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“What is the city,” asks the tribune Sicinius in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, “but the people?” Cities are mankind’s greatest creation and they are also, it seems, a kind of human destiny. The fate of homo faber is to become homo urbanus. And that destiny is on a roll. Two centuries ago, only 3 per cent of the world’s population lived in cities. Now it is 50 per cent and, if current trends continue, in a couple of decades it is forecast to rise to 70 per cent.

In many ways cities have stayed the same for millennia. The basic infrastructure, the markets, the security, the concentration of talent, the density of population at which it becomes efficient to organise into a civil society, the institutions, the schools and healthcare, the mechanisms of governance – these have all remained recognisably the same factors that have attracted people from country to city for centuries.

A walk around the ruins of Pompeii is a reminder of just how little cities have changed. The houses and courtyards, the tight streets and squares, the bars and bakeries, the brothels and workshops reveal an urban landscape that is extraordinarily familiar to us today.

But in other ways cities have to continue innovating to survive. The cities that have proved most robust and most historically (and continuously) successful are those that have demonstrated an ability to adapt to change.

Urban ingenuity is not always necessarily easy to see – even though you might know it when you encounter it. It might not be reflected in the skyline, but rather in the activity at street level. It might not be immediately apparent in a city suffering from crushing poverty, yet that innovation might be exerting a significant, invisible, impact on the lives of the poor.

The presence of urban innovation can also be obscured by quite how surprisingly bad we are at predicting which technologies and innovations will have the most impact on our everyday existence. One of the finest examples of this has been text messaging. Never expected to be taken up by users in such numbers, it has proved a cheap method of communication for those who might previously never have gained access to a landline. Another might be the washing machine, which freed women from the drudgery of one of the most onerous domestic chores. Ha-Joon Chang, the economist, described it as a technology that had a more far-reaching effect than the much-lauded internet.

But what are the contemporary equivalents of these innovations? If cities are crucibles of ingenuity and invention, what are the best ideas that have been generated in recent years? The aim of the FT/Citi Ingenuity Awards is to try to discover the best and most ingenious ideas to improve the lives of city dwellers across the world, both rich and poor.

The awards process has concentrated on four areas: energy, infrastructure, health and education. Together, they provide a cross-section of contemporary innovation in urban life. The entries range from the macro to the micro, from city-wide transport infrastructure to the provision of toilets for shanty towns.

A great number of the entries focus on energy, as we might expect, and these evoke the spectre of global warming and the increasing load that cities are putting on the earth’s ecosystems. Cities account for 70 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions – but they can also provide the infrastructure for an extremely sustainable way of life. Their density, shared facilities and the innovation driven by their insatiable needs may well be what drives the solutions to our environmental concerns.

The architect Teddy Cruz, who works between San Diego and Tijuana on either side of the US/Mexico border, has proposed that the success of a city should be measured not in terms of economic transactions per square metre over a given period but in terms of social transactions.

This would dramatically redefine our notions of what a successful city looks like – drawing it in terms of its population rather than its turnover. This kind of city also favours the density, the pedestrian-friendly size and close familiar and friendly connections of the favela over the social isolation, the inaccessibility outside the car and the sterility of the single-use suburb. It turns on its head our idea of economic success in terms of personal space and residential footprint and, in a stroke, democratises our view of the city.

Many of these innovations propose solutions for the informal city as well as the developed city. We have become used to the idea of the trickle down of developments from the global north, but perhaps in terms of city innovation, it will be the global south that begins to inform our new view of an urban world. It would be wonderful to think that ingenuity could be a two-way process and that our occasionally moribund but wealthy cities could learn from the nimble responsiveness of the informal city in which people have had to learn to live in the proximity and interconnectedness of the light footprint that may well come to be necessary if our cities are able to accommodate their burgeoning populations.

The trick, it seems, really is connectivity. Not just in the fashionable digital sense but in the notion that the city is a machine for creating and sustaining relationships between people. A city’s systems need to work in every sense, its transport, its pavements and parks, its alleys and civic and cultural spaces, its education and healthcare infrastructures, the water and power that flow like lifeblood through its subterranean and aerial veins. “The chief function of the city is to convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity,” wrote Lewis Mumford, the historian and sociologist, in 1961.

His humane vision of the city, conjured in an age of fear of nuclear destruction, remains as potent and as clear today as it was half a century ago. The city, though it may not often feel that way, is a machine for improving human life. It is ingenuity that makes that improvement visible, useful, equitable and enjoyable.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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