Navigating the Innovation Gap: Parting Thoughts for Future Innovation

November 3, 2017 Sara Audisho

For the final instalment of our Navigating the Innovation Gap series, we’d like to share some parting thoughts about the direction cities are beginning to take.

We’ve touched upon the meaning of innovation, different forms of it and the ongoing efforts from both the public and private sphere to implement tech-friendly, research-based policy.

We’ve placed a particular focus on how innovation is taking place in cities, since urban centres are naturally the first testing grounds of progressive solutions. Cities are home to over 50% of the world’s population and face physical, social and economic challenges for this reason. They also house knowledge hubs and headquarters from almost every industry. Cities have the conditions and resources sufficient for innovative policy testing.

With that said, measures to alleviate the pressures on cities will reverberate everywhere. Suburbs and rural regions will be affected as well. What if technology brings the countryside closer? What if the access and ease that cloud-based services offer will slow migration to cities?

Introducing a Sidewalk Labs-style of city planning to a municipality has enormous implications. Advocates of this type of urban planning think it’s a breath of fresh air: a community-centred and evidence-based approach to addressing longstanding problems. The ideal is to remodel our cities inclusively and holistically, which means listening to residents and building with the purpose to address social divisions, all while of course designing sustainable infrastructure. It’s a tall order, to say the least.

As with any tide of change, there is hesitation. Critics of Google’s city-building sister company say the tech company lacks the insight to alleviate poverty. If San Francisco and the Bay Area are any indication of the effect of knowledge hubs and innovation centers, then there is good reason for concern. A recent study found a strong link between “innovation intensity” and economic segregation in the city, concluding that a growth in tech innovation causes a growth in inequality.

What occurred in San Francisco has also happened elsewhere: tech companies move into town and convert old areas into new hubs, which draws their (typically affluent) employees closer, spurring the cycle of gentrification.

Let’s not get into the ins and outs of gentrification and why it’s believed to be problematic, but the takeaway here is that vulnerable residents near tech hubs have become increasingly disenfranchised.

Private enterprise has no obligation to account for its effect on neighbourhoods, so when low-income city natives become disassociated from the wealthier parts of town, it’s left to city officials to respond to the fallout. This is however where companies like Sidewalk Labs differ because their purpose is to bring city officials, urban planners and tech teams together to address problems like gentrification.

All of this sort of leaves us on an annoyingly unhelpful only time will tell note. The Toronto project spearheaded by Sidewalk Labs in partnership with the city is in its preliminary stages. CEO Dan Doctoroff promises the east waterfront will not become another “tech enclave,” and Waterfront Toronto has assured residents that the project remains a “planning exercise” that the city can walk away from if it doesn't like it.

The entire field of innovative urban planning is still budding. Sidewalk Toronto will play a crucial role in setting precedents for other North American cities looking to transform.

So keep your ears peeled. Although this is our last segment of the series, we’ll be keeping tabs too.

As always, thanks for keeping informed with The Tite Report. 

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