Innovation and the Future of Urbanization: A TSR interview with Dr. Karen Seto (Part Two)

By Branden Boyer-White and Michael Bernstein

As you may have read, we at The Sustainability Review recently had the good fortune of speaking with Dr. Karen Seto, Associate Professor of the Urban Environment at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental studies, on her research related to urbanization in China and India. In our first piece, we discussed the implications, drivers and challenges of global scale urbanization in China and India. In this edited portion of our conversation, we look to the future and discuss the obstacles to and opportunities for urban sustainability.

The Sustainability Review (TSR): Are you familiar with the research of Geoffrey West, Jose Lobo and Luis Bettencourt and the Santa Fe Institute, in terms of innovation and scaling in cities?

Dr. Karen Seto (KS): Of course. I’m going there in July to talk to those folks and currently I’m collaborating with Jose Lobo on a project.

TSR: Given the phenomenon of "increasing returns to scale" on innovation in cities of increasing size, and given that cities in China and India aggregate huge numbers of people—who are presumably dealing with many challenges, on an individual level, day-to-day—do you see a way of tapping into the innovations generated by these populations?

KS: I think innovation doesn’t happen simply because you bring a lot of people together—otherwise you’d have big cities being very innovative all around the world, and we know this isn’t the case. The preconditions for innovation have to be there. Some of these preconditions are institutional, some are cultural, some are societal; there are many different factors.

To use Silicon Valley as an example, a region that I lived in and know well, Silicon Valley, in terms of sheer population size is not very big—it’s not as big as Manhattan, Brooklyn, or any of the boroughs—but there’s something about having so many educated people together who are thinking outside of the box or who are given a platform to think outside the box. That’s really a very critical issue. How do we create these platforms to encourage people to get together, bottom up and top down, to think creatively about these potential solutions. And then how do we actually think about adopting and implementing these solutions on a short time horizon? I’m not thinking about the classic NSF proposal where you send the proposal and six months later it gets reviewed, you maybe get the funding a year later, and then you do the research over three years. By then, four years out, probably something like ten or twenty cities will already have been built. We need to think about strategies for developing small-scale pilot solutions to see whether they’re scalable, to see under what conditions they help avoid unintended consequences.

I have a big concern that, again, we’re looking too much at optimizing everything, of trying to find that "right" solution. One of the questions I’m asked when I talk to different policy makers or mayors or different stakeholders around the world is, what city has done it right? And the answer that I come back with is that no single city has done it right. The question actually is, what city has done it less wrong? That opens up a much bigger discussion about how some cities have done it right in certain ways and others have done it less wrong in other ways. Whenever I see these lists of the most environmental cities, the top ten, it’s invariably the Copenhagens, the Tokyos, the Barcelonas of the world—primarily service-oriented cities. They’re not really conditioned in the realities of what cities in China and India and many African countries face. Trying to compare Mumbai to Copenhagen isn’t really that useful to help us think about innovative solutions.

TSR: Is that why you think that the moderation of the goal of optimization is important—because it’s not adaptable, across the board, to every city?

KS: Yes. I think there’s a real danger of copycat solutions that are not appropriate. One of the biggest problems right now is that we have copycat cities around the world that are not appropriate for different places. In North America cities grew in a certain way at a certain time in human and American history, and for a certain number of people. Right now we’re talking about a planet with an additional three billion urban inhabitants by 2100. So the formula that we have in North America and in Europe is unlikely to be the formula that is going to be appropriate for Africa and large parts of Asia.

We need to think about new formulas that are more appropriate for those places—which goes back to the matter of innovation. Innovation is not just taking something that you know and re-jigging it; that’s just a slight reconfiguration. I think an innovation is asking, what is it that people want out of their cities? Why do people move to cities? What do you need there? You need to go get milk, you need to get rice, you need to get food. You need to have access—the key thing is accessibility, and how do we create accessibility without creating all of these other problems that come with everybody driving? That’s one of the biggest challenges.

There are some incredible solutions out there that we haven’t even thought about. For example, in this country and many others people have been talking about mixed- or multi-use zoning, and I think that’s a great idea. I think we can actually take it beyond just mixed-use zoning. If you go to Asian cities in Taipei or Tokyo, they’ve taken that concept one step further to think about three-dimensional zoning. I lived in Taipei for six months during my sabbatical and in the building that I lived in, the first floor was retail space, the second through the fourteenth floors were commercial space—a dentist, a couple of hair salons, a spa—and then the [floors above] were residential. In Tokyo, it’s common to have a hotel where the lobby starts on the thirteenth floor because floors one through twelve are commercial or retail space. We can be much more creative. Why is it that the Gap is only on the first floor, or at most the first two floors? Why don’t we really re-think how we use space and how to make things accessible in ways that don’t require a car?

TSR: And then there are urban farms—engineered greenhouses in climate-controlled areas of a building—

KS: Absolutely. Probably the main message about sustainability and urbanization is a very simple one, and that message is: we cannot continue to build cities in the Twenty-First Century as we have in the Twentieth, the Nineteenth, the Eighteenth and the Seventeenth Centuries. We are now at a time in history when the scale of human population and the scale of urbanization require that we don’t use old models from centuries ago and simply make them bigger. We have to think of new models.

TSR: Well, thank you very much…and on that note, I think we’ll let you go…

KS: (laughs) Yes, as I sit here in traffic in in a cab.

Interviewee Biography

Dr. Seto is an established leader in the area of urbanization and global environmental change, with geographic expertise in Asia, especially China and India. Dr. Seto is Co-Chair of the Urbanization and Global Environmental Change Project (UGEC) of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), and a Coordinating Lead Author for Working Group III of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. She is an Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow and recipient of a NASA New Investigator Program Award, a NSF Career Award, and a National Geographic Research Grant.