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Cities as innovative laboratories

Cities can become key innovators as we move into a digital age

Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí
13 December 2019
December 26, 2013, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. Barcelona is a regulatory SandBox and is therefore used to develop regulation that keeps up with the fast pace of innovation.
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Dosfotos/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

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Cities have always been centres for development and innovation. Proximity between people facilitates the exchange of ideas and goods. The urban model also makes it easier for people to move from one job to another. The concentration of knowledge and experience increases competition and productivity, and wages rise. All this activity also generates the need for new infrastructures and services. Without cities there would be no theatres, no big museums or libraries. Culture, entertainment, in short, quality of life, is also one of the great driving forces of talent.

Cities succeed more so because of their human capital than their physical infrastructure. Edward Glaeser, author of the book The Triumph of Cities, describes various studies of how in the U.S. an increase of 10 percent of the adult population with degrees obtained in 1980, made it possible to forecast a 6 percent increase in income growth between 1980 and 2000. As the proportion of the population improves their level of education, so does their economic development. The link between training and urban productivity has become increasingly pronounced since the 1970s.

This is especially relevant in the new digital society. Technological and scientific changes transform our society economically, socially, politically and culturally. We live in an accelerated, hyper-connected and digital world in which, practically, there is no facet of our lives that has not been affected by technological disruption. The arrival of the Internet, social networks, mobile phones and new communication technologies are revolutionizing the way we relate, organize, mobilize, govern, inform and even manage.

A new paradigm, however, does not exempt it from new risks. A VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) time that also requires designing new coherencies and establishing the limits and forms of the new digital economy.

In the first issue of Apuntes TecPol, the different authors discuss topics such as digital rights, collective intelligence, mobility and digital platforms. More economic, regulatory, diplomatic and relational aspects between the public and the private that show us not only the evolution of the technological society, but also the new challenges to which we have to respond to collectively. It is a proposal for debate, reflection and action, which tries to point out key aspects of the new urban agenda, focusing on the capacity for transformation and innovation of global cities, their capacity to continue generating a virtuous circle of growth, prosperity and social cohesion, reinforcing the civic project of the city.

Innovation and the city

In order to give an ethical and coherent response to the new technological determinism and the impact of innovations associated with the new economy of the digital society we need to consider innovation and cities as a pair. We need to prevent ourselves from having an overly monetised view of the technological and unhuman top down economy of the platform, the new colonisation of Artificial Intelligence, the algorithms, the machine learning or the emergence of the collaborative economy. Focusing the vision of the future of cities around efficiency is not enough. The answers to many of the citizen demands can be obtained from technology, but they cannot be only technological.

The city is also the ideal setting to innovate in the field of new regulations required by the new digital society.

Shifting the focus from the intelligent city to the intelligent citizen allows for a more inclusive and participatory approach to the issue in which public policies play a central role in deactivating the negative effects of technology. To this end, it is necessary to design forms of governance that articulate the complexities, build new public-private coalitions, stimulate co-creation processes, and foster and articulate the participation of civil society. Cities can and must be the laboratory to lead a humanistic revolution that gives civic sense to technological dystopias. We do not want cities that are too intelligent and unhuman, but rather technology at the service of the city's civic project.

The city is also the ideal setting to innovate in the field of new regulations required by the new digital society. Some global cities, such as Barcelona, may become a regulatory SandBox that allows innovation and tests new forms linked to certain inefficiencies of administrations to define new policies and regulations in constant evolution. The response to technological disruption and the new governance of the digital society require fieldwork and immediate responses given their impact on central areas of citizens' lives such as employment, mobility or sustainability. We need to orient our cities towards the place where people-centred technological developments are innovated and experienced, something that also requires sophisticated governance.

Cities are the ideal institutions to manage the risks of postmodernity. Their ecosystems of institutional and structural assets of the city contribute to strengthen it as the perfect territory to promote an inclusive, civic and plural city based on technology. Innovation allows the city, traditionally represented by being the headquarters and forum, to become a hub and laboratory and play a central role in this new physical era of the digital society.

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