CityFi and the year ahead

“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.” 
― Italo Calvino,
Invisible Cities

2016 was full of questions for cities. What is their role in the changed world order, post-elections in the UK and US? What promise do they hold for the millions of people migrating to them in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa? Perhaps most importantly, what have we learned in nearly a decade of talking about the rise of “smart” cities?

Cities have always been smart. At CityFi we take the long view and see that making real, positive change in cities is the single greatest lever for affecting the outcomes of people’s lives. That’s what inspired us to found the company this year — and it is what drives us forward into 2017. We love technology and we find that it accelerates certain precepts of smart, equitable urbanism in spectacular ways. But our goal — the very basis of every recommendation and plan we submit — is the happy, human experience of living in a city. That’s what a smart city is and we could not be more excited to tackle new challenges in 2017.

This year we worked on many projects. From the Far East to Eastern Europe, the front range to our nation’s heartland. Coast to coast. We advised cities, planning firms, and Fortune 1000 companies on ways to set the stage for upcoming changes ranging from transportation innovation to instrumented infrastructure. Our pipeline for 2017 broadens this focus to welcome projects around digital inclusion and literacy. If the city is a system of systems, CityFi is working in most of them, learning how they interact with one another and support each other across bureaucratic silos.

We’ve sensed for a while — and now have definitive proof — that there’s a deep divide in the beliefs and overall optimism between our urban and rural areas, at least in the US and England. No city strategy (certainly none that purport to be “smart”) can succeed if it doesn’t account for the animus of this divide, one that seems rooted in matters of economic opportunity and its absence. Cities are engines for regions; there are no real boundaries. As we move forward on projects whose main driver is economic development, as one example, we should start all plans from a perspective that’s larger than the street grid. Metropolitan regions — most of whose influence on talent, transportation, and climate stretch all the way to our rural communities — should be our focus.

We know the world is urbanizing at a fantastic pace. Cities mean hope for millions of people. But we don’t have the room or the planning capacity to keep up with the influx. China, India, Nigeria — if you want to see real innovation driven not by technology but by human need paired with ingenuity, that’s where you look. There is want and privation, to be sure, as there always are in urban areas. But these countries are the incubators of urban interventions that balance consumption with production, need with resource, and happiness with the pragmatic exigencies of living at high densities. Look abroad to learn things about home.

And what of smart cities? The phrase seems quaint at the end of 2016. A utopian effort stymied by national policy and leadership priorities? But cities have never been more important. Cities are where the majority of humanity lives — and there is no meaningful smaller jurisdiction to pass the buck to. If it is going to happen it is going to happen in our cities. Challenges that were formerly addressed at the national/federal level increasingly are falling on cites to solve. It’s no longer simply snow removal, trash pickup, public safety and schooling. Nations that refuse to pass climate reform legislation get a reprieve when mayors agree to the terms with their own resources (which is meaningful, given that cities are responsible for 80% of the world’s emissions). Countries that turn away from immigrants find open arms in sanctuary cities. States whose 20th century economies have fled our shores find new businesses and entire new industries growing from their urban centers, to the benefit of all. Our cities need help tackling these challenges.

CityFi is a new kind of company. We’re nimble, distributed, and plugged into a giant network of experts ready to work on projects that need their particular skills. We flex and bend based on client needs and geographic location. We all have private and public sector experience, yoking the best of both together to provide the smartest counsel to our partners no matter the task. (If you’re interested in being part of our team, have a look at our affiliate form.)

We’re excited for 2017 and hope to work with you to make it an exceptional year. There are still so many questions to ask of our cities. Let’s make sure we’re ready to act on the answers.