WEC identifies the top 10 urban innovations

Wed, 2015-10-28 06:00 -- Doug Peeples


The acceleration of urban growth is undeniable. Cities experience it now and forecasts say there's much more to come. The UN expects that by 2050 the world's urban population will be as large as the total population of the world was in 2002. And the cities with the fastest growth rates are facing enormous problems as they become more industrialized, more congested, more polluted and in some cases, more impoverished.

Fortunately, many cities have taken on the challenges brought by accelerating population growth. A report issued by the World Economic Forum, Top Ten Urban Innovations, shares what some cities are doing and can do to take advantage of existing resources and infrastructure to accommodate growth and ensure a livable environment.

The report, prepared by the Global Agenda Council on the Future of Cities, identifies four principles that are the framework for finding the solutions to solve a city's problems:

  • Unleashing spare capacity. Take advantage of under-used resources such as land or buildings.
  • Cutting out the peaks. Whether it's water, electricity or roads, 20% or more of capacity is idle and available to manage demand peaks through technology and innovative pricing programs.
  • Small-scale infrastructure thinking. Large infrastructure projects will always be necessary, but smaller-scale projects such as tree plantings and bike lanes can have a significant impact on urban areas.
  • People-centered innovation. From smart traffic lights to garbage taxes, there are innovative ways to change citizens' behavior and improve their lives.

Consider these innovations for your city
Here are highlights from a few of the Top 10 innovation categories in the report. Some of them may be appropriate for your city to consider.

One category, "(Digitally) Re-Programmable Space," illustrates how cities have begun to take a different approach to their available space to do more with less. Vancouver, Canada has reduced its allowed urban footprint while New York City has been gradually repurposing asphalt for more footpaths and open space. The focus? Instead of prohibitively expensive major overhauls, cities are concentrating on making better use of existing infrastructure and resources.

Another, " Waternet: An Internet of Pipes," notes that leaks now account for 25-30% of the loss of critical water resources, with some utilities reporting losses as high as 50%. Smart water management using sensors to monitor flow and manage the entire water cycle for sustainability is one approach. And some companies are developing cloud-based fixes that bring water lines and the Internet of Things together to enable better flood control and rainwater collection. Queensland, Australia's Unitywater utility was able to save $1.9 million and increase water availability by 20% by reducing the time it took to identify and repair problems.

Other innovations include using social media to allow city residents to participate in an adopt-a-tree program to mitigate higher temperatures anticipated from climate change. Another zeroes in on pedestrian and non-motorized transport to increase safety. Small investments in bicycle infrastructure such as bike lanes and bike sharing programs can also make a big difference.

Yet another approach offers a way to conserve energy through what the report refers to as co-generation/co-heating/co-cooling. It involves capturing the waste heat emitted at power plants when electricity is being generated and using it to heat or cool buildings.

Related articles:
Underground parks and floating cities: Bad ideas or brilliant?
Most innovative public spaces: 6 standouts worth a look
Encouraging innovation: approaches for generating winning solutions

 Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.