What Works: Local Solutions, Global Models For World Cities

07/11/2013 02:03 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2013

Few things attract an audience like seeing a bright, young innovator talking about how they thought up, implemented, and were successful in altering life in their city. It reminds you of all those great ideas that you had but never saw through, while proving that they may still be possible.

Standing in the back row, squashed against CEOs, leading academics, architects, in a room bursting at its seams, we experienced this magnetism at the New Cities Summit last month in São Paulo. We were there to watch eleven young urban innovators explain, in just 10 minutes each, how they were changing the urban field as we know it.

Entitled 'What Works,' this talks series showcased dynamic solutions to making cities more human, addressing frustrations faced around the globe. We have all lived in cities where the commute has left us more tired than the 9-hour workday, where the monotony of the gray, wall-to-wall carpeting in our office triggers our longing for a bright, interactive alternative. We all have wondered why they are tearing down that incredibly beautiful building on the next block, why there are individuals living on the street when there are empty buildings towering above them and why the citizens don't have a say in municipal planning. Recent events in Istanbul are an acute reminder of this later point.

The innovators we saw in São Paulo addressed familiar tribulations such as these. They have done the hard part. They have had the idea and taken the risks to see it through. And at the Summit last month, they stood in front of us, demonstrating a proven model. These grass-root efforts show us success, validated by their local communities, and have demonstrated that we don't need to live our daily urban lives frustrated by the same issues faced worldwide.

When planning the series, we looked for really original projects, covering different sectors, in cities across the world. In this post, we would like to focus on three examples that tackle three major urban challenges: transportation, citizen participation and new modes of work.


Developed, developing and new cities all face transportation crises of their own sort. From Lagos to Delhi, Beijing to San Jose, we hear the same complaints regarding mobility in cities - overcrowded public transport, unreliable roads, dense traffic, or disorganized providers.

Visiting any city in India, you will come across a number of these issues. For example in Ahmehabad, Gujarat, informal mobility sector dominates over public transport, with a disorganized, insecure and unaccountable character.

A ride in an auto-rickshaw, or 'tuk-tuk', is an exciting draw for tourists wanting to explore the chaotic metropolises of the sub-continent. But for those that rely on them to get to work, school, or just from one place to another, it can be stressful, dangerous, and a point of contention between the citizen and the city.

With representatives from some of the world's largest transport and urban infrastructure companies in the audience, Nirmal Kumar, an innovator from Ahmehabad, took to the What Works stage at our Summit to outline his method for improving this urban frustration.

Returning home from university one day, Nirmal found himself caught in an all-to-familiar argument with a rickshaw driver over the price of his commute. Recognizing how many individuals in his city must go through a similar quotidian aggravation, Nirmal decided that a solution could be to set up a cooperation between rickshaw drivers. Its mission: to increase drivers' earnings while making drivers more reliable and responsible. He invited 15 drivers to enter into a common organization, building trust, financial security, and a recognizable brand name.

G-Auto, Nirmal's brainchild, attracted over 100 drivers to register within its first week. Today, representing accountability and transparency, it operates with more than 10,000 drivers across 4 Indian cities. G-Auto has successfully introduced a meter system for auto-rickshaws, an achievement that the government had sought to achieve for more than 60 years.

Representing a new model of integrating local capacities, and improving the situation for providers and commuters alike, G-Auto can stand as a mold for solving informal mobility issues in cities across the world.

Citizen Participation

A society can only be truly democratic when all citizens are involved in decision-making. Citizens are the most knowledgeable about what is needed in a city, and are generally not shy about sharing this. Why then, have they been left out of the decision-making process for so long?

The recent mobilizations in cities in Brazil, Turkey, and elsewhere, underline that citizens are calling for a more participatory form of urban governance. In Rio de Janeiro, under the massive urban projects for the Olympics and the World Cup, the municipality has been criticized for leaving aside the needs and wants of the citizens.

Alessandra Orofino, a bright entrepreneur from Rio, recognized the widening gap between the city that the citizens want, and the city that policymakers were constructing. The main issue, in Alessandra's eyes, was that there was no platform bringing together ideas of the citizens with those of politicians. Responding to this realization, Alessandra started MeuRio, a social organization that empowers citizens. Using both online and offline technologies, MeuRio accumulates citizens' ideas, efforts, and dreams for the city and unites them under a common public voice.

Alessandra demonstrated MeuRio's success by sharing an example of a 10-year old girl who, using the online platform, was able to mobilize her community and volunteers to stop the demolition of her school. Similar citizen engagement can be achieved in cities across the globe, should we take Alessandra's example.

The Future of Work

For most adults, our daily life - whether we'd like to admit it or not - revolves around our jobs. But the world of work is changing with the advent of new technologies, evolving attitudes towards career development, the growth of the 'start-up' culture and mid-life career changes. Why can't we define the way we work around where we want to be, who we want to be surrounded by, and the type of surroundings that draw out, rather than stifle, our imagination?

Eric van den Broek offered an example of how this is possible. He is the co-founder of 'Mutinerie', a highly sought after co-working space in Paris, which he started just two years ago with three ex-corporates. Within one space, graphic designers, journalists, translators, app-developers and entrepreneurs share a constant stream of ideas, advice, and experience. Mutinerie offers its residents far more than just the ordinary, drab office experience. It permeates inspiration and thus, cooperative innovation. Cities need to be the laboratories for creation and cooperation, and co-working spaces have proven a useful medium.

Mutinerie has now reached full capacity, a testament to the need for such innovative work-spaces. The four founders have embarked on their goal to 'scale-up' and bring their vision to other cities by developing 'CoPass', a partnership among the network of co-working spaces across the world. 'CoPass' addresses the mobile character of modern work, and allows members to find these incubators of ideas wherever they may find themselves.

How do these ideas translate?

The What Works series highlighted successful innovations that make urban life better. Each project is based in a different city and addressed a different problem. But what they all have in common is the major impact that they have had within their own communities. We asked the What Works innovators to share their stories at the New Cities Summit, and as we stood at the back of the room, with policymakers and business leaders at either side, it became clear that we now have the seed for successfully improving the situation within cities. What we all need now is multi-actor cooperation to scale-up these projects, lay roots down in cities across the world, and see major improvement in our cities of tomorrow.

Olivia Onderdonk and Juan Manuel Restrepo Cadavid are both Researchers at the New Cities Foundation, an independent non-profit organization dedicated to building more just, dynamic, creative and sustainable cities. The Foundation held its annual New Cities Summit in São Paulo from June 4- 6, 2013. Based in Geneva, the New Cities Foundation's head office is located in Paris. (

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The New Cities Foundation, to mark the New Cities Summit, which took place in São Paolo, June 4-6, 2013. The summit's aim was to highlight what works to solve the great urban challenges facing all cities. For more information on the New Cities Summit, click here.