Creating platforms for public innovation[]

Cities will be vital to the future of creativity. In 1800 only 3% of the world’s population lived in cities, even though cities had been around since about 6,000 BC. By 1900 it was 14%. But now half the world’s population lives in cities and by 2050 it will be 75%. Cities will be our future. Cities are cradles for innovation because they are cradles for knowledge, culture and self-governance. It is in cities that we learn how to live together creatively. Cities encourage mass innovation as people learn new habits from one another just by walking down the street or observing what their fellow citizens are doing. Everything propagates faster in cities, diseases, fashions, ideas. Cities are neither pipelines nor value chains: they are the original communities of co-creation, the first places where we got all mixed up. Cities provide the social mix that propels creativity But getting mixed up in creative ways depends on how cities are governed. Cities can be diverse and dense without propelling creativity. Everything depends on the mix. What are the design principles for open, creative cities?

Cities nurture a particular kind of freedom, one which comes with its own constraints. Consumers cities give us many more options and choices, to be the person we want to be, to enjoy a wider range of goods, services, food and entertainment, opportunities for work. As centres for cultural creativity cities provide more opportunities for self-expression. But the presence of many other people, in close proximity, also limits what we can do. We cannot roam about regardless. We depend upon other people to provide us with the diverse experiences that makes city life so valuable. Yet the presence of all those people also constraints our freedom for action. That is why cities have always been centres of innovation for new kinds of government and shared infrastructure: to manage the tensions generated by the highly social form of freedom they create. Cities are exercises in continual collaborative innovation.

The postal system is a prime example. Before the invention of the Penny Post in 1837 letter delivery was mainly carried out by messengers finding their way around by word of mouth. Letter delivery was a risky trade: a letter was paid for by the recipient, there were no fixed charges. The creation of a cheap and reliable postal system required overlapping social innovations: a system to link names to addresses, which required streets to be named and houses to be numbered. These names, and addresses were gathered into large directories, which for the first time provided an index of who lived where. The stamp was a cheap and ingenious way for senders to pay up front for the delivery, allowing many more people to send letters. The postal system depended on public innovation, the creation of a new public system with its own rules. But it also enabled a massive growth in private communication – peer-to-peer. Private letter writing had been confined to those who could write and afford to send letters. It was an elite activity. The postal system encouraged writing to become a mass form of self-expression. One beneficiary, for example, was Florence Nightingale, who wrote 12,000 letters in her campaign for nursing to be recognised as a professional calling. Public and private grew together: the shared, public infrastructure of the postal system, with its numbered houses and street names, posting boxes and sorting centres, allowed an even larger flowering of private creativity and self-expression.

Much the same was true of city maps, which for the first time allowed the city to be seen from above. Before the city map was developed people navigated their way by tacit knowledge and local landmarks. Maps created a universal, standardised and artificial language for describing the shared spaces we live in. Yet maps are also a tool people use in their everyday life, navigating the city for their own purposes. Private purposes – finding your way to a restaurant, theatre or club – become easier thanks to a public innovation – a city map – which created a shared platform. In cities private and public do not operate in separate domains, they interact, intensely: that is fundamental to what makes a city creative. Shared public platforms – like maps, postal systems and public spaces – should allow private purposes to multiply and grow.

Spaces only become truly public when they are colonised by their users, who adapt them to their own, often unexpected ends, which they discover for themselves rather than being prescribed to them. Cities are too large, open and unruly to be regulated in detail, top down by an all seeing state or a feudal lord. So they have to encourage collective, voluntary, self control. People have to learn how to adjust to one another and collaborate. Cities become creative when people start learning from one another about how to use their shared resources more effectively. Successful cities allow a lot of room for adaptive mutation, encouraging their citizens to invest their ideas in the spaces they inhabit. Top down city planning, in the authoritarian tradition inspired by the Swiss French architect Le Corbusier, was such a disaster because it sought to extinguish this kind of incremental, vernacular innovation. People were meant to live inside the creation of the designer. In Curitiba the role of the designers at IPPUC is to draw out the intelligence of citizens as participants in the city, the way it moves, works and clears itself up.

It is commonplace to argue that creative cities must tolerate, even encourage diversity, of cultures, outlooks and ideas. Diversity generated by mutation and immigration is not enough on its own to generate creativity. Diversity must be matched by integration and exchange, to draw together people with different ideas. Creativity comes from mixing and mingling people and ideas. London, for example, is a marvellously open and diverse city. Yet its neighbourhoods and tribes, no more than five minutes on a bus apart, exist in separate worlds. Diverse communities that never connect will never produce creativity. We need to invest in what connects communities, their edges and interfaces. The sociologist Richard Sennett tells a story about the debate in New York over the placement of a new market for an Hispanic district. The planners, quite sensibly and listening to the community, decided to put the market in the heart of the community where most Hispanic people would use it. But the only people to use the market were Hispanic, living close by. Had the market been placed at the edge of the community, it would have also drawn to it people from outside the Hispanic neighbourhood. It would have bridged several communities, become points of interaction and integration. Diversity can just lead to hopeless fragmentation if all the pieces of the mosaic do not join up. Cities – like the Internet – are made up of lots of small pieces, loosely joined together. Unless cities integrate their citizens into a shared cultural and social life they run the risk of not just fragmentation but rising social tension.

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