Monday, April 22, 2013

Rewarding Innovation: A Sample of Great Ideas from Around the Globe

One of the most interesting and inspiring aspects of urban planning is the act of discovering innovative solutions that cities around the world are implementing to solve commonly held urban problems. The innovations might involve cutting-edge technology, or they might be a re-commitment to an age-old principle. Solutions might be driven by community volunteers, business entrepreneurs, mayors and even heads of State.

In advance of this year’s Financial Times and Citibank Ingenuity Awards, I had the opportunity to revisit some of the creative, exciting, and inspiring examples of recent innovation that could be replicated in cities around the world to provide a more sustainable, livable future for us all. I’d like to share some of them with you here. I encourage you to nominate projects you feel are deserving of recognition and support for the 2013 FT/Citi Ingenuity Awards (the deadline for 2013 nominations is April 30th).

Transportation Alternatives: People around the world have a shared understanding of the effects that conventional fossil-fueled vehicles are having on our environment and well-being. Providing effective alternatives, however, is a great challenge that is absolutely necessary in order to expect a shift in transportation habits. Here are a few projects that are tipping the scales towards sustainable, people-powered modes of transportation.

Towards Equal Infrastructure for Bikes: In April 2012, the first leg of a 26-route bicycle superhighway opened in Copenhagen, Denmark. Wanting to promote bicycling along these routes as a serious alternative to taking the train, bus or car, Copenhagen worked with 21 other municipalities to create "contiguous, standardized bike routes into the capital across distances of up to 14 miles." The bike highways are designed with clever features such as traffic lights that are timed to suit the travel patterns of cyclists during rush hour, garbage cans tilted at the right angle for bikers and solar-powered lights to enhance the cycling experience and reduce environmental impact. In response to the new infrastructure, innovative local initiatives such as a “bicycle school bus” for children commuting to class together have been developed.

Cardboard Bike for All: In Israel, Izar Gafni has produced the prototype for a bicycle whose frame and wheels are made entirely from cardboard and reused rubber. This bicycle is durable, lightweight, made from recycled materials, and importantly, is very inexpensive to produce. A bicycle that can be sold for $20 or less could go a long way towards equipping communities all over the world with the benefits of human-petaled transport. His next projects include a children's bike and wheelchair made from cardboard.

Sanitation: The concentration of people in urban areas necessitates effective and hygienic waste management. In many cities, however, people don’t have access to some of the most basic human needs: clean water, electricity and toilets. 

Build a Better Toilet: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, dedicated to achieving universal access to sustainable sanitation services, recently put out a call for the best and brightest minds to design a low-cost toilet that doesn't require piped water, a connected sewer, or electricity and that transforms waste into usable materials. The California Institute of Technology won first prize in August 2012 for a solar-powered toilet that generates hydrogen and electricity. The April 2013 TED talk by Rose George underscores why finding solutions to the lack of basic sanitation is so vital and urgent.

Smaller Flush, Better Public Access: For cities whose residents already have access to indoor plumbing, a priority should be on systematic, large-scale water conservation: for an example of progress, see the pilot program in Queens, New York that has retrofit all toilets at two public schools. The program has cut water consumption by 70% and will save 700 million gallons of water per year. Access to public toilets, already commonplace in cities like Melbourne, Australia, are another important step towards urban livability—the Australian Government even has a website dedicated to finding and using public toilets! 

Solar Alternatives: Powering lights, homes and cars, renewable energy is being harnessed in innovative ways to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Some cities are leading the way, particularly in the area of solar energy. 

City Powered by the Sun: R. Rex Parris, the Republican Mayor of Lancaster, California announced two years ago that his city would become the “solar capital of the universe” by producing more electricity from the sun’s rays than it consumes. Lancaster is well on its way, in part by requiring new homes to either be “equipped with solar panels or be in subdivisions that produce one kilowatt of solar energy per house.” It is estimated that the city tripled the number of residential installations in the past 18 months. This progress in the residential sector combined with outfitting government and school buildings with solar panels has resulted in 39 megawatts already being generated and the 50 megawatts currently under construction (out of a necessary 126 megawatts).  

Clean Energy Economy: South Korea is also leading the pack in terms of its cities promoting and implementing renewable energy, including photovoltaic. Intending to be among the top 5 clean energy economies, the Republic of Korea is investing 40 trillion Won to develop sources of clean and renewable energy before 2015. My city of Daegu is home to an innovative concentrating solar heat tower, the first of its kind in Korea. This is how it works: 200 angled reflecting mirrors concentrate sunlight towards the top of the 60-meter tall tower. The tower’s receiver then reaches temperatures of 700-1000 degrees Celsius, which generates 200 megawatts of electricity. 

Data and Technology: In today's information age, we often have access to massive amounts of data without the means to adequately analyze what we have gathered. The following initiatives help to make good use of the information we have in order to promote the best possible actions and outcomes in our communities.

Using Technology for Management: City officials and residents need the ability to analyze data about their environment into actionable information--in real time. As Eduard Paes, Mayor of Rio de Janiero stated as one of his 4 commandments of cities, “A city of the future has to use technology to be present.” That’s why he created a command center for Rio that integrated the data and operations management of all major city functions into a single control room.

Harnessing Data for Social Benefit: Community or participatory mapping has emerged as a terrific way to put maps and data into the hands of individuals working to identify assets or challenges faced in their neighborhood. Excellent example of community mapping include the Center for Community Mapping and the youth mapping program IMSOCIO, both founded by Dr. Wansoo Im, President of VERTICES.  Some of their projects include a Safe Routes to School mapping event where high school students assessed and mapped the safety and pollution levels of sidewalks and crosswalks in Somerset, NJ, and an interactive gas station map where IMSOCIO students mapped the availability of gas at local gas stations immediately following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.

Culling the Data: In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has created a small "geek squad" to find precious needles in the haystacks of big data at the new Office of Policy and Strategic Planning. By strategically analyzing data to answer a question such as "which restaurants are illegally dumping cooking oil into the City's sewers," members of the Office were able to achieve a 95% accuracy rate on a list of likely culprits. Used in this way, data can help cities be more efficient and effective.

The list of innovative and timely solutions to our city's challenges grows longer by the day. I'm grateful that awards programs such as the FT/Citi Ingenuity Awards give us an opportunity to think about all of the positive work being done around us, and urge us to keep sharing, thinking, working and implementing together.