Generative Cities: The Future of Urban Intelligence

Reprinted from PSFK's "Need to Know" magazine


In the future, cities will be judged by their generativity.  Over seventy percent of the world’s population, and almost all of the globe’s skilled talent, will live in cities by the year 2050. The globally mobile entrepreneur will decide where to invest capital and where to live will depend on a city’s ability to be generative, i.e. create a productive, participatory and personalized urban experience.

It is already conventional wisdom that cities will become  “smart” through ubiquitous information technology. But the key to unlocking a city’s greatness lies not in technology but the principle of generativity. Generativity is the ability to use technologies to create an enabling infrastructure for connectivity and creativity. The Internet is our best example of a generative structure: it was designed to have an seemingly infinite capacity for people to connect to each other; to create content, disruptive business models, and successful companies; and to store, consume, and share vast amounts of information. And yet despite its vastness, each interaction with the Internet feels increasingly personalized.

Cities that are looking to become global hubs of commerce and innovation must come to embody these values of openness and modularity. The city's generative infrastructure then becomes the backbone for its economic and cultural engines. Many of the pieces for generative cities are already falling into place. For example, two young New York engineers watch a free class online on how to build a robotic car (the startup Udacity offers free courses on artificial intelligence); while sitting in Central Park, their mobile phone alerts them that another student from the class is nearby (so-mo [social mobile] startup Highlight promises such “people discovery” or ”social ambience”); a coffee together results in a decision to raise money for a robotic car (Kickstarter provides crowd-sourced seed funding for projects); for several months, they meet every night in a city-funded incubator space where they have access to space, servers, technologies, and receive mentorship from leading entrepreneurs  (both the New York city government and private companies offer such incubators). For the two engineers, the city represents a public-citizen-private partnership that has created an environment primed for participative production. 

An up-an-coming component of generative infrastructure will also be wearable sensor devices beyond the mobile phone that create an ever more personalized experience of the city. This means that as the two engineers move through the city, their devices (whether a FitBit tracking their calories or Google augmented reality glasses) elicit tailored responses from the environment. When they each stand in front of the same Macy’s window, for instance, the display changes depending on the age and gender of the viewer (startup Immersive Labs creates marketing kiosks that change advertising based on facial recognition software). The potential to innovate new products and services for such emergent generative infrastructures is limitless.

Moving forward, the ability to govern networked infrastructures is the crucial task for city authorities. They must protect citizens from misuse and cyber-crime through security protocols, but must also encourage experimentation and hacking. Generativity, therefore, lies at the edge of control and chaos, and the most successful cities in the future will master this balancing act.

Ayesha Khanna is Director of the Hybrid Reality Institute, a research and advisory group that focuses on human-technology co-evolution, geotechnology and innovation. She also directs the Future Cities group at the London School of Economics and is author of the forthcoming books Hybrid Reality (2012) and The Generative City (2013).

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Beyond Meat announces plan to sell ‘ground beef’ in stores. Shares skyrocket.

Beyond Beef sizzles and marbleizes just like real beef, Beyond Meat says.

Culture & Religion
  • Shares of Beyond Meat opened at around $200 on Tuesday morning, falling to nearly $170 by the afternoon.
  • Wall Street analysts remain wary of the stock, which has been on a massive hot streak since its IPO in May.
  • Beyond Meat faces competition from Impossible Foods and, as of this week, Tyson.
Keep reading Show less

Thumbs up? Map shows Europe’s hitchhiking landscape

Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.

Image: Abel Suyok
Strange Maps
  • A popular means of transportation from the 1920s to the 1980s, hitchhiking has since fallen in disrepute.
  • However, as this map shows, thumbing a ride still occupies a thriving niche – if at great geographic variance.
  • In some countries and areas, you'll be off the street in no time. In other places, it's much harder to thumb your way from A to B.
Keep reading Show less

Can you guess which state has the most psychopaths?

A recent study used data from the Big Five personality to estimate psychopathy prevalence in the 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C.

Surprising Science
  • The study estimated psychopathy prevalence by looking at the prevalence of certain traits in the Big Five model of personality.
  • The District of Columbia had the highest prevalence of psychopathy, compared to other areas.
  • The authors cautioned that their measurements were indirect, and that psychopathy in general is difficult to define precisely.
Keep reading Show less