enormous stream of information. Cisco is working to address just how to manage, process, and filter those zettabytes of information, enabling city officials to identify trends and problems as they arise. Thus, urban leaders will need to formulate new strategies and policies for responding to the issues that challenge cities, reflecting a vastly wider scope of information and perspective.
  3. Public policy “at the edge”: A third trend is evolving on the community scale. In the last 60 seconds, about 100,000 tweets were created, 168 million emails were sent, and 13,000 iPhone applications were downloaded from the App Store. That represents an astronomical volume of human-generated content—and some of those apps, tweets, and emails may even be related to furthering public policy. From an urban point of view, this illustrates how innovation and public policy can radiate from the center of government to the edges of cities and communities. Washington, D.C., has promoted a program to harness some of this collective energy for the greater good. It is called Apps for Democracy and encourages people to create their own Web, iPhone, and Facebook apps to tackle city problems. The first edition of Apps for Democracy yielded 47 web, iPhone, and Facebook apps in 30 days—a $2,300,000 value to the city at a cost of $50,000, including prize money. Other cities, such as Amsterdam, have staged “Hack-a-Thons,” similar web-based marathons designed to spur people to collectively solve urban problems through crowdsourcing and open sharing of data.

All of these trends were barely on the radar only 10 years ago. But I believe they will continue to transform the urban experience in ways we are just beginning to understand. Cisco is committed to helping create the infrastructure and innovations that will allow that transformation to flourish.

One way or the other, city life will never be the same.

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