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Innovate UK

It’s time to seize a new wave of innovation to solve city challenges

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Last night my cousin Polly and I cooked up a brilliant (we think) idea for London to eradicate single use coffee cups (Khan’s Cups!).  We are not successful innovators, nor likely to be.  But she and I are both dyed-in-the-wool cityphiles, and, like many, see challenges that need answers.

Not everyone shares our outlook.

City skyline in black and white dots

City living - love it or hate it

In fact, city living is a real Marmite topic.  Those that look unfavourably on urban life have plenty of ammunition.  Terrible congestion, choking air, a crisis in housing, stress, alienation and loneliness, and poor health.  Case closed, they say.  Yet still tens of millions of us each year move to cities.

We are urbanising rapidly as a species.  The shift to an becoming an almost entirely urban species is one of the outstanding features of our current phase of history.   So the city-lovers have history and current behaviour on their side.

And they are right.

Cities can be regarded as our greatest invention

Cities have been a key factor in most of the significant steps forwards and breakthroughs in the human journey.  Ed Glaeser, the Harvard economist, goes so far as calling them our greatest invention. Better than penicillin, or the printing press, or the internal combustion engine.

City skyline in black and white

Cities force the best from us

And though the city-haters have a point about urban isolation, anti-social behaviour and much else, it turns out that the best thing about cities is that they force the best out of us.  They are built and run by human co-operation (ok, not always in benign forms), made dynamic by competition, and are, above all, amazing engines of innovation. Something about cities makes us collectively more ingenious, and better at re-invention. In common with writing, electricity and the Internet, cities are, arguably, a general purpose technology.

Our best invention turns out to be the one which generates innovation better than any other.

Cities offer a range of opportunities for innovation

Cities are good at solving both their own specific problems through innovations like sewer systems and underground railways, but also wider challenges. Legal forms that enabled trade to flourish were spawned in cities.  Stock exchanges too. The benefits of these changes improved humanity’s lot overall, not just that of urban elites.

Fast forward to today and we see around us a new wave of innovations emerging from our cities in healthcare, finance, entertainment, in almost every field of human endeavour. And we also witness and sometimes contribute to, ideas that make cities themselves work even better, from ride-sharing to re-wilding.

Each successful idea only builds the potency of cities further.  In short, ideas like Boris Bikes and Oyster cards make London more attractive, more talented and industrious people want to live and work there and so make it an even better source for the next great idea.

Commercially these forces make for enormous global opportunities.  Estimates vary but are typically in the trillions of dollars.   The UK, because of its strong history of civic inventiveness, its open economy, and its world leading research, is poised to lead in emerging advanced urban services.

City skyline in black and white

Innovating in cities can be taxing

But innovating in and for cities can be taxing.

Just take the seemingly innocuous world of parking.  Ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles change the very foundations upon which modern parking regimes are built.  Yet how to innovate here when ownership and regulation of parking can be spread across multiple sectors and jurisdictions, and there are sizeable tax receipts at stake?

City X event

To address this and other challenges Future Cities Catapult is hosting CityX a three-day expo and conference in September (25-27).  We are gathering the brightest and best of the UK’s businesses, market disruptors, pioneering researchers, city mayors and managers and other key city stakeholders for three days of presentations, workshops and curated networking.

Together we will explore areas ripe for innovation, with a focus each day on adaptability, breathability and, finally, mobility. We cannot predict which innovations will advance as a result, but we are confident some will.

But I won’t be betting on Polly and my Khan’s Cups being amongst them.

You can follow Future Cities at @futurecitiescat

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Robin Brownsell posted on

    Rob, Sorry I wont be able to make the event but you might be interested in coming to the WAN Symposium on the 20th September as it is looking at the Reclaiming The Streets challenge : -