“Cities have played a
more important role
in shaping the world
more important role
in shaping the world
– Michael Bloomberg, Mayor,
New York City, 2002-2013
Urbanisation has been the trend that has truly defined the 21st Century. Though the drive to cities has been seen through the years, the acceleration over the few decades is unprecedented in human history. The world is continuously becoming more urbanized, and by 2050, more than 60% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. And underlining this is the seemingly unstoppable growth of the Megacity.
The Revolution in Global and Mega Cities
A new era of the smart city
and innovation district
“Although global cities are interconnected, embedded as they are in global production and financial networks, they are also locked into competition with one another to command increasing resources and to attract capital.”
The world today could be referred to being in the era of the Megacity. Megacities – cities with a population in excess of 10 million people, are an explosive trend. From just two in 1950 – New York and Tokyo, the United Nations’ ‘World’s Cities in 2018’ report had the number at thirty-three, with another ten set to join the ranks of Megacities by 2030. These great metropolises facilitate human interaction, creating an indefinable buzz and soul which is the wellspring of innovation and a contributor to the economic and social success of the Megacity. Building on size and scale, these cities have become powerful economic engines that drive growth often for the entire nation. They tend to position themselves as global, multi-ethnic melting pots and feature complex adaptive systems that behave similarly regardless of geography, political system or economic model.
But as more cities grow and acquire larger populations the challenge of sustaining growth and providing services for the large populations creates an inevitable competition with other cities for attracting jobs and talent. Sharpening their positions and seeking distinctive competitive advantages becomes a key driver in the evolution of global cities. The Encyclopaedia Britannica in its article on Global cities notes.
It is in search for this advantage that we have seen the rise of megatrends that underline the winning advantages that Megacities seek. Two buzz words in particular that are heard over and over again in discussions, strategy papers, analyses and insights are that of the “Smart City” and “Innovation District”. It is these two new urban development strategies that will help cities make the transition to effective units of sustained economic progress.
With so much of the world potentially living in cities, making cities better places to live is essential to quality of life as is making them more sustainable and efficient with streamlined services. There is perhaps no better way to do that than by the Smart City. The Smart City is a city that leverages the power of technology and data to create new levels of efficiency in the delivery of urban infrastructure and services. Often anchored on the Internet of Things (IoT), they have a substantial potential to improve urban quality of life. IoT has led to a plethora of opportunities for cities willing to implement new smart technology.
Smart cities put data and digital technology to work to make better decisions and improve the quality of life. More comprehensive, real-time data gives the city the ability to monitor happening at real time, follow and identify changing patterns, and respond with faster and relevant solutions. They add digital intelligence into the urban world, using it to solve problems and create a higher quality of life. Data then becomes the new fuel for growth and for efficiency.
But eventually it is not just jobs but the overall efficiency of the city and its systems that are impacted by smart city management. Smart Mobility for instance has positive impact on the traffic conditions, data-driven policing can reduce cost and visibility of law enforcement and at the same time make implementation more effective. The Coronavirus Pandemic has again shown the importance of technologies in data-driven public health interventions and the importance of digital tools in patient management. That’s another area the Smart City comes out on top.
The Innovation District is another vital tool utilized by Megacities to move ahead, often where wholesale infrastructure changes are not practical. Innovation districts, as defined by Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner of Brookings Institute, “are geographic areas where leading edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators.
Innovation districts are the manifestation of mega-trends altering the location preferences of people and firms and, in the process, re-conceiving the very link between economy shaping, place making and social networking. The emerging trend of innovation-led urban planning initiatives provides strong evidence of how cities are implementing strategies to promote innovation mainstreaming. Hence, these innovation-oriented policies, which are targeted at reshaping cities, are currently translated in the creation of innovation districts.
They are physically compact, transit-accessible, wired and offer mixed-use housing, office, industrial and other urban facilities. Innovation districts represent a radical departure from traditional models of urban economic development. They help their city and metropolis move up the value chain of global competitiveness by growing the firms, networks, and traded sectors that drive new products, technologies and market solutions.
They represent an important intersection point for entrepreneurs to meet educational institutions, infrastructure to meet technology, all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology. A healthy, safe environment abuzz with ideas and insights, full of coffee shops and bicycles – an eclectic and energetic hub for innovation and growth.
A practical example of the Innovation District currently in implementation is the Jurong Innovation District (JID) in Singapore which attempts to create a vibrant ecosystem for advanced manufacturing within a liveable and sustainable industrial district of the future. It also emphasises another key aspect of Innovation Districts which are thriving industry-academia collaborations. The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy notes that Innovation districts can be seen as “a tangible embodiment of the new economic landscape driven by knowledge and innovation. They have become a key plank of the industrial development strategy.” However, they also note that development of physical infrastructure is only part of the mix, and other ingredients such as creating a conducive environment and cultivating the right talent are needed in attracting the right mix of expertise, entrepreneurs and enterprises for innovation.
The onus on the creation of Smart Cities and Innovation Districts will however not rest with Governments alone. It will vitally require the partnership of a new breed of real estate corporation. Property developers who understand the special requirements of these high-density, high-technology contexts. Developers who have the ability to integrate diverse skill sets – from the understanding of urban infrastructure services, city-wide smart technology solutions, new innovative means of financing as well as leveraging strengths in design and building.
This kind of urban district and environment will require a new model of development and a new kind of developer. A developer who integrates a variety of key strengths and can create a new ‘eco-system’ of complementary skills and resources. One who understands the rapidly evolving context of urban thinking and urban living. A developer who has the courage and the vision to break free of a stereotypical approach and create integrated solutions for new urban typologies like Smart Cities and Innovation Districts with freedom and flexibility.