Re-imagining Cities

Stefaan G. Verhulst and Julia Root

Frans Masereel, The City, 1925

The Internet has changed virtually every aspect of our lives. One of the last bastions appears to be the city.

From Philadelphia to Berlin to Singapore: data is changing the way citizens and businesses live in and interact with their urban surroundings. The city is emerging as a new platform, allowing citizen-stakeholders to reengineer their geographies in real time and, together, co-create the urban realities in which they live (or wish to live).

How cities are developing new ways to improve people’s lives has become a topic of great interest to many foundations and other organizations. For example, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, Knight Foundation’s Cities Challenge and Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities are using competitions and challenges to unleash the talent and ideas originating in cities. Recent books like The Responsive City and Smart Cities, and journalism projects like Next City, Technical.ly, The Atlantic’s

America Futures Project and CityLab are telling the collective stories of civic innovation and in the process, are creating a community of practice for putting the best ideas forward.

At the GovLab (New York University), we conduct research on the ways in which technology is and can be deployed to re-design public institutions and re-imagine governance. As it relates to urban settings, we observe that cities are re-imagining themselves in four distinct ways. Each way deploys a different set of technologies and tools; when combined with urban thinking and design, each is changing not just our urban environments, but also the pace of change in those environments.

1. Connected cities: In cities around the world, digital platforms are bringing together citizens and service providers in innovative ways. We are witnessing the rise of new types of markets that rely fundamentally on density and ease of interaction within urban settings. The sharing economy (manifested most prominently in sites like Airbnb and Uber) is at the forefront of the connected city. They bypass existing institutions and markets to match needs and services, in the process enabling fresh forms of peer-to-peer interaction.

Many aspects of the connected city are less overtly capitalist or mercantilist. The sharing economy is also marked by free, open source platforms designed with the intent of creating public good and adding value to communities. Examples include San Francisco’s City72, an open-source and customizable emergency preparedness platform Loomio, a free collaborative decision-making tool for groups to make decisions and Community PlanIt, which uses an online game experience to enhance community planning processes.

2. Smarter Cities: We live in an era of Big Data and Open Data. By some estimates, more than 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years alone. Data is generated everywhere, and all the time, in our cities. It is extracted from sensors in buildings and vehicles, it is crowd sourced through innovative apps, and passively generated (often without our awareness) by mobile phones and other portable devices.

The proliferation of data — and the need for analytics to extract meaning from the data—has created a new discipline of study called Urban Informatics, dedicated to using information to better understand how cities function. Researchers in the field of Urban Informatics work to find (and often visualize) new relationships and patterns of interaction. This in turn leads to smarter ways of thinking about and living in cities. It allows citizens to navigate their urban environments with greater awareness, and with more information.

A few examples from the NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress are illustrative. At the Center, researchers tap into large databases released by the government and municipal authorities to visualize the city through a new, dynamic lens. The result is a wide range of applications, mapping tools, and expert analyses that can change how we view a problem or understand who should be involved in the solution. Ongoing projects include an effort to develop an infrared picture of Manhattan’s skyline to evaluate heat and energy efficiency in buildings; and a study to use sensors on “traffic choke points” to suggest ways of reducing travel commutes.

Citizens and civic organizations have also become active participants in making the city smarter. Urban residents, together with data-scientists, policymakers and students, participate in city-sponsored hack-a-thons (e.g. NYC BigApps or HackforLA) to build apps that shed new light on the urban environment. For example, there are apps that use city data to track public transportation, letting citizens know when their bus, train or light rail will arrive or whether they can bring a bike onboard; apps to guide citizens in exploring their public parks; and an app that connects homeless shelters with volunteers. The Red Cross Hurricane App, which uses federal data, functions as a storm tracker and generates critical hyper local updates for storm preparation and post-disaster service finder.

Similarly, citizen stakeholders are active data collectors. Citizen Science uses crowdsourced volunteers to contribute research and data to important studies. The City of New York used Shareabouts to collect public input, in the form of 10,000 comments, on street-by-street public safety conditions, like speeding, jaywalking, poor visibility or other issues. In San Francisco, a team of researchers with the Common Sense Research Project, envision mobile devices as sensor tools for citizens to capture and share information about weather conditions, allergens, crowds or pollution.

Fritz Lang, Metropolis, 1927

3. Participatory Cities: Technology is also enabling a new era of civic cooperation and collaboration. New tools can augment traditional planning processes by tapping into and connecting expertise (e.g. community mapping or neighborhood challenge grants) while expanding who might participate and how they can engage with the process. Tools like crowdsourcing, crowdfunding and crowdresourcing are empowering disparate networks of people to contribute everything from ideas and feedback to skills and funding for public projects. The collective intelligence of the crowd is harnessed on new participatory platforms where ideas emerge in a fertile ecosystem of people, resources and community that allow them to grow from concept to fully realized projects.

Examples of what some call a new participatory urbanisminclude New York’s 311 call center (one of the earliest examples of successful crowdsourcing in the urban context), police use of Twitter to monitor and report on public safety dangers, and Paris’ emerging efforts in participatory budgeting , whereby residents allocate 5% of the city’s annual budget through 2020. Other tools (e.g. Textizen and Citizens Connect) allow citizens to interact with and provide feedback to municipal agencies. A range of platforms (Neighbor.ly, Citizinvestor, and ioby) similarly build on established crowdfunding models to create financial partnerships to build and maintain urban infrastructure. Other innovative tools seek to transform community planning processes, like Community PlanIt which engages users in an interactive online game experience. Collectively, these projects enable engaged citizens to take part in the design and operation of their city in ways not available before.

Lyonel Feininger, Strasse in Paris, 1918

4. Agile Cities: Finally, technology is enabling cities to be more innovative and flexible in their responses to challenges or dilemmas. In particular, data allows cities to measure and evaluate programs, and to conduct real-time analysis to better understand what works and what doesn’t. Much as websites and apps rely on A/B testing to determine a best approach, cities can also conduct real-world A/B testing or rapid cycle evaluation to decide on the best way to solve a problem or meet a citizen need. NYC Human Resources Administration tested new administrative procedures over a mere four months. The result was a streamlined internal workflow that resulted in better service delivery, in this case, for determining Medicare eligibility fraud.

Additionally, civic infrastructure planning and governing processes are taking a page from the tech playbook. For example, a Lean Urbanism project in Detroit uses concepts like open access, open source and iterative designing to implement a “pink zone,” a specific area where bureaucratic red tape is greatly reduced and common sense workarounds can be employed quickly and effectively.

In a related development, some city agencies and service providers are starting to use predictive analytics to better anticipate citizen needs and provide the most effective way of delivering services. The City of Chicago’s SmartData Project and its first tool, the WindyGrid, has been designed to aggregate more then two dozen sources of disparate public safety data from 911 calls to surveillance video and tweets in order to create a heatmap of potentially criminal hot spots.

Similarly, the Los Angeles Police Department is using an algorithm that analyzes years of data to monitor crime hotspots and predict the probability of certain types of crimes. And in Philadelphia, city authorities are using data to map areas where crime and drug-related activities are most (or least) likely to occur; those maps are then used to channel city resources and revitalize urban neighborhoods most in need.

These are just some examples of the ways in which cities are using technology — data in particular — to transform the urban experience. In the coming years, we believe that the trends described here will grow and we are likely to see an increasing number of Re-imagined Cities that are more connected, agile, participatory and smarter.

So that we can better understand the emergence of Re-imagined Cities, take a moment to share your examples or thoughts with us by annotating the above.

Stefaan G. Verhulst is co-founder and chief of Research and Development at the GovLab (NYU); Julia Root is an Adjunct Fellow at the GovLab (NYU)

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