The future of cities 1

Citizens Will Make the Future of Cities

By: Jason Tester, Research Director, Institute for the Future
Published: Thursday, June 13, 2013 - 13:01 GMT Jump to Comments

'The future of making is changing again, and cities and citizens will lead the way', says an expert of Human-Future interaction.

The way we make things is constantly changing. Making can be traced throughout history.

The steam engine sparked the Industrial Revolution, shifting the world from handcrafting to mass production. The assembly line and mass production transformed industry after industry and gave birth to the middle class. And cheap, standardized shipping in the 20th century catalyzed a truly global and interconnected economy.

Over the past decade, making has started to change once again. The tools to make literally anything have increasingly become available to anyone. Open source electronics platforms, the rapid progress of 3D printing technology, and community makerspaces with sophisticated industrial tools are rewriting the rules of production to enable anyone to be a maker.

But this chapter of the maker story is different. New networks have proven to be just as important as new tools. Online platforms like Etsy, Quirky, and Instructables have changed how makers connect to the world to sell their creations, work on designs with collaborators from many backgrounds and disciplines, and document and share best practices for others to adapt, improve, and re-share.

This global culture has a name—the maker movement—and you can see its impact through new publications like Make magazine and the fast growth and global reach of makerspaces and maker meetups like Maker Faire.

The DIY ethos of making isn’t limited to creating physical objects—stuff. Makers are starting to reimagine the systems that surround the world around them. That is, they are bringing the “maker mindset” to the complex urban challenges of health, education, food, and even citizenship. 

Makers are coming together in civic innovation hackathons to prototype new forms of citizen-led governance. Makers experimenting with new forms of community launched what would become the sharing economy, establishing new ways to measure and create value in local economies. And needing capital to make their ideas real, makers were the earliest adopters of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Crowdfunding raised an estimated $2.8 billion in 2012 to fund projects, and new specialized sites like neighbor.ly and Fundrise focus on group fundraising for municipal projects like building parks or upgrading failing infrastructure.

This last space of civic crowdfunding points to a common thread found in many of these broader examples of making—the systems being remade are often rooted in cities. Like the maker movement, cities will also be one of the most important forces of change in the 21st century, in no small part because most of us now live there. In 2008 the global population crossed over to became more urban than rural, with projections for over 60% of people living in cities by 2030. And cities are getting bigger. By 2025 the UN predicts there will be 37 dense megacities with 10 million or more residents.

Cities are also where we’ll need to solve the next century’s biggest challenges first, like mitigating the initial impacts of climate change, adapting to a world of limited resources, or making sense of an abundance of data from billions of connected devices.

At the Institute for the Future (IFTF), we see a significant convergence in three forces—makers, urban challenges, and emerging technologies. To understand this potential, we’re launching a new research initiative that we call, as you might guess, Maker Cities.

Just as there are many different forms of the makers, there will be many different forms of Maker Cities as this movement spreads.

New York City will become a leading site for smart city innovation, where startups, academics, and social innovators build on a goldmine of data trails from mobile connected citizens and sensor-equipped buildings and infrastructure. London is home to many artists and designers experimenting with the newest platforms like wearable technology and DIY biology. With an abundance of land, cheap housing, young innovators, and service and infrastructural gaps, Detroit is primed to be perhaps the “most maker” city in the developed world.

But there will be many surprising Maker Cities, not currently known as innovation hotspots. Kansas City is building an early rollout of Google gigabit fiber to remake the region as an incubator for startups, civic services, and research projects that demand ultrafast bandwidth. Barcelona is planning to open a ‘fab lab’ mini-factory in each of the city’s neighborhoods, where residents can create meaningful products customized to serve the specialized needs of their local community. And while Shenzhen could qualify for being the world’s hub of outsourced manufacturing, or for its adeptness at pirating others’ designs, the city’s true claim to Maker City distinction may be for the emerging local culture of hardware innovation dubbed “gongkai” that combines cheap components, peer-to-peer prototyping networks, and looser notions of intellectual property than found in the West.

To envision more futures from a planet of Maker Cities, IFTF is turning to the world. This July we’re launching Makercities.net, a crowdsourced forecasting game that challenges everyone to imagine their own city as a Maker City in the year 2025. We’ve found a lot of success asking the crowd to imagine the future with us—for topics like water, energy, and health—but now we’re asking people to consider the future of the places they know best.

With Makercities.net we hope to hear from many voices to create a type of ‘ground truth’ about the future of the world’s cities, spotting early signals, emerging language, and below-the-radar notions of making, innovation, and participation. We designed this platform to host conversations and collaborations across scales, from a neighborhood or city collectively exploring its own future, to global ideas, proposals, and action on topics like maker-powered education, health, and food systems.

We’re seeking and encouraging big and bold futures with this project. Our cities already have many great processes for resident participation and innovation from the grassroots, but these are typically meant for incremental improvements or solving immediate problems. As citizens we have a dearth of spaces to imagine and discuss novel, provocative, and challenging visions for the future or our urban spaces. We want Makercities.net to start filling in this gap.

The future of making is changing again, and cities and citizens will lead the way. We hope you’ll join us to make this future together.

Jason Tester is a Research Director at the Institute for the Future, where he focuses on how people use emerging technologies and the application of design to futures research. His current initiative, human-future interaction, uses immersive experiences and new media tools to provoke and capture citizens' thoughts about the future–including Makercities.net. Jason holds a BS in human-computer interaction from Stanford University and a master's degree from the Interaction Design Institute in Ivrea, Italy.

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