City Innovation: Inspiration from the World’s Best

Many might associate Denmark with healthy and happy people, a horde of bikes and a sustainable energy and electricity system including wind and district heating.

Copenhagen and Innovation Center Denmark were therefore invited as representatives as some of the most remarkable cities gathered at the City Innovate Summit in San Francisco this recent week.

City Innovation
City Innovation

While the Danish capital does indeed focus heavily on incorporating innovation and technology in development of existing as well as in the building of new neighborhoods, here is an insight into the newest projects from all over the world:

The city is the new smart phone

The common denominator is that to create a city that encompasses everyone, everyone must be involved in the planning. Silicon Valley executive Peter Hirshberg compares the city to a LEGO brick, a place for building up, trying new designs, tearing down, and building up again.

Look at the city as a smartphone: the place where developers and entrepreneurs get together to test out new ideas and solutions. What if we expanded the platform for new-thinking and innovations to be not just a smartphone but an entire city?

Recent trends in Tel Aviv, San Francisco and (yes!) Copenhagen, are to invite people to get access to the city data, space, sensors, and let them use the possibilities to create better solutions. It admittedly seems as a no-brainer, and the hardest part is surely also what concrete initiatives that can be brought forth in the cities.

Let’s look at a couple of the trends:

Trend 1: Free the data!

A number of cities have created portals, where citizens and companies can go in and access a lot of the (anonymized) data generated in the city. While the opening of data can not stand alone, the will to implementation of the ideas must follow.

An example is a San Francisco Urban Hackathon (a hackathon is an event where citizens and groups are invited to “hack” the city, meaning trying to solve problems in a new way), where a group made a map of all reported crimes and visualized it to find the “worst areas”. The police greeted the map as documentation of where they should put a larger effort, and the citizens were happy that their neighborhood problems were finally taken seriously.

Trend 2: Public sector innovation

Instead of leaving innovation and competitiveness to the private sector, a number of companies have started to make innovation part of the daily agenda. A number of cities have named a city official the Chief Innovation Officer or Chief Technology Officer. Those officers have broad areas of operations, and see if things can be optimized – both in the city and within the governing body. In Oakland, California, the office hands out “Most Innovative Employee”-prizes.

An initiative that has been used in the US on both a city and national scale, is the inclusion of private sector entrepreneurs acting as “intra-preneurs” or “Entrepreneurs-in-Residence” in public departments on a year-long fellowship, in order to bring new ideas to the table. An Entrepreneur-in-Residence in San Francisco for instance developed a system to ease navigation for visually impaired visitors throughout the airport.

The Code for America projects is worth looking into, with young designers and software developers trying to solve a number of tasks via virtual services as apps or text messages for citizens and administrators. Have a look at the video below describing a project: they might be joking a bit, but also shows what kind of tools that are possible when teaming up with entrepreneurs.

Trend 3: A city that accommodates ideas

Finally, one of the most striking trends is how a lot of cities really have realized how important innovation is, for instance, this year’s US Conference of Mayors had the theme “Innovation in Cities”.

“The trick is to make people think that government is fun – not the normal adjectives as lame, boring or basically anything but fun,” explains Director of Young Adults Michael Vole from Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv is the city that is consistently ranking in top 3 when Innovation and Entrepreneurship-rankings are published. The city has invested in the entire ecosystem around creativity, including free wifi, affordable housing, startup visas, a strong gay community (which for some reasons seems to be present in many innovative cities), and in general opening up start-ups for everybody, so that also elderly, school-kids and parents can see, what it takes to turn ideas into businesses.

He explains how they have also taken city officials out to meet people where they are – that is on online platforms and by giving brief 20 minutes talks in bars and cafes. Lastly he mentions how they have taken a number of public buildings, and turned these into study halls and co-work spaces when they are not in use.

City Innovation: Where to start?

With a lot of trends and possibilities, where do you even start? Looking at Danish examples, we have found three examples:

InnoCamp: Involving students, local industry and public institutions in a innovation competition, leading to actual tools for participating case companies.

Zero-Waste City: A Danish town where citizens compete about minimizing their waste. Another version is the Californian Coolest City Challenge, where you get points if you are below similar households.

Ideas from future users [Here is no link, as you probably know better who to contact in your community]: If you have an educational institution like a school, Danish “efterskole”, high school or a university college, then try to ask if they would be willing to work on a joint project, getting the students to point out problems and find potential solutions.

 

For further information, feel free to contact Innovation Officer Christian Vinther: chrvje (at) um.dk

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