When TED announced that it was giving its annual TED Prize to “The City 2.0” rather than a person, urbanists were intrigued. As Nate Berg wrote in The Atlantic Cities, “In a world of about 4 billion urbanites, coming up with one idea to benefit the cities of the world is a tall order.” But TED is about big ideas, and so we had faith that its scale and scope could take on the major challenges of urbanization.
But when The City 2.0 launched on Feb. 29, some of us were flummoxed. Its website felt much like other sterile attempts to change cities through the Internet and technology, rather than on-the-ground efforts. The annual prize of $100,000 wasn’t being given to one project, but instead 10 smaller initiatives crowdsourced from online visitors. I wrote about this flop in a piece called The City Two-Point Ugh and groaned that TED had done a disservice to the urbanist community by suggesting it’s that easy or simple to upend the status quo.
Much like Apple or Microsoft, TED took the feedback on their new project and decided to debug the system. But was The City 2.0 the equivalent of Microsoft’s Vista, a program too flawed to take off? The City 2.0 — er, City 2.1? — is back, with a new website focused on TED’s trademark: storytelling. Spearheaded by Courtney E. Martin and John Cary, this new site profiles promising leaders who are improving cities and “honors those who really do this on a daily basis,” says Martin. (Disclosure: John Cary was formerly employed at Next American City.)
This is a shift from the way the old site seemed to glorify projects like The Highline, missing much of the grit, dealmaking and nuance that go into most big urban undertakings. The website will also solicit projects that can be considered for $10,000 grants. TED talks are interspersed with additional content from partners, such as Next American City, on topics such as transportation, housing, safety and play. It’s a helpful resource to both newbies and urbanist pros, a repository of inspiration for anyone who ever dreamt a Jane Jacobs dream.
But will it be a gamechanger for cities? Maybe it doesn’t have to be. The ambition of the original City 2.0 seemed too much, given TED’s limited background in the urban policy world. This initial failure reminded me of the White House Office of Urban Policy, which was created in 2009 and has since been dismantled and subsumed by the Domestic Policy Council. I think that the Obama administration was genuinely surprised to find the level of interest coming from everyone from mayors to bike lane advocates who were anticipating real outcomes from this office. At first, the office was a vindication that urban policy was about to take a big leap forward; in the end it failed to change the dynamic between local leadership and federal partners. Perhaps the overarching theme of “the city” or “urban policy” is just too huge for any one organization. Without any special office, HUD, EPA and DOT have all found new ways to engage cities in better policy.
Unlike the White House, TED isn’t willing to let its urban effort die. Instead they’ve iterated, in what Cary calls a “brave decision,” to reconsider its initial approach. (Another indicator of TED’s openness to change: It’s changed its annual prize by increasing the purse tenfold to $1 million.) What remains unanswered by the new City 2.0 website is how cities and advocates can harness the power of the Internet. This is clearly a question Martin and Cary are grappling with. “What is meaningful interaction online around these subjects? We want feedback,” Martin says.
Like any great city, this City 2.0 has to change to survive. One imagines the website growing into an encyclopedia of media about cities around the world. Rome wasn’t built in a day; the City 2.0 won’t be either.