15 Innovations That Shaped the City

A Sidewalk Talk series that explores some of the major advances in urban technology, design, and policy across history — from Roman sewers to real-time transit.

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One of the many problems with the term “smart cities” is its suggestion that urban life has been dumb in the past. The engineers who designed Rome’s aqueducts might rightfully object. So too the surveyors who outlined New York’s street grid or the tunnelers who dug London’s subways. In reality, cities have been humanity’s greatest source of innovation as long as people have settled in them; their complexity presents endless challenges and their environment inspires endless solutions.

With an eye toward the future of cities, Sidewalk Talk is excited to launch a new series spotlighting 15 innovations that shaped the history of urban life. Over the coming weeks, we’ll explore some of the biggest steps forward — and, at times, backward — in transportation, buildings, energy, data, and infrastructure. Many are technological in nature; others represent innovative policies or design advances. The series is not meant to be exhaustive, of course, but as cities move into a new era of digital tools, we hope it’s instructive.

The clearest lesson is that innovation never takes hold in cities overnight. That’s been true even of the greatest leaps forward in urban technology. Steam accounted for a tiny fraction of U.S. power nearly 60 years after Watts invented his great engine. Elevators didn’t give rise to tall towers until half a century after Otis gave his famous demonstration on lift safety. Electricity took decades to achieve its full impact on travel, work, and life — it needed transit vehicles, factories, and infrastructure to catch up.

Tim Harford, author of Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economyput it best: “The electric motor was a wonderful invention, once we changed all the everyday details that surrounded it.”

Another insight — too often overlooked — is that technology’s impact on urban life is both hard to predict and heavily guided by policy. Take the safety bicycle. After bursting onto the scene in the late 19th century as a great new form of personal transportation, the bike gave rise to the Good Roads Movement, which by urging better road creation ironically made it easier for cars to conquer city streets. Only today, as cities prioritize bike infrastructure and embrace bike-share technology, has cycling started to fulfill its initial hopes of mobility freedom.

Still another takeaway is that, more often than not, urban advances are the result of public- and private-sector forces coming together. To pick just one example, real-time navigation would not be what it is today if Bibiana McHugh of Portland’s transit authority, TriMet, hadn’t teamed up with Google engineer Chris Harrelson to create standardized GTFS data feeds. Big government visions — such as the mammoth sewage system London’s chief engineer designed in 1859 — are the exception, not the rule.

These are all lessons well learned as the world moves into the next era of urban innovation, this one focused around new advances in digital tools, data analysis, and automation. The next big breakthrough to shape urban life is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty. But what history does teach us for sure is that when cities provide the capabilities for innovation to take hold, people take it from there.

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September 8, 2017