Urban Transformation

How can cities prepare themselves for the future?

A woman jogs along the Charles River on an early spring evening in Boston, Massachusetts April 3, 2014. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Image: REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Gretchen Effgen
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The City of Boston was a recent hand-raiser to review its progress against the Top 10 Emerging Innovations, as described by the Global Agenda Council on the Future of Cities. Boston is actively pursuing innovative programs and policies, which range from unleashing spare capacity of underutilized resources, and cutting out peak usage and design thinking, to small-scale infrastructure thinking (where seemingly modest programs can have outsized-impact on cities), and people-centered innovation.

Boston’s City Hall views itself as part of a broader ecosystem that must invest in and support entrepreneurship, both within and outside of the confines of municipal government. Its internal investments include scaling up analytics capabilities and investing in the Office of New Urban Mechanics, as well as establishing Directors for Active Transportation and Sustainability. Drawing on its resource-rich region, where universities, start-ups and large companies alike play integral roles in the economy, Boston’s progress across each of the Top 10 Innovations reflects the City’s commitment to private sector and university partnerships to solve problems impacting the day-to-day lives of Boston residents.

The challenge is to ensure that programs and partnerships continually move the needle and don’t get complacent. Like any city, Boston needs to establish a platform on which future disruptions can be built. By pushing the envelope with the same level of inquisitiveness and energy that led to the innovations outlined here, the City is continually evaluating where it should act as the program provider, a platform upon which the private sector can innovate, or where a hybrid model would be most appropriate. Transportation would be a good example of a hybrid model, with local companies like Zipcar and Bridj supplementing the transportation options available to city residents.

Using the analogy of technology being obsolete as soon as the next generation is available, a “smart city” must exhibit similar thinking. A smart city cannot be built or bought in a “one and done” manner but must continually seek a “future ready” state. Thus, a smart city relies on a culture of governance that is open to innovation, potential disruption and adaptive to change in order to avoid obsolescence. As Boston seeks to further its achievements in these and other innovation areas, it should continue to leverage its regional advantages and measure its progress, as with CityScore, to nurture and advance its status as a forward-thinking city.

Such thinking is vital if we are to future-proof our cities.

The white paper, Top Ten Urban Innovations: City of Boston Scorecards, is available here.

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