Designing Cities in a Knowledge Economy

In India and around the globe, the economy has been moving further and further away from manufacturing and products — the so-called ‘brick and mortar’ economy — to a knowledge economy, also called the ‘internet’ or ‘networked’ economy. Here, the economy depends on people’s intelligence, creativity, skills, knowledge and aptitude as drivers of growth and opportunity.

Cities tend to be the focal points of this transformation, both because of greater opportunities for learning, networking and sharing of information, as well as because of the high concentration of inhabitants. This means that cities contain an increasingly large share of the world’s highly skilled, educated, creative and entrepreneurial population, who can then create concentrated and diverse pools of knowledge and knowledge-creation networks. But the dense populations of large cities also bring with them a host of problems, including a lack of such basic amenities as clean water and adequate housing, and frequent breakdowns in basic infrastructure like roads and transportation. This begs the question of whether the immense potential and concentrated creative energy in our cities is really being utilized to solve some of these large challenges.

In India, the transformation to a networked knowledge economy (especially in cities) is increasingly more obvious, but is not yet reflected much in the design of our cities, where we can witness more examples of hasty, jugaad-baaz infrastructure that needs constant fixing than examples of intelligent, efficient design. This is at least in part a result of what Jeby Cherian of IBM has called the “just enough is good enough” attitude, which is one that we are unfortunately quite proud of as a nation. This means that these needs are not dealt with in an effective and systematic way, often resulting in compromised public safety and comfort. It can also mean a near breakdown in the city’s ability to function in the face of even minor environmental changes, like the rain.

What is needed then, as Jeby might say, are more examples of urban design that reflects a striving towards excellence, rather than being content with the “just enough” approach. We need spaces that proactively encourage and enable us to live better, rather than simply making do. Examples of well-designed urban spaces that reflect systematic and intelligent planning do exist in India in cities like Chandigarh, in transportation systems like the Delhi Metro and in some of the new airports in several cities. While it is not realistic to think of completely redesigning all our urban spaces along the same lines, there are many instances where intelligent design could make a huge difference to the quality of life.

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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