Data Driven Cities: 20 Stories of Innovation

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With two-thirds of the world’s population expected to live in cities by 2050, the question of how to make cities work better for their inhabitants has never been more urgent. If harnessed, the data that permeate cities can answer this question in myriad ways, and serve to inspire solutions for navigating the technological, social and economic changes of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The potential to collect, analyze and apply urban data to achieve deeper insight on city preparedness, makes this a critical moment for cities to embrace and encourage the use of data to drive their development.

Data-Driven Cities: 20 Stories of Innovation seeks to highlight how cities have achieved this. It builds on the popular work of the Top 10 Urban Innovations, published by the Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization in 2016. It also inaugurates the work of the Cities and Fourth Industrial Revolution project, which will become a key part of the Forum’s Cities portfolio. This is focused on empowering cities to use data in defining and measuring their preparedness for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

An aim of Data-Driven Cities: 20 Stories of Innovation for the Fourth Industrial Revolution is to inspire reflection on the vast possibilities of data to improve the livability, governance, and sustainability of the world’s cities and begin the discussion on where action is possible.


“What is the city but the people?” asked Shakespeare. Today, new technologies are giving citizens more opportunities to have a say in the functioning of their communities. They are opening up a space – in the convergence of the physical and the digital – in which people can organize to reclaim what French philosopher Henri Lefebvre called their “right to the city”. The data stories collected in this chapter are linked by their interest in provoking behavioural change, whether people-to-people or government-to- people.

Unlike the broad, sweeping projects of the past, digital changes can happen without heavy infrastructure. They are not necessarily determined by governments, but can arise from bottom-up actions. Public institutions should want citizens to get excited about urban innovation. Beyond the installation and control of hardware, if the right platforms can be developed, people can really be the ones to transform the cities they own.


The Fourth Industrial Revolution will change how we produce and consume, and its impact on city life will be dramatic – from new forms of manufacturing to arti cial intelligence and the sharing economy. Digitally controlled machines, 3D printers, open-source software and new sharing devices allow almost everyone to draw and give shape to their own products, ideas, houses, or working spaces, often using data to personalize their experience of the built environment.

As they strive to attract foreign and direct investment, talent, skilled labour and startups in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, cities must remodel their economies to become attractive for what Elizabeth Currid-Halkett calls the “aspirational class”. Members of this multiform, peripatetic class are interested in “inconspicuous consumption” – for example, good schools, wellness facilities, and a thriving cultural and food scene.


The deluge of data available and the increasing complexity of today’s urban issues compel us to develop more open and inclusive models for governance. Governments can play a fundamental role in fostering innovation – from supporting academic research to promoting applications in unglamorous but crucial elds that might be less appealing to private capital, such as municipal waste or water services. They can also promote the use of open platforms and standards in such projects, which would speed up adoption in cities worldwide.

City governments need to establish synergy with the various actors that can make a city smart, such as businesses, research centres, associations and private individuals, including youngsters. They can invest in developing a bottom-up, innovative ecosystem to engage citizens in various ways, for example, supporting accelerators, creating regulatory frameworks that allow innovation to thrive, and involving people in discussions on how open data can be used to improve urban life.


Urban population growth is not a new phenomenon. Back in the 1990s, British architect Richard Rogers famously observed that the urban population of the world is increasing at a rate of a quarter of a million people per day – “think of it as a new London every month”. Not only do we need to create new urban fabric to cope with this growth, we also need to make better use of existing infrastructural assets to ensure that our increasingly large metropolises are sustainable.

Smart technologies can help. These “data stories” show how we can apply the Internet of Things paradigm to available resources and old cities, buildings and infrastructure without many engineering obstacles. Historic urban centres that might have struggled to adapt to 20th-century technology - heavy, invasive, and incompatible with a fine-grained city fabric – can more easily adapt to the new, light technology of the digital revolution.


The importance of cities for the environment can be summed up with four numbers: 2, 50, 75 and 80. Cities occupy 2% of the world’s surface; more than 50% of the world population lives in them; they consume 75% of global energy supply; and are responsible for 80% of carbon dioxide emissions. By making cities just a little more sustainable – more green, able to consume less energy or natural resources – we can have a major positive impact on the planet, as these data stories show.

Elisée Reclus, the 19th-century French anarchic geographer, once wrote: “People must have the dual possibility of gaining access to the delights of the city, with its solidarity of thought and interest, its opportunities for study and art education, and, at the same time, the freedom that is nourished by nature and is realized through the varieties of its open horizons.” Today’s digitally augmented cities could change our relationship with nature by getting closer to realizing this vision.