Innovation, resource use and cities

I was reading Cities by John Reader the other day. Reader observes that steel frame construction revolutionized cities and has been considered the most significant architectural advance since the roman arch. Seems sewers and elevators have equal claim to the title, but no matter.

Innovation and cities are joined by a constant positive feedback loop – each advances the other. Choose just about anything fundamental to our urban growth over the last 150 years, whether elevators, transit or air-conditioning, to pick a near random three. None of these were invented in economic backwaters, but rather required a vibrant city and its creative community for development. And to complete this loop, the march of innovation also led, more times than not, to a greater consumption of natural resources.

So the cycle really was that innovation led to urbanizing which in turn led to consumption of more resources.


Bullitt Center, green building, sustainable
The Bullitt Center is the greenest commercial building in the world.


Is a trend counter to this historical loop of innovation evolving? Is it no longer automatically the case that innovation and city building leads to an increased consumption of resources? Perhaps.

Here’s one example. The Web-enabled smart phone is facilitating a real time sharing economy of collaborative consumption. Think of apps like Uber, car2go, Airbnb and dozens of other such platforms for sharing. This element of our economy was totally unanticipated when smart phones with internet connectivity became available only a decade ago. This new economy facilitates a higher living standard in denser communities as it also reduces our consumption of resources.

Want another example? New building materials are under development with mind boggling strength-to-weight ratios which will significantly reduce the amount of resources committed to new skyscrapers – whether incredible facings made of spun spider fiber – or at least the chemical equivalent – thin members of single chain carbon.

Here’s another: photo voltaic film on windows of urban buildings to generate electricity. For an interesting mind experiment, consider how this counter trend of innovation-facilitating-urbanization-while-decreasing-resource-consumption will shape our cities.

It is another intriguing emerging trend we are considering as we develop the Next Wave of the Cascade and Olympic agendas.