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May 21, 2009

Making Great Cities

What makes a great city? Is it healthy citizens? Plenty of jobs? A well-educated population? Or is it beautiful parks, a low-crime rate, and affordable transportation?

A great city is some, any, or all of those things and more. Cities are every one unique. So what constitutes a great city depends entirely on the city in question and the values of its residents. And that’s why many of the participants of IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook deep dive in Los Angeles advocated starting from the bottom and working up when going about building smarter cities.

“The questions that each city has to answer are these: How does leadership and management tap into the values of their communities? Do they have the systems and structures needed to translate those values into metrics that represent what people want? And are they able to then measure their progress towards those goals?” said Scott Taylor, a Senior Managing Director at Teach for America, a non-profit organization that provides young teachers in disadvantaged school districts. 

Taylor was not alone in this approach. The discussion featured experts in everything from urban planning and management to health care. It included futurists, urbanists, and journalists; academics, educators, and technologists. And many of them agreed on the need for some kind of system for urban change that is adaptable, specific to each particular city, and informed by the residents of that city.

Here are a few salient quotes from the day around this idea:

“You have to go back down to the bottom,” said one participant. “You have to be able to tailor your solutions, because what’s good for one city might be catastrophic to another. And the system must govern toward that vision, but be designed for rapid, incremental change and response to things we cannot possibly predict.”

And:

“We are trying to plan a quality of life and an urban experience for people that we don’t even know yet, our future generations,” said Mary Jo Frederich, Director of Industry Solutions Lab and First-of-a-Kind Solutions at IBM. “Already my kids interact with each other and their schools in ways that I don’t understand.”

And finally:

“We know that more planning does not necessarily help you succeed,” said another participant. “In fact, the more you plan, the greater the cost of failure. So let’s have a thousand little failures that make up a collective, long-term success.”

Throughout the day, much of this thinking was directed towards the subject of education. There was little disagreement among those in the room that urban schools are part of the foundation of a smarter city. And the philosophies above have direct relevance in how to approach improvement of city schools.

“You can define and measure an educated city in a number of ways,” said Taylor. “Maybe it is narrowing the gaps between the best and worst education level. Or maybe it’s the percentage of people that go to an Ivy League school. But you have to be careful which metrics you choose, because those two things are very, very different. So where you start from shapes what information you’re going to gather and what you will do with it.”

At least one metric that most people in the room felt was important was the level of integration city schools had with their communities. For example, Oakland’s school system has its students addressing climate change by going out into the community and performing energy audits around the city. This is just one example of how educational curriculum can intersect with other urban systems, in this case energy and utilities, and make the school system a more integral part of a community. This enables the schools to improve the community, and makes the community more inclined to support the schools.

While it may be true that no two cities are alike, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from examples like these. And when the values of the community are taken into account, a vision is created, and progress is measured, smarter cities are possible, one small step at a time.

May 21, 2009 | Permalink

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