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To solve society's ills, the city as a computing platform

To solve society's ills, the city as a computing platform

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At TEDxPhilly, Temple University professor Youngjin Yoo explains that the path to innovation appears by looking at the city as a computing platform.

PHILADELPHIA -- If you want to innovate, look at the city as a computing platform.

That's according to Youngjin Yoo, the director of the Center for Design+Innovation at Temple University, who took to the stage here at the second annual TEDxPhilly conference yesterday to explain why he's so excited about applying computing power to cities to better understand how they function.

"We are living in an exciting time where we can use technology to transform the world," he said.

There are three reasons for Yoo's excitement.

First, information technology for the first time is no longer the primary obstacle of human innovation. "Now, technology works like magic," he said, displaying a picture of the Siri-enabled Apple iPhone 4S.

Second, anyone with a $300 netback can "pursue their own ideas and dreams," Yoo said. In industrial technology, we needed machines that cost a lot of money, separating production and consumption and creating a professional society; now technology enables the average citizen, ushering in the age of the post-professional society.

Third, a new generation who lives their entire life with computers, a.k.a. "digital natives," is entering the workforce. These people learn by constantly copying and improving under the guise of "fun," Yoo said. In contrast, "many of us in this room are digital immigrants," whose life language is different than their work language and who turn off their computers when they get home. Why do children spend so much time online, even after they come home from work? "Because it is their life," Yoo said. "It is how they speak."

These three phenomena are combining to crate "unbounded, generative and distributed innovations" through which people are trying to solve intractable, complex problems of the world.

But why cities? Because with the majority of the human population living in them, they matter, Yoo said.

"Cities are the most exciting, complex, amazing and compelling human objects," he said. When you look beyond the forests and plains of America's landscape, you don't see roads, cars, houses or iPhones -- you see an entire city. "And we have a lot of work to do to make it better," he said.

For all the good things a city can bring -- media, consumption, transportation, culture, finance -- they also bring poverty, traffic, housing issues and education concerns, he said. "How can we use this digital technology to transform cities?" he asked the audience.

His proposal: think of cities as a computing platform. They are already much like one, with digital technology embedded at every turn: digital sensors and actuators, laptops and smartphones, databases and cars, buildings and signs. And oh yes, people.

"The communications speed between computers now actually exceeds the communication speed we had inside computers 20 years ago," he said. Which is why we can now harness data and use it for good purpose, he said.

But there's a major hurdle: in a city, most systems are closed, disconnected and proprietary -- neither generative nor participatory, as Yoo's proposal requires, he said.

So how do we convert a city to a computing platform, instead of merely building apps?

"We need to create data and services and open them up to the public so they can create," he said. "When you think about cities, now you need to think about not just urban landscaping or planning but urban information architecture" -- and who's responsible for it.

The city is and should be a "perfectly incomplete design," one that invites people to solve its problems, he said. "The [generative] design rules allow people to open up spaces that they originally never thought about."

To spark this, we must advertise those problems and help citizens connect with the right resources so that they can solve a city's problems -- "and then create new products that they can then sell to the world," Yoo said.

In the digital city, professionals and non-professionals will collaborate and government and citizens will cooperate, Yoo said.

"Every generation faces its own generational challenge," he said. "It is a response to their intergenerational threat. This generation has the city as their challenge."

Photo: Kevin Monko

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Andrew Nusca

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Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure