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November 17, 2011 / trajsingh

Proximity, population, and the search for urban ingenuity

The world is going urban. Since last year, more than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities, a figure that is expected to continue rising in the years to come. Given this shift, the inevitable rise of the “megacity,” defined as having greater than 10 million inhabitants, is outpacing governments’ ability to provide services for urban dwellers, including provision of energy, education and healthcare, as well as the infrastructure required to effectively deliver these essential services. The gap between service and demand is growing ever wider, and the urgency of finding ways to bridge it ever greater.

In this context, the ingenuity of urban dwellers shines brightly. Faced with difficult living conditions and sub-optimal environments, people and communities are reacting by developing their own innovations, their own solutions, to the problems that they face. And, despite the poverty visible in so many megacities, it should be noted that compared to the rural surroundings, the urban environments are often better off (and therefore the reason why more people arrive every day).

This should come as no surprise, as historically, cities have always been a hotbed of new ideas and ingenious solutions. Since the industrial revolution shifted the focus from an agrarian future to an industrial one, the city has been, of necessity, the cradle of invention. From the spinners of Manchester to the carmakers of Detroit, proximity and population have combined to drive progress forward. In today’s modern context, these factors continue to fuel innovation across geographies and industries, -from the technology of Silicon Valley to the clothing industries of Milan to the electronics manufacturing centers of Thailand.  The resulting specialization of each cluster can be a self-reinforcing, positive, trend.

So we might theorize that, as much as the megacity lacks so many things, it also contains the solutions to its own problems. Often out of necessity, as in the case of the urban poor, city dwellers are innovators. Whether it be creating light sources from plastic water bottles, or getting homeless people out of shelters into real accommodation, cities’ own problems are frequently solved by their own inhabitants. The most important lessons to be learned here might be to help people to help themselves (rather than imposing top-down solutions), and to enable local solutions to be scaled more broadly, even across the globe.

One of the fundamental ways people can help themselves is to learn from others and apply this knowledge to their own unique situations. In the spirit of promoting this learning and the translation of best practices into new contexts, Citigroup and the Financial Times (FT), in collaboration with INSEAD, are launching the FT-Citi Ingenuity Awards. Nearly any individual or group of people from around the world who has put an ingenious idea into practice – in the fields of education, energy, healthcare and infrastructure — in an urban environment is eligible to enter.

The awards will be presented in New York in November 2012.

You can apply at or tell your friends to. Over the next year, there will be articles and events highlighting the interesting projects that are uncovered, and the hope is that this program will encourage further ideation and development, thus enabling greater benefits to be realized across urban environments worldwide.

If you know someone you think should be a part of this, please let them know. And help spread the word so we can all benefit from the ingenious ideas being advanced every day.


One Comment

  1. trajsingh / Nov 18 2011 2:58 am

    Also see Eddie Heathcote’s excellent article on urban ingenuity and a great piece by Edward Glaeser on the RSA’s website:

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