The 2012 TED Prize Goes To Cities 2.0 (No, Cities 2.0 Is Not A Person)

In a step away from its usual procedures, the TED Prize is going to an idea, not a person. Cities are important drivers of ideas and where most people will live in the future. But what, exactly, is going to come from a TED Prize without a real winner?

For the first time in its seven-year history, the winner of the 2012 TED Prize isn’t a person—past recipients include Bono, Bill Clinton, and Jamie Oliver—but an idea: City 2.0.

"The City 2.0 is the city of the future… a future in which more than ten billion people on planet Earth must somehow live sustainably," TED explained on the prize website. "The City 2.0 is not a sterile utopian dream, but a real-world upgrade tapping into humanity’s collective wisdom."

Winning the prize cements cities’ white-hot status in the zeitgeist as the nexus of humanity’s efforts to build a cleaner, smarter, and more equitable tomorrow. Cities are simultaneously the future of human habitation (the world is 50% urbanized, on its way to 80%), the greatest source of our carbon emissions (70%), and, as both the journalist Steven Johnson and the physicist Geoffrey West have argued separately, the places where good ideas come from.

Now it’s TED that’s looking for a few good ideas from our urban centers. Punting on awarding the prize to an individual (or individuals) means the $100,000 prize and its "one wish to change the world" are up for grabs and will effectively be crowdsourced. (TED is currently asking for submissions.)

TED’s refusal to award the prize to a single individual because "the future of cities is such a significant issue" is puzzling. Through the years, the various TED and TEDGlobal conferences have featured a murderer’s row worth of qualified candidates who have revolutionary ideas about cities, including West, Worldchanging founder Alex Steffen, Stewart Brand, former Curitiba mayor Jaime Lerner, Zipcar founder Robin Chase, and economist Paul Romer.

Whoever effectively wins the prize for their idea will likely come from one of three camps. The least likely candidates are large corporation such as IBM or Siemens, which are heavily invested in the future of cities and have charitable arms of their own. (A corporation has yet to win the prize.)

With only $100,000 at stake, perhaps the most effective option would be to follow the path blazed by Architecture for Humanity’s Cameron Sinclair, a 2006 prize winner who used his wish and prize money to create the Open Architecture Network, an online community of more than 13,000 architects and other professionals who have collectively developed 1,200 projects to date.

The Institute for the Future’s Anthony Townsend, suggested something similar on TED’s site Tuesday afternoon. "My wish is that cities build a network of experimentation and learning around smart technologies and service innovations that will be the main tool to create City 2.0," he wrote. "These computational leadership networks" should take inspiration from the rapid spread of sustainable innovations like bike sharing and bus rapid transit to cities around the world in just a few years."

It’s not hard to imagine an "Open City Network" designed to do just that, sponsored by a nonprofit such as Open Plans or Code for America.

The alternative is to narrowly focus on a single project or projects around a single issue, whether it’s urban farming, electric car recharging stations, or one of the dozens of other ideas already posted on TED’s site. The urban historian Leo Hollis made the most unusual request, calling for a conference "on the question of Trust and the city." "Big ideas that do not take a people-first position [are] bound to fail. City 2.0 is a just city, not just the internet of things," he wrote.

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  • Tara Perry

    Why is there never any mention of creatively including children in these discussions and solutions? Not superficially, not symbolically but really including them.  After all, they are a generation that will grow up with these issues and they are incredibly creative when given real world respect, challenges and opportunities.  They are emotionally connected until we remove them from the equation as if they can be of no benefit to the solution and when we do that, we forever emotionally disconnect them from caring about the world we live in.  We completely miss a ripe intervention and retention opportunity and most likely, some key solutions.  I believe many great ideas for future innovation can be birthed in the minds and hearts of these young people and further enabled by a mature generation of doers, exactly the type that read and religiously follow Fast Company and TED.  By including them in this process it will not only enlist them to create solutions, but will give them an intimate knowledge of the core problems, many of which can be addressed at the foundation of the problem through day to day action (if they only understood) and together we can talk the talk and walk the walk and collaboratively change the future of the world we inhabit for ourselves and every other living thing that is dependent on our good judgement.....  Here's to KIDS 2.0..........

  • Janice

    OK...I know how to save billions of gallons of water per day. Even went to the trouble of a patent for it. Only because it is a UTILIY and would take penny´s to make.  And it is difficult to describe something that does not exist....and still does not exist...  I can´t believe no one else has thought of this yet because it is so simple. It is almost ridicules the word ´SIMPLE´  . Now, saying this and typing this in this comment box... I feel like it still won´t be noticed...oh well...
    Believe me when I say, as I am not a wall-flower who sits, does nothing and just watches the world go by and accomplishes nothing. I have many notches on my belt...So...if you are the person who stumbles on this comment box and maybe THINKS...hey this person might have something here that can help the WORLD...by saving what will be called BLUE GOLD..aka DRINKING WATER.
    email me...at...jalew2u@earhlink.net..... Attention Janice... thank you.