Building a New Model for Urban Innovation
The world is urbanizing. Thanks to a confluence of factors—global environmental and geopolitical crises, the proliferation of new technologies, population growth, to name a few—people from every corner of the globe are moving to cities at an unprecedented rate. The state of global urbanization gives rise to challenges that will define our collective future, and require new, creative and collaborative solutions.
Public-sector and private industry leaders alike see that technology and entrepreneurship will be critical to creating a sustainable, livable and prosperous planet. Technology in and of itself is not a cure-all. However, technology can be applied to unlock exponential impact and address complex challenges at scale. To do this effectively technologists and entrepreneurs must be connected to the problems they’re aiming to solve and the people they’re aiming to empower.
First, we have to bring diverse stakeholders together to ask the right questions. Then, we have to create the conditions for radical, yet responsible, prototyping and experimentation—disruption without destruction. From there we can design pilots to validate what we have built and measure impact along the way. This model—what we at Newlab call the Innovation Studio model—effectively de-risks ideas, teams, and products for future investment and creates a path to scale innovations that meet real needs.
In a Newlab Innovation Studio, we provide a platform for collaboration where transformative technologies can be effectively applied to address pressing global challenges. When applied to cities, this model also fuels policy innovation and accelerates startup product development, adoption and investment.
Embracing new modes of collaboration is critical to the Innovation Studio model approach. In a Newlab Studio, the first time a city agency representative is exposed to an entrepreneurial team and what they’re building is not during the Demo Day at the end of a program—it’s at the Discovery Workshop at the outset. This engagement allows city stakeholders to become co-creators who can help to inform and contribute to a startup’s offerings in meaningful ways.
Just as critical to building trust is enabling city leaders to interact with new technologies before they’re in a position to regulate them. For example, when we invited elected officials to Newlab to ride a JUMP pedal-assist e-bike around the streets of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the conversation around e-bike policy and legislation shifted. It went from a theoretical discussion about rules and regulations to an opportunity for policymakers to ask questions about how the bike’s safety features could limit speed and keep riders safe. That same year, JUMP was selected to pilot their e-bikes in New York City in partnership with the Department of Transportation.
Through collaborative frameworks like Innovation Studios, cities are provided access to teams that go beyond the established channels and mechanisms governments typically have to solicit new ideas. For example, this year’s call to action for our Circular City program, a joint initiative led by Newlab and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), was inspired by the City’s ambitious sustainability agenda and the recent passage of Local Law 97. This regulation is moving the market to reduce New York City’s leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions: buildings. Several city agencies involved with this legislation are serving as advisors to the program as we partner with startups, researchers and industry leaders to apply technology to advance New York City’s sustainability agenda. Over the course of the year, these subject matter experts will engage with the startups selected to pilot their technologies on infrastructure around Brooklyn and Manhattan, and they will help determine how we define success for each pilot. Along the way, we’re supporting and informing how the city evolves its approach to energy efficiency in the built environment and the long-term goal of transitioning New York to a circular economy.
Empowering each stakeholder to do what they do best is critical to applying emerging technologies in an urban context. One way to do this is by designing parallel tracks of activity like we do in the Circular City program. Alongside a startup company building algorithms to better understand how people move through the city, Newlab convenes researchers and policymakers to consider the ethical questions implied in leveraging data in this way, such as: what constraints or structures might be built into the governance of this data? What safeguards does the company need to put in place to respect citizen privacy?
This human-centered approach may sound straightforward, but in our experience, it’s not the status quo. Too often, technologies are developed in isolation—completely separated from end-users or from the broader public that may be impacted in some manner when that technology is rolled out at scale.
By including different perspectives from the start and throughout the product development lifecycle, the Innovation Studio model fosters design with intention and delivers deployable solutions. When it comes to cities, we believe this is not only the “right” way to innovate, it’s also the most effective to address the complex, systems-level challenges facing our increasingly urbanized world.