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Innovation lies also in the strategy

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par Jean Haëntjens | 09.08.11

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Is the proliferation of urban innovations counter-productive? While some cities are experimenting with abandon and with no real apparent logic, others have adopted a long-term strategy to combine innovations to serve a smarter, more sustainable city. Jean Haëntjens returns to this forum to talk about how important it is for cities to approach innovation with consistency and control.

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Jean Haëntjens

Innov’ in the City testifies to the abundance of innovations unfolding today in cities, especially in Europe. This proliferation concerns all fields of urban policies (transport, urban planning, social life, culture, energy, the environment …) and have largely moved beyond the scope of technical innovation. Urban planning, regulation, pricing, the mobilization of actors and even the creation of a collective imagination play a vital role.

These levers can be compared to the keys of a keyboard. When played in harmony, they can create a great dynamic, as shown by the cities (Copenhagen, Bilbao, Saint Nazaire …) who, in a decade or two have managed to alter their destiny. But a cacophony can also occur. When they are not coordinated by an overall vision, urban innovations can even become counterproductive. This is the case, for example, with some urban transport networks, which while being technically efficient, have favored and even increased housing pressure in city centers

My observations of the policies of major European cities have convinced me how essential solid strategies are in the innovation process. A city may well accumulate innovative gadgets without changing its trajectory. Another may embrace change by methodically building less visible but more essential cohesion: between urban design and transport networks, transport and social networking, cultural centers and exchange hubs, capacity constraints and new “urban pleasures,” daily life and a sense of community.

The case of electric vehicles - a key issue for the cities of tomorrow - illustrates the role of this strategic alignment. If the goal is only to electrically power the classic road car, the environmental impact and quality will be low for a high cost. If the development of the electric car is integrated into a “zero emissions” multimodal mobility strategy, it could make a huge impact in cities. Road cars are replaced, in urban areas, by lighter, less powerful electric vehicles that are perfectly suited to 50 km / h traffic, consume less space, and are more compatible with low traffic patterns. The structural disadvantage of the electric car (autonomy, cost of batteries) then motivates the creation of a different system of mobility, characterized by moderate speeds, short distances, relative compactness, a different relationship with the car, a more balanced distribution between modes of transport.

Presumably, the first cities boldly imposing this new style of urban life (Stockholm might be included) will take a significant lead over others. They will downgrade the “petrol city” as surely as the automobile in the last century outmoded the horse and buggy. To achieve this, they will simultaneously play on regulations banning polluting vehicles (as is being done already in Stockholm, Utrecht and Berlin in some Low Emission Zones), pricing (that of electricity and parking lots) infrastructure (charging stations, interfaces with the train, footpaths and cycling) urban fabric, and also design (cars, terminals). They must play all the keys at once.

This example illustrates that the innovations that will change the destiny of our cities are dependent more on a “new combination of existing technologies” (tram, bicycle, electric motor) than new technologies.

Jean Haëntjens, an economist and urban planner, runs Urbatopie, a consulting firm on urban strategies. He works with both French and European administrations, institutions, and universities on the issue of “sustainable urban strategies.” He has published several books and articles on the subject.

Photo credit: Place Napoléon / eelv 85

Translated by Genny Cortinovis

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