Urban technology in the wild: experiments with civic innovation
Digital technologies, network platforms and real-time markets amount to a new innovation economy. At designX, we are exploring how design-innovation can address the many challenges of a globalized, urbanized and climate-changed planet. And we’re not alone — there is work emerging across MIT and around the world that has the potential to radically transform the human environment. And yet the effects of the innovation economy have only just begun to manifest in physical space. There are three primary barriers standing in the way of urban technology:
- Limited opportunities for real-world testing,
- Vague, inflexible, or outdated regulation,
- Limited incentives for deployment and integration.
Our research on civic innovation is deconstructing these barriers, and our designX civic partner platform is unlocking value for cities and design ventures.
Experiment In Cities
By definition, urban technology ventures must conduct experiments. Because the complexity of a city cannot be modeled in a lab, experiments must be live, in public space. These allow early-stage firms to test prototypes, interact with target users, integrate with existing infrastructure, or simply discover “unknown unknowns.”
And yet that might be the primary reason not to allow experiments. Prototypes can threaten public safety, tests are hard to generalize, there is seldom funding for unproven products, and prototypes might not align with political cycles or agendas. In a lab, we are encouraged to fail. In public space, failure costs money, ruins career prospects, and even endangers citizen’s lives.
Although regulations exist to guard against these kinds of negative externalities, the policymakers who wrote them could never have accounted for technologies like drones or blockchain. Regulations are inflexible — and they often do not have built-in change mechanisms. They either can’t approach a technology, or they shut it down completely. If I’m an innovator, the ambiguous threat of future regulation is a serious disincentive.
In short, cities should not roll out the red carpet for new technologies, but they also should not put up red tape. What is the path forward?
Experiment With Cities
Structured experiments in physical space can support both urban technology and data-driven regulation. The first step is a foundation of baseline data from sensor infrastructure and open civic data portals — and our hometown, Boston, has been a pioneer on this front. Open data serves as a benchmark, allowing codes, standards, and economic models to be tailored to the actual performance of a prototype, and the patterns of use that emerge around it. Not only does this facilitate the technology design and iteration process, but it also allows a firm to empirically demonstrate the value of its technology (to investors, for example, or to future users). Data is open and experiments are transparent, so that policy makers and entrepreneurs can be held accountable. Finally, baseline data streamlines the scale-up and replication process — both for technologies and regulations — across the city or around the world. If all of Boston has consistent environmental quality data, a new rainwater catchment system can be deployed from Mattapan to Fan Pier, or scaled to New York and Cape Town.
Our design-entrepreneurs need to test prototypes in the wild: to iterate the technology, to open the door for investment, or to land first customers. Cities need to update regulations to address urban technology, and ultimately update their physical spaces and municipal infrastructures. Each has what the other needs, and a new mode of public experimentation is the common ground.
Breaking the Stalemate: Experimentation as a Venture Investment
This is not only theoretical: at designX, we are developing real-world models to enable experimentation. Cities can grant testing opportunities as a strategic “venture” investment. Learning from traditional venture capitalists, policymakers can balance risk and reward with a portfolio of ventures. Rather than equity, cities receive direct value from the venture, like a year of software service, 100 KW/h of energy, or one elementary school’s transit needs. They may even mandate that successful businesses maintain local operations, or hire a certain number of local employees. This “advance market commitment” (in legalspeak) can be written into smart contracts, which are directly linked to ongoing data streams that reveal the company’s impact in real time.
Cities are not the only beneficiary; experimentation has significant value for early-stage firms. A successful prototype is the biggest threshold before signing a first customer or securing capital investment. Entrepreneurs use the experiment to show outcomes — better service, speed and efficiency, public health or quality of life. Public prototypes also demonstrate civic technology to its future users, building a brand community and potentially allowing that community to co-design or crowdfund the technology. Experiments become something like a living, interactive Kickstarter video.
A New Approach to Civic Innovation
We have to build and test real hardware in the real world — but that can’t happen, or it won’t stick, unless we address the software of cities: their in-between spaces, their policies and regulations, their cultures and social institutions. With the right kind of real-world testing, we can learn about both. Counterintuitively, experimentation itself can create value, while simultaneously minimizing risk. DesignX is working with civic innovation partners to set up experimentation sandboxes, in the Boston area and around the world.
New technology is risky, but it is also our best shot at an economically equitable, ecologically sustainable and socially delightful civic future. Cities will have to gamble, yes — but their riskiest bet is to grip tightly to outdated systems and regulations.