Cities and urban life pose constant challenges, for which we need to find effective and quick solutions. To this end, we need an adaptive and multi-faceted approach that allows us to engage with different actors, catalyze ideas, experiment and test solutions, fine tune and scale up, and eventually inform new public policy.

The primary goal of the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Division of the IDB is to extend the full benefits of sustainable and productive urbanization to all residents of Latin American and Caribbean cities. HUD promotes multisector, innovative and flexible responses and supports a space for experimentation and innovation within the realm of urban issues. In the continued effort to support the cities of the region and to adapt to their need for spaces to develop innovative ideas, the IDB has initiated its own experimentation platform within HUD: The Cities LAB 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.

In September 2018, the IDB’s Cities LAB hosted IncubaLAB—a one-day event that gathered urban labs from around the world to share their experiences and challenges with decisionmakers from cities in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). On one hand, we had 9 laboratories: Boston’s Urban Mechanics, The Lab@DC, Mindlab (Denmark), Fondazione Innovazione Urbana (Bologna, Italy), Urban Center (Torino, Italy), The Behavioral Insights Team, IED City Lab (Madrid), Fab Lab Barcelona, City Finance Lab. On the other, we had 11 cities from the region were presentArica, Chile; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Medellin, Colombia; Montería, Colombia; Montevideo, Uruguay; Novo Hamburgo, Brazil; Santiago de Chile, Chile; Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Figure 1: Urban LABs present at the IncubaLAB event. Source: IDB

At the Cities LAB, we have been working to promote this approach by developing a platform for innovative solutions. We foster innovation, co-design, and experimentation with the aim to transform sustainable urban development in LAC with ideas that are not only disruptive, but also scalable and replicable. For instance, we have carried out several tactical urbanism interventions in cities like Sao Luis, Brazil and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

By learning about the challenges faced by existing city labs, their strengths and weaknesses, institutional structures and activities, IncubaLAB aimed to offer participant LAC cities an opportunity to find their own path towards urban innovation and experimentation. This event provided them a series of best practices, as well as a platform to interact with and learn from the established city labs to inspire them to jump start their own process.

During the event, panelists were divided into three main thematic groups: i) experiment, prototype, change; ii) connect citizenship, catalyze ideas, inform policy; and iii) innovative tools and methods. Each lab presented its origin, structure, how they operate, its concept of innovation, and how it is sustainable. Although all these labs are very different in terms of their nature and objectives, they all agree that environmental sustainability, citizen and community involvement in decision-making, and developing political and social planning strategies are key elements to succesful urban design.

Figure 2: Participants of IncubaLAB learn how to improve urban life through experimentation. Photo Credit: Tamara Egger. Source: IDB

This was the first time that the Cities LAB organized an event of this kind. It was an opportunity to create relationships and to exchange successful strategies, starting from the experience of city labsand translating them into an actionable guide for cities in the region to find their own path towards city innovation.

From the experience of the 9 laboratories, some common elements can be identified:

  • Innovation doesn’t start from scratch: Labs incorporate innovation to traditional processes or structures that are already functioning and have an institutional culture.
  • Interventions must have tangible outcomes:In general, all projects seek to produce empirical knowledge and exchange good practices to mobilize public policy. They frequently use prototypes or pilots as an intermediate stage of trial and error.
  • Technology is the key to optimize processes: It helps provide free access to information for democratization, City Branding for appropriation and promotion, and the empowerment of the community for appropriation and sustainability.
  • Public Private Associations are relevant actors to exploring new urban solutions:Though they are not very present in the traditional way of doing a city, they have a prominent role in urban laboratories.

This event allowed for a great exchange of knowledge to guide LAC cities and the IDB itself to further the work to promote more sustainable, inclusive, and resilient cities. It allowed also to initiate several new dialogues based on the lessons learned and explore new forms of collaboration among cities. We are eager to continue experimenting with many more actors in the region.

Editor: Andreina Seijas