By Ryan Bradley
June 13, 2014

A small group of innovative, urban pioneers, operating in different spots around the world, are making their cha- otic cities not only more sustainable, but more vital and interesting places to live. They are, in effect, creating a template for the metropolis of the future. These forward-thinking government officials, academics, and executives have many characteristics in common. They think long term and plan out what sort of future their city might strive toward in a multitude of ways, including new ways of measuring and managing traffic, energy, and information.

As Adie Tomer and Robert Puentes, fellows at the Brookings Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative, put it: “It all starts with cities making a concerted effort to understand who they are and where they want to go.” Singapore, for example, first drafted its plan in the 1960s, and it has been followed so closely and created such an economic powerhouse that the city-state now exports its urban know-how, hosts conferences about planning, and assists cities around the world with their infrastructure issues—for a price. The plan, in other words, has created an economy unto itself.

For another approach to planning, visit Edmonton, Alberta. Its City Vision 2040 program breaks down city planning into six categories (finance, green, grow, live, move, and prosper), and then looks at what works and doesn’t work. City Vision’s growth initiative is instructive, for it considers all aspects of expansion, from the impact on Edmonton’s neighboring municipalities to current patterns of development, transportation, and land use. The Municipal Development Plan is debated publicly, which means different views and more ideas are brought to the table. More important, such transparency makes it easier for the public to buy into a plan for their city’s future.

The builders of smart cities have also learned that rather than treat the entire city as one big, expensive petri dish, Robert Moses–style, a single building or neighborhood might serve as the best test bed for trying out ideas. Boston’s Innovation District is one such example. There, 1,000 acres of South Boston waterfront has become its own talent draw, providing affordable office space, services such as Internet and office supplies and networking events.

A crucial point about these special districts is that they can exist and thrive in cities large and small. In fact, in smaller urban areas, businesses often grow even faster than they would in a vast metropolitan region, where they are one among many.

As we’ll see, some of the best and smartest cities are creating master plans, developing big-data mapping systems, and investing in Internet infrastructure and intelligent transportation systems. Here are a few examples of some of the smartest cities on the planet and the pioneers who are making it happen.

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