Innovation and the Global City

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change."
— Charles Darwin

For the first time in human history, more than half of the global population lives in urban areas, a percentage which may increase to 70% by 2050. This trend is most pronounced in the developing world. Shanghai's population has almost doubled in little more than a decade, from less than 13 million residents in 2000 to an estimated 23 million today, and by 2050 it is expected to exceed 50 million residents, or twice the State of Texas. Every day some 50,000 people swarm into India's cities, the equivalent of a new Staten Island every one and a half weeks.

While we're not facing that level of growth in the tri-state region, we are projected to grow by 3 million residents by 2030. We are a growing metropolitan region in need of better transit, cleaner energy, efficient public services, and more affordable housing.

Instead, we argue about whether to celebrate the small and unique or build modern systems for the future — the eternal Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses debate -- when obviously we need to do both. We are living in a period of rapid urbanization just as innovation, information technology, and smart systems are fundamentally changing how we build and manage cities and metropolitan regions. It is this relationship between growth and sustainability that will determine what we accomplish in the 21st century.

There is an organic relationship at work here. Urban planning and technological innovation are both non-linear, iterative processes featuring bottom-up, creative disruption. Neighborhoods and communities may lurch sideways, forwards, and back, making several false starts before they find their way. New York City has done astonishing things since the dark days of 9/11, but social critics often refer to the '00s as a lost decade — the "aughts." As we emerge from a global recession and political change sweeps across the planet, perhaps 2011 will be remembered as the first year of the 21st century.

Last year, Regional Plan Association brought together academic think tanks, urban civic groups, and global companies that are looking at innovation as the key to metropolitan growth and prosperity. The 2010 Regional Assembly featured presentations by a host of innovators: car-share companies, computer-makers, transit authorities, and energy providers all talking about how innovation could transform urban systems.

So this year we're doubling down and diving further into this conversation, with a focus on global innovation in all its forms. Speakers from around the world will talk about how cities are managing traffic congestion, building high-speed railroad networks, investing in air travel, and connecting citizens through new social media. How is New York University building a global university with campuses in the Middle East and Asia? What is London doing to modernize its airports? Why are planners in Australia using sustainability to prepare for natural disasters? How are Stockholm and Paris creating more livable streets that share the road between pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers?

Our goal on April 15th is to showcase some of the best innovations from around the world, and discuss what our city, region, three states, and federal government should be learning from these examples. Our morning program will feature keynote addresses from leading academics who have written about the promise of cities and what we need to do to unlock their potential. Economist Ed Glaeser from Harvard proposes that cities hold the key to our future and argues that many of our urban policies have swung far in the direction of limiting their growth and prosperity. Urbanist Ricky Burdett from the London School of Economics and his colleagues with the Urban Age Institute have identified innovations that cities around the world are pushing in energy, housing, water, design, and transportation. The luncheon program will examine what a global technology and infrastructure company, the U.S. federal government, and the State of Connecticut are doing to apply these lessons to real-life case studies, showcasing the talent of innovative leaders.

New York City and the tri-state metropolitan region have an extraordinary history of innovation to build on, including investments in infrastructure and human capital. Great plans range from the Commissioners Plan of 1811 to the nation's first zoning ordinance in 1916; from Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux's Greensward Plan of 1858 to Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030. Transformative infrastructure projects include opening the Erie Canal in 1825 to create new trading routes and daming the Croton River in 1842 to provide clean drinking water. New Jersey built the first community designed for automobiles in Radburn in 1929, Nassau County's Levittown invented the modern suburb, and Suffolk County revolutionized preserving farmland by purchasing development rights. During the 1960s, battles over a hydro-electric plant in the Hudson Valley spurred the modern environmental movement, while Connecticut became home to the world's most creative traders and investors.

To remain a global region, we must expand on this tradition. As the great architect and city planner Jane Thompson has pointed out, Charles Darwin's insight applies just as much to communities as to species. Cities must be able to adapt to changing environments — whether this means a warmer planet, or higher cost of electricity, or new ways to trade equities and derivatives. To paraphrase Darwin, it is not the richest, strongest, most intelligent, or beautiful cities that will thrive and survive in the urban century. It is the ones that can best adapt to change.