LONG BEACH – It’s never long at the annual TED conference before attendees feel awash in mind-bending, technology-enabled ideas. This year, it was the theory that there are multiple universes, a robotic drone that is an exact replica of a hummingbird, and a demonstration of the wisdom of the crowd (a request for online guesses from the 5,000-plus attendees of the weight of an ox brought onstage, the average of which was 1,793 pounds. The beast’s weight: 1,795 lbs.).
So it was fitting that the official announcement of the TED Prize 2012, The City 2.0, revealed a kind of global Wikipedia connecting citizens, political leaders, urban experts, companies, and organizations, with the goal of improving the 21st century city using up-to-the-minute crowdsourcing techniques. The ambitious goal is to create a clearinghouse for tools and methodologies and best practices to reshape cities around the world.
“This has been designed as a big collaborative process – not us deciding who’s in and who’s out,” said TED curator Chris Anderson, who described the new platform, at this website, as a “big open tent” to collect and share successes, resources, and insights.*
The TED Prize has for the last five years been awarded to individuals, ranging from Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson to create the Encylopedia of Life to the street artist JR and his initiative to encourage portraits of people plastered on walls and buildings. This year marks the first time the prize has gone to a broader concept.
Anderson, who is a big believer in cities being the "future of civilization" and the key to sustainability and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, acknowledged that other organizations and individuals have long been engaged in formulating the next city. The idea of The City 2.0 is “empower citizens to connect with each other to help reshape their own cities,” he said, a global call for collaborative action that marries technology with civic engagement to meet “the ultimate design challenge.”
Cities are the places where the majority of the planet's projected nine billion people "must somehow live happily, healthfully, and sustainably," according to the TED announcement.
To get the process started, TED called on a handful of experts and activists, among them the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, former Whole Earth Catalog editor Stewart Brand, artist Candy Chang, green building guru William McDonough, and Robert Hammond, co-conceiver of the High Line in New York, to set the framework.*
Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio, site of the 2016 Olympics, suggested “commandments” that are critical for well-functioning cities, including green space, smart transportation systems such as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), and providing infrastructure to service informal settlement or slums in the developing world. “The city of the future has to be socially integrated,” he said.
That chorus was joined by corporations and non-profits that offered expertise and resources, including The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and its Technology for Engagement Initiative, IBM’s Smart Cities initiative, Razorfish, and Autodesk. Anderson and TED Prize Director Amy Novogratz then called on the audience to “donate” ideas, drawing suggestions from Disney Imagineering, Architects for Humanity, Living Homes, and Intuit.
Anyone can register and contribute ideas at http://thecity2.org/splash.php, which TED hopes will become a massive clearinghouse for upgrading cities and experimentation, inviting mayors, architects, engineers, urban planners, non-profits, multinational companies, and others to freely share ideas, tools, and resources.*
TED also announced ten grants of $10,000, coming out of the $100,000 TED Prize, that will be awarded at TED Global in June 2012 to ten local projects which are most likely to spur the creation of The City 2.0.
Skeptics might ask if glamorous institutions like TED, which has such extensive brand power and visibility, really has any business taking on the nuts and bolts of 21st century citybuilding, or whether this is better left to groups like the American Planning Association, the Congress for New Urbanism or the Urban Land Institute. TED is better known as a gathering where Sandra Day O’Connor passes by Al Gore and executives from Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and venture capital firms, scooping up blueberry and flax fruit smoothies.
But the energy behind TED, and its concern about climate change, is undeniable. In the same way that the MoMA exhibit on redesigning suburbs extends the awareness of the challenge of cities by a provocation of ideas, The City 2.0 is an elegant engagement. I say the more the merrier. TED’s aspirations suggest an all-of-the-above global urban policy, crowdsourced from the ground up. Let’s see what they come up with.
*An earlier version of this story misspelled Stewart Brand's name. We've also added the correct link to City2 website, currently in beta.