Globally, cities have a long history of fostering social and practical innovation. New technology has enabled cities to evolve and reinvent themselves, fostering a better quality of life for their inhabitants in the face of huge social, environmental and technological upheaval.

An understanding of an area’s demographic, problems, capabilities and environmental constraints could play a key role in informing the design and planning of cities to enable as many people as possible to achieve a fulfilling, social and active life.

The planning of cities has already been transformed and can go much further with the right resources in place. Pen and paper has long been supplanted in most cities by a wide range of electronic data devices, geographic information systems, satellite mapping and visualisation software. These offer urban planners and designers a deeper insight into human behaviour as well as a greater understanding of the physical attributes of sites, to inform design and how it is delivered. As the technology becomes more sophisticated, these new approaches can combine to create place-based design approaches that, for example, address the health and environmental impacts of cities by integrating routes which will make it more likely city residents walk and cycle as well improving public transport, making denser development and more compact spaces more appealing to potential residents.

New approaches are also enabling architects and planners to better understand how cities impact their environments. Increasing the use of natural features helps reduce flooding by improving sustainable drainage, and prevents cities from overheating. Incorporating green infrastructure also helps to support mental wellbeing, thereby, also yielding savings in future health budgets.

Technology can help plan growth in a more integrated way – addressing societal, environmental and design issues across a range of locations. Interesting examples can be seen in cities such as Rio de Janeiro which is pioneering new digital transport and governance systems, through a citywide operation centre that connects all the city’s 30 agencies, from transport to the emergency services. On a day-to-day basis, It helps officials from across the city collaborate on running public services more smoothly and efficiently. In the event of crisis, such as a collapsing building, the operation centre helps roll out a coordinated response. Transport systems can be shut down, emergency services mobilised and gas supplies can be cut off, while citizens can be informed of alternative routes via Twitter.

Cities are also starting to use digital platforms to better plan for the future and encourage public engagement in the future of their cities. In Asia a number of emerging cities are working with partners to develop models for sustainable growth that learn from the current generation of cities.

Developing these models further will be crucial to generate popular support if the city of 2025 is to benefit from new approaches. In the UK RIBA has explored the idea of a digitised planning system, using new technology and big data to support strategic planning of a city and help improve public engagement with the process. Public consultation software, online forums and social media are now increasingly used to capture public opinion to test ideas, evolve proposals and disseminate information.

New approaches can also inform the way we design for an ageing population. Urban design can help older people live healthier and more socially active lives by creating more inclusive spaces. Their wellbeing can be enhanced by designing affordable, accessible, well-connected housing that connects with local amenities more directly.

Understanding this group’s needs will increasingly become more important at the city-scale to help local authorities develop innovative housing that can bring out the most of older people but also impact on younger age groups in a very positive way. Designing inclusively for all generations is the way to create successful integrated communities.

  • Tim Jones

    Public – Private Partnerships? One area of intensive discussion at the recent workshop in Quito was the role that closer collaboration between business and government can play in improving urban environments. Clearly there are different views around the world of how and where so called public-private partnerships can play a role but at the workshop at the IDE Business School there was lots of debate about how best this can occur. As summarised by the insight on flickr ( if done effectively such collaboration can focus not just on infrastructure but also on institutional fabric. The particular example heighten in Ecuador was that of Medellin in neighbouring Colombia which has received widespread praise for it recent achievements. In 2012, the WSJ named Medellin as its city of the year ( Here is an excerpt from the Urban Land Institute ( commentary:

    “A city’s landscape constantly evolves to meet changing needs. Buildings are created and destroyed, industries emerge and disappear, demographics change, and urban areas are used for different functions. At their best, cities generate wealth and employment, promote cultural exchange and inclusion, foster creativity and ideas, provide access to recreation, education, and infrastructure, and facilitate participation and citizenship in public and private life. The most innovative cities spark visions, remove barriers, and cultivate collaboration to improve the quality of life for residents.

    Few cities have transformed the way that Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city, has in the past 20 years. Medellín’s homicide rate has plunged, nearly 80% from 1991 to 2010. The city built public libraries, parks, and schools in poor hillside neighborhoods and constructed a series of transportation links from there to its commercial and industrial centers. The links include a metro cable car system and escalators up steep hills, reducing commutation times, spurring private investment, and promoting social equity as well as environmental sustainability. In 2012, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy recognized Medellín’s efforts with the Sustainable Transportation Award.

    But a change in the institutional fabric of the city may be as important as the tangible infrastructure projects. The local government, along with businesses, community organizations, and universities worked together to fight violence and to modernize Medellín. Transportation projects are financed through public-private partnerships; engineering firms have designed public buildings for free; and in 2006, nine of the city’s largest firms funded a science museum. In addition, Medellín is one of the largest cities to successfully implement participatory budgeting, which allows citizens to define priorities and allocate a portion of the municipal budget. Community organizations, health centers, and youth groups have formed, empowering citizens to declare ownership of their neighborhoods.

    Medellín’s challenges are still many, particularly in housing. However, through innovation and leadership, Medellín has sowed the seeds of transformation, leading to its recognition as a city with potential for long-lasting success.”