Behind Some of History's Most Powerful Urban Innovations

A series of pieces from Sidewalk Labs examines the history and context of vital urban "innovations." So far, elevators, sewers, and traffic signals have been covered.

September 14, 2017, 2:00 PM PDT

By Philip Rojc @PhilipRojc


Steve Snodgrass / Flickr

For Sidewalk Labs, Eric Jaffe introduces a series of articles on how urban life has generated some of the most world-changing technologies out there. The focus is on history and context. "One of the many problems with the term 'smart cities' is its suggestion that urban life has been dumb in the past."

Jaffe goes on, "Over the coming weeks, we'll explore some of the biggest steps forward — and, at times, backward — in transportation, buildings, energy, data, and infrastructure." Three pieces are out already, covering relatively recent inventions like elevators and traffic lights, as well as ancient ones like sewage systems (whose world-changing nature we cannot overstate).

There is wisdom to be gleaned from all of this. As Jaffe puts it, "The clearest lesson is that innovation never takes hold in cities overnight. That's been true even of the greatest leaps forward in urban technology. Steam accounted for a tiny fraction of U.S. power nearly 60 years after Watts invented his great engine." He also points to the role of policy and public-private collaboration in mainstreaming many of these inventions.

Friday, September 8, 2017 in Sidewalk Talk

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