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What If We Built an Open Innovation City?

Bringing intensity and focus to open innovation through new development zones that have open collaboration at their core

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What if we built a city? Or, better yet, two or three cities. They will be showcases and focal points for Open Innovation. Innovation in areas of sustainability, energy, agriculture, land use, transportation, efficiency, healthcare, healthy living, fairness, architecture, town planning, livability, humaneness,... well, potentially anything. They will be living labs. Not a utopian vision. Just places focusing on continuously improving things through collaborative innovation. We don’t know a priori what they will be like. That all comes out of the participatory design process, with thousands (one hopes) contributing their ideas, design thinking and sweat.

Building a City Isn't Inconceivable

People have said “Let’s build a city” before, and have gone on to do just that. By the thousands in the 17th to 19th centuries in the US. And it still happens today. I live in a city that grew in population from essentially 0 to 135,000 in the 40 years since 1975 (it was the brainchild of an innovator who, ironically, was also working in 1975 on a technology breakthrough that affects all of us today). And the New Urbanism design firm DPZ built Seaside, Florida from scratch a few decades ago; it’s captivating, and can be seen in the film “The Truman Show”. In the 1990’s I heard Bill McDonough (of “cradle-to-cradle” fame) describe China’s plans to build 100 new cities, each with a population of 1 million (and he was involved to help ensure that the plans were eco-friendly). Nowadays, pop-up cities are sprouting all the time in Asia.

Building a City through Open Collaboration is an Exciting Possibility

Christopher Alexander’s book, “A New Theory of Urban Design”, chronicles the collaborative design process for reviving a neglected section of San Francisco, and despite this being a simulation using a scale model, captures the energy and exciting dynamic of different individuals’ ideas building off each other.

Why Build New Cities when Existing Ones Need So Much Attention?

Of course we should continue to seek across-the-board innovations and continuous improvement everywhere. The present proposal isn’t in opposition to widespread innovation. The main thrust behind the concept of building a new Open Innovation City is the notion that with a critical concentration and intensity of effort in a few specific places, we can better build momentum to propel innovation forward. The Open Innovation City can be a show-case, a destination site and an inspiration for other cities to follow. Grandstanding, yes, but in a positive way. (As well as a demonstration of lessons learned in cases where mistakes are made.) 

Why Now?

I would also argue that this is the right time to take this concept forward. Anthony Townsend’s book “Smart Cities” left me with the impression that new pop-up and smart cities, for all their efficiency, connectivity, big data and digital wizardry, may have a serious deficit in soul. All the efficiency in the world may not make a city endearing to its inhabitants. Might a focus on open innovation and collaboration help inject some of that soul that seems to be missing from existing new cities ventures? If the world is going to have pop-up cities, maybe we need some exemplars of ones that emerged from the collaborative thinking of many participants.

Where to build?

One concept of where to site a new Open Innovation City is to choose a location that is more or less equidistant from several existing major metropolitan population centers. This somewhat avoids the sprawl effect of appending more and more edge cities to existing cities; but maximizes the potential amount of direct participation in jump-starting the city. Suppose we imagine that the creation of the Open Innovation City depended a lot on weekend, on-location participation by many volunteer collaborators, who commute to the site on weekends from where they normally live. Let’s say a 3 1/2 hour commute each way is a reasonable maximum. Using that upper bound in commute time, it’s possible to find locations in the US that are a sort of “sweet spot”, in the sense that they are within that reasonable 3 1/2 hour driving distance from several major metropolitan population centers, and also minimize the maximum commute time between themselves and each of those surrounding cities. 

One such sweet spot is the region near York, Pennsylvania. York is within a 3 1/2 hour driving time from New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC. This places York within a reasonable weekend commute of metro areas having a total population of close to 40 million. Another similar example is Marquez, Texas. Marquez is a 2 to 2 1/4 hour drive from Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and Austin; and is less than 3 1/2 hours from San Antonio. This means that about 16 million people are within a 3 1/2 hour drive from Marquez, TX. (Of course, if we had HyperLoops, those commute times would be under 15 minutes!)

This approach to siting a new Open Innovation city is just one possible concept. Other realities are likely to come into play, not the least of which is the need to establish a viable economic base.

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Photo of Jim Robertson

Looks like Google is currently contemplating a city-building initiative.