We built this city on social innovation

In my travels this Fall I noticed that some clever cities have been putting themselves on the map by picking one area of great social need that they desperately need to solve for themselves, going big, and then becoming a model for rest of the world to learn from.

In the process, they are creating whole new local industries, attracting and keeping talented residents, and solving their most pressing problems at the same time.  It’s a new model for building prosperity through social innovation.  Brilliant.

I wanted to highlight some of the coolest examples of this phenomenon I have observed first hand, and I hope my own city, DC, will follow suit.

What puts a city on the map?

One example isn’t a trend, but you can certainly draw a line through 5-6 data points.  Here’s why this particular line is important.

Cities compete globally for their reputations, residents and markets for their businesses. Cities, just like people, can thrive or stagnate based on that reputation: the thing that puts them on the map.

A unique, energizing vision or mission for a city can help create such a reputation by mobilizing and unifying great effort from the community around concrete goals. A few common ways cities or regions have put themselves on the map, historically, have included:

  • Becoming an epicenter for an industry (Los Angeles, Silicon Valley…)
  • Becoming a transportation hub (Charleston, Chicago…)
  • Becoming an artistic haven (while the scene lasted: Venice, Paris… Lately: Berlin, Asheville, Dubrovnik…)
  • Becoming an intellectual capital (Alexandria, Oxford, Boston…)
  • Becoming a center of commerce (New York, Hong Kong…)
  • Becoming a center of political power

While traveling this Fall, I observed that another option has emerged late in the last century, with a great deal of room to grow in the next:

Become a center for social innovation – pick a single target issue (eradicating homelessness, radical energy efficiency, urban organic farming, etc.), invest heavily in solving that problem, and become a model from which others want to learn.

There are a handful of cities already putting themselves on the map by doing this. Whether those efforts have emerged from inspired leadership or from fortuitous emergence, these cities have found that there are many happy side effects to focusing their efforts like this- aside from increasing the likelihood of actually solving their most pressing problems- including:

  • Attracting talented people to move to their cities to join the industries that have emerged around these areas of focus
  • Attracting tourists or formal study tours to learn from these innovative cities firsthand
  • Attracting partnerships and contracts with other cities to help them develop similar solutions

For example:

Copenhagen, Denmark – Cycling Innovation Capital

While cycling has been a popular mode of transportation in Copenhagen for more than a century, it was not destined, necessarily, to be one of the world’s most friendly cities for cycling, which it is.

With increased prosperity and the rise of the automobile around the middle of the last century, Copenhagen was gradually becoming a less bike-friendly city. Cars and cyclists were having trouble figuring out how to get along.

But around the 1980′s a partly-organized and partly-organic effort pushed the needle back the other direction dramatically. One way or another, the city collectively recognized and stood up for something that was important to it: keeping the roads friendly for cycling.

Copenhagen is now one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world. Just a sample of some of the things I observed in person about their cycling infrastructure:

  • There is a robust culture of respect and etiquette between cyclists, pedestrians, and cars. When I rented a bike in Copenhagen, I was immediately and politely given a quick summary (by a rental company operator who reminded me a bit of The Tallest Man on Earth) of the city’s cycling culture and norms, such as which hand signals to use when turning and breaking, and the appropriate way to make a left turn across oncoming traffic. I observed these rules to be the total norm everywhere we rode. These norms didn’t emerge by accident; there has been a great deal of effort and advertising put into building them.
  • Bike lanes are physically separated from sidewalks and car lanes. Virtually every road has one. Some roads are dedicated cycling routes.
  • There is a national highway system of bike trails! Let me say that again… you can ride from any city in Denmark to another… by bike… without setting one tire on a road shared with cars. I rode one such trail all the way up a beautiful 40km stretch of coastline.
  • The traffic lights are being re-timed to reflect the average speed of a bicycle instead of a car. They call this the “green wave.”
  • And yet, they talk about how much work they have yet to do…

Copenhagen, as you might expect, has had to build up an entire industry around this effort, which now exports that expertise to many other cities who want to learn from its example. For example, when Mexico City, Melbourne, and New York wanted to make their cities more bike-friendly, they went to the Copenhagen-based Gehl Architects. Not to mention all of the designers, filmakers, etc. that have been attracted to the city to join the fun.

In the world of cycling innovation, Copenhagen is on the map.

Lyon, France – Lighting Innovation Capital

If you love beautiful lighting, someday you must visit Lyon. Since 1989, when the city became the first city in the world to have a lighting plan, the city has been developing an entire industry around a lighting cluster.

Like Copenhagen and cycling, Lyon has a beautiful story to tell about why it invested such a concerted effort into lighting: an annual winter festival in which the entire city is lit by lanterns at 8pm, which has been a tradition since 1852.

Like Copenhagen, Lyon exports its lighting expertise internationally. My host in Lyon in August told me that the city of Shanghai and many others have hired its Cluster Lumière.

Chicago – Green Roofs Initiative (+SF, +Charlotte, NC)

There was a time a few years ago that no one could mention green roofs without Chicago coming up. That was because Mayor Daley showed some leadership and introduced incentives to help along green roofs, before they were popular elsewhere, like fast-tracking permits for developments that included them. This might have even played a role in the decision by the US Green Building Council to host their enormous annual conference in 2008 in Chicago.

The same can be said for other cities around certain areas of green technology innovation. I wonder how much innovation San Fran’s goal of sending zero waste to landfill by 2020 will spur, for example.

My home town of Charlotte, perhaps better known for its banks and NASCAR, has begun a program called Envision Charlotte which is rallying a common effort between banks, developers, and energy service companies (with Bill Clinton helping out) to reduce the energy consumption of the downtown building stock 20% by 2016.

If Envision Charlotte is as successful as I hope it will be, in ten years your city might be hiring designers and engineers who first got their start in Charlotte (or Chicago, of SF, depending).

What about your city?

In my really rough assessment, urban farming, affordable healthcare, housing the homeless, cracking inner city education, city-wide brownfield reclamation, and many other areas of need are up for grabs!

I hope that my own city of Washington, DC will be the next to join this trend by taking a leadership role in housing innovation.


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