In spite of countless attempts to understand just how it is that cities function – particularly overpopulated megalopolises that hum with layers of often-ingenious iterations of informality – most fall short of understanding just how they work.

The acceleration of disruptive technologies in recent years means that the future of our cities tends to be tinted in near-Orwellian terms: smart cities controlled by systems that have complete oversight and total control over the lives of citizens, or cities where humans have become dispensable, their jobs taken over by robots and their cars driven autonomously. As exciting as some of these prospects may be, there is no doubt that they plague many with anxiety about a future where cities do not need humans to function effectively. But to imagine cities without their people is to perhaps misconstrue what cities are about: to know cities, we must first attempt to understand the various ways in which they function with, against and in spite of the systems and people that attempt to manage them.

According UN-Habitat, over 90% of the urban expansion slated to take place in the next 35 years will be focused on a handful of cities – most of which are located Global South, and many of which are being built little by little, organically and by the people who live in them, every day. The rapid migration of people to cities ill-equipped to accommodate them has already burdened cities stretched far beyond their capacity and incapable of providing adequate transport, housing or infrastructure, including water, roads, sanitation and electricity to their citizens.

Bureaucratic, top-heavy and largely disconnected from life on the street, city governments rarely have the flexibility, agility or responsiveness needed to deal with the pressing challenges posed by the unprecedented rate of urbanization that we are witnessing today. Nor do they have the insight or the tools needed to learn about and address the needs of their citizens. Nowhere is this more evident than in cities of the Global South, where large swathes of cities are claimed by informal settlements and economies that leave city governments at a loss. These very same cities that struggle to address challenges connected with poverty and unemployment, safety, pollution, climate change, and health, continue to attract urbanites seeking fresh opportunity.

Cities As Sites of Innovation

In her article on the privatization of public space “Who owns our cities – and why this urban takeover should concern us all,” Saskia Sassen describes a large mixed city as “…a frontier zone where actors from different worlds can have an encounter for which there are no established rules of engagement, and where the powerless and the powerful can actually meet.” She goes on to say: “This also makes cities spaces of innovations, small and large. And this includes innovations by those without power: even if they do not necessarily become powerful in the process, they produce components of a city, thus leaving a legacy that adds to its cosmopolitanism – something that few other places enable.”

Sassen’s emphasis on cities as spaces of innovation – where even the innovations of the powerless have a place – drives home the point that urban innovation, or “urbanovation” as we call it, is hardly a new concept.

Rather than perceiving today’s rapid urbanization as an obstacle, it can be perceived as a unique opportunity for the future of cities, if only because rapid urbanization brings with it the rapid growth of industries. According to a study by McKinsey, the market for mobility was worth €63 million in 2010 – the equivalent of €1,000 annually per person on the planet – with the lion’s share of the market going to private transport. Other industries, like housing, are equally affected by the recent wave of urbanization. According to one study, one in three urban dwellers – the equivalent of 1.6 billion people – could struggle to secure decent housing by 2025, making it paramount that the industry’s challenges be addressed not just by governments and cities, but also by innovators who can offer fresh perspectives.

And with the urban innovators come the technologies that they are introducing to industries that have gone largely unchanged for decades. Today, these innovators are finding ways to make tiny houses and open source houses trendy. They are showing us how 3D printing can change how we build houses for both permanent living and in disaster-relief situations; how building with sandbags can provide an affordable alternative to urbanites; how entrepreneurs can use bodies of water adjacent to their cities to build floating structures that serve citizens; and even how brick-laying robots can revolutionize how we build our homes in the future.

Other byproducts of urbanization, including the need for clean, renewable water and energy, the shortage of fresh, accessible food and the need to reduce food waste and improve waste management systems, present equally lucrative opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators.

Urban Tech & Entrepreneurship

Far beyond Silicon Valley, cities like Austin, Berlin, Sofia, Bogota, Jakarta, Kigali, Cairo, Lagos, Delhi, Oslo and Stockholm have become entrepreneurial hubs. While some, like Austin, have strategically and systematically worked to attract and retain entrepreneurial talent as part of growing their equity as sites for entrepreneurship to thrive, others, like Kigali and Cairo, have been driven by need to become sites of entrepreneurial innovation.

And even as cities become more nimble and progressive, adopting management structures that allow them to engage more directly with their citizens using an entirely new set of tools (Boston, for example, appointed a Chief Digital Officer earlier this year), entrepreneurs and innovators are still able to address challenges and perceive problems that city-level governments cannot. And while some innovations – like Mexican scientist’s method to convert urine into biogas – have the potential to disrupt whole industries, others, like Alasdair Rae’s “Draw Your City” encourage us to become equal partners in defining the parameters of our own cities.

Projects like London’s Overground Energy Gardens – a network of community gardens planted on and around the City’s Overground station platforms – reminds us of the importance of community engagement in city-making, while Wikihouse’s open sourced real estate construction project promises to democratize the building process. Further South in Kerala, one man’s answer to electricity shortages is an affordable wind turbine, while in Spain, a bladeless wind vortex promises to harvest energy while overcoming the hazards posed by traditional turbines.

As Sassen puts it: “It is in cities to a large extent where the powerless have left their imprint – cultural, economic, social…” That is to say that, regardless of how powerless they are, urban innovators have a say in what their cities look like and how they function, and urban entrepreneurs are actively transforming, rebuilding and regenerating their own cities in ways that their governments cannot conceive of.

Far more than just brick and mortar, cities are and will continue to be places where a special kind of chemistry brings people from different walks of life together to share experiences they would not have otherwise been able to share. It is in cities that the efforts of innovators, entrepreneurs and opportunists will come together to create the cities of our future.

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