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The City as Lab: 21 Metropoles Prepare to Prototype

From a confusing bus system in Mexico City to inefficient street lamps in San Francisco, the Living Labs Global Award provides fixes for 21 cities.

Living Labs Global co-founder Sascha Haselmayer addresses the crowd in Rio de Janeiro

In a megapolis like Mexico City, any planning initiative that moves citizens from cars to busses will pay off in reductions to traffic and air pollution. A major deterrent to using public transportation in the city? Comfort, according to Dr. Julio Mendoza, director of Mexico City's Institute of Science and Technology. Many would rather drive than experience that particular breed of public transportation-pegged anxiety: waiting helplessly on the street corner for a bus that feels like it won't ever arrive.

After participating in the Living Labs Global Award program, a competition designed to help cities solve planning challenges, the Mexican capital may have found a fix. In February, Mexico City and 20 other LLGA participants around the world put out an open call to companies to pitch solutions to important but fixable problems. Mexico City challenged entrepreneurs to dream up a tracking system for its fleet of buses, which numbers more than 100,000. "To have much more information for the passengers—it's part of the comfortability of the transportation [system], so that's the idea behind the challenge," Mendoza says.

After weeks of deliberation, each city chose a winning proposal. In Mexico City, the chosen solution came from Clever Devices, an American company that proposed installing a suite of simple technologies to give passengers access to real-time information about bus arrivals and allow transportation system managers to monitor the vehicles' health and ridership.

Yesterday, the winners for all 21 LLGA cities were announced at LLGA's summit in Rio de Janeiro. A total of 555 solutions from 50 countries were submitted from contractors, 109 of which—about five per city—were culled for a shortlist in March before a panel of jurors selected the winners. "The winners will now have the opportunity to implement their solutions in real-life, and work together with stakeholders in the 21 partner cities to prove their impact," Living Labs Global co-founder Sascha Haselmayer announced at the event.

The competition is built around "the simple idea that cities should be laboratories for technologies," Haselmayer says. Testing and implementing solutions to problems like traffic, affordable housing, and internet access shouldn't have to be a hugely expensive, top-down affair, he says. City leaders are often unwilling to collaborate and translate a successful idea from one place into the context of their own town—a problem LLGA is designed to counter. "Let’s prototype more in cities, lets pilot more. Let’s not think everything has to be huge—but things could be more agile."

This spirit of sharing was clearly on display in the results. Barcelona, Rio, Hamburg and Londonderry, United Kingdom all chose winning solutions from Connecthings, a company that helps cities connect mobile devices with information about real-word objects and locations—like bus stops and tourist attractions. Rio will use Connecthings to help develop its "Knowledge Square," initiative, an attempt to close the digital divide by creating public locations where low-income people can connect to the internet. San Francisco, the only participating American city, will work with a Swiss engineering firm to rework the city's public lighting system, giving San Francisco precise control over individual lamps.

Photo courtesy of Living Labs Global Award

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