With more than 80% of its population living in cities, Latin America is one of the most urbanized regions in the world. Never before have so many people lived in urban centers and never before has it been so necessary to improve the way we understand, plan and manage cities as collective human projects. The increased scale and number of cities bring a whole array of new challenges that call for everchanging solutions and constant innovation in the design and implementation of policy.
From a general perspective, urban innovation is not only doing things in a new, more efficient way. It is an adaptive process by which every issue should be reframed to better understand its roots, drivers and consequences so that its solutions can be constantly redesigned and improved. It is a trial and learning method as dynamic as cities themselves, often rooted in the iterative process of design thinking.
But, innovation itself is nothing new for urban development, rather it is the essence of city development or the precursor for any form of advancement. For example, let’s consider the aqueducts and sewers of ancient Rome, or the creation of the automobile in the United States, and the implications they had on urban expansion and development; or the impacts of the invention of electric lighting and illumination on urban public life and the 24h city. More recent examples of urban innovation in the last 50 years are the BRT in Curitiba, Brazil, the forefather of Transit Oriented Development; the sharing economy and its impact on urban transit (Uber, bike-sharing); and the High Line in New York City where an abandoned rail line, in the middle of the city, is now a popular linear park in an area which lacked quality open space.
The need for more spaces to discuss brilliant ideas has opened the path for innovation labs and centers to pop up across the region in the last few years (Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, Argentina), and the term “innovation” has quickly become the new development buzzword. But, innovation should not be a trend, rather it should be a mindset, a way of being or doing, an inherent process rooted in a certain attitude and perspective, one of being open and flexible to change and embracing what is new. More importantly, urban innovation is a cycle, building on what has been done before to make a better impact on city development and the lives of urban dwellers today and into the future.
As many cities in the region have moved towards the creation of more and more spaces for innovative ideas, the IDB has initiated its own platform to continue supporting the region face its urban challenges through innovation. The Cities LAB is a platform where innovation, co-design, experimentation, and lessons learned propose to transform sustainable urban development in Latin America and the Caribbean with ideas that are not only revolutionary but are scalable and replicable. The Cities LAB integrates a multidisciplinary team that spins innovation for clients in the region and within the modus operandi of the Housing and Urban Development Division at IDB. It is a space to think about ideas and new solutions, and to create knowledge; with the goal of producing actionable solutions in programs throughout the region in a quick and responsive manner.
The Cities LAB focuses on demonstration projects and proofs of concept. Its process is iterative in character, with a constant cycle of exploration, experimentation, evaluation, scaling-up, and dissemination to best meet the needs and demands of the countries with targeted and feasible solutions.
The IDB’s Cities LAB makes room for experimentation and ideas generation, and supports the use of technology and data, like Waze, for example, to build more efficient and humane cities. In fact, The Cities LAB is facilitating an Ideathon with Waze during their “Connected Citizens” event taking place this week in Buenos Aires. The event will serve as a brainstorming or idea-generating opportunity to solve recurrent urban problems through new solutions in the Latin American region. Simple tools like Waze and other crowdsourcing and data-pooling technologies can empower citizens to be more involved in the decision-making process for solving city problems in a more rapid and resourceful way.
Innovation, whether it is a new technology or just a new idea or solution, is not an end, but rather part of a longer-term approach that allows for iterative solution-building and short-term experimentation that yields positive results from a continuous learning process. And any good innovator knows that nurturing this innovation feedback loop depends on regular knowledge exchange with other innovators that multiplies the positive effects of innovation. With the IDB’s many decades of experience and strong relationships in the region, along with the new Cities LAB platform coupled with a growing cities network, we have a competitive advantage for multiplying good practices in urban innovation in the region. At the Cities LAB, we aim to practice what we preach by being a catalyst for positive urban change and promoting an environment of innovation both inside the Bank and throughout the cities in Latin America and the Caribbean.
From the IDB Cities LAB, we invite you to play an active role to work together and build better cities in our region.