12/27/2012 09:51 am ET | Updated Feb 26, 2013

A City's True Innovation: When Discovery Meets Intention

So speaking with my physics professor in grad school, I realized that the inventiveness of the light bulb wasn't that it created light, but that it made light accessible to everyone quicker and fairly cheaply. I began to wonder how to translate that rationale into my urban design thesis. It's great to talk about theories in classical physics -- theories of relativity, three laws of motion, and the speed of light. What was even better for me was to delve into quantum mechanics, probability distribution, wavefunction, particles, and string theory; simply understanding the 'landscape' of connectivity. Is it possible that the greatest innovation comes from a deeper discovery of existing conditions, existing form, function, and those emergent properties that occur based off the necessity of human interaction with physical space?

It sounds nerdy, well, maybe not! Cities, the engines of creativity and the drivers of diversity are extremely multi-dimensional. Our politics strive to reflect the ever-changing patterns of urban form, socio-economic shifts, trends, and technology. Or do they? Lately, innovation in cities is typically associated with high-tech hubs and tech startups. Unlike the light bulb, these hubs aren't accessible. Many residents don't have computers but they do have a knowledge-base that if leveraged, would make city government more efficient and effective.

How do we harness this capacity to truly shift cities from reactive to more proactive and intentional? Discovery! As an urban designer, for me experiential learning is key. How can we begin to restructure urban form without understanding the user and the conditions of place? How can we innovate and replicate ideas without comprehending the symptoms of change? To walk in the ballet shoes of a dancer from home to bus stop with no shelter, to cross the busy 'un-friendly' pedestrian street as a mother pushing a stroller, and to be a sixth grader who finally realizes tomatoes are grown outside and not in fast food restaurants is to truly understand the complexities of our communities, the global challenges we face, and intentional interventions we need to make. Our civic centers, our places of culture and commerce, are only as good as our surrounding inner city neighborhoods.

Cities are the enabling environment where creative partnerships flourish. They are where physicists, epidemiologists, students, urban agriculturalists, neighborhood activists, hip hop dancers, planners, and techies can meet at a coffee shop, have dialogue, prototype ideas, and implement strategies that reflect community needs to make the greatest social impact. True innovation comes when we balance experience, uncertainty, function, and form; when we engage our urban dwellers at the beginning of the creative process and not only as an afterthought for metrics and assessments. I believe the emergence of ingenious arrives when the connections are made. The question then becomes how do we encourage and engage those left on the fringes? After all, Einstein was a proponent of inclusiveness and a supporter of civil rights -- at least that's what I read last night before bed.