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How tech and good design could create the city of the future - in Toronto

Kent Larson, urban visionary and the director of the MIT Media Lab, may have ideas for Toronto.

Paula Diez/MIT Technology Review

About a year ago, Alexander Kotyck began casting around for a project that would "make a positive impact" on Toronto, a city he sees struggling with falling productivity and political feuding.

The IT consultant hit on an answer: to position the city as a laboratory for inventing the future. His goal is to help Toronto create "living labs," purpose-built communities fitted out with the latest innovations in city-building – everything from advanced vehicle sharing schemes to vertical hydroponic farms for eco-friendly food production.

Mr. Kotyck partnered up with Kent Larson, an architect prominent urban guru who runs the City Science Initiative at MIT's Media Lab. Mr. Larson is a TED Talks star whose work blends the physical design of cities with the mapping of data. His vision builds on the economic development opportunities provided by new technology, and the economic benefits of living in compact, mixed-use neighbourhoods – which are fertile ground for creativity and innovation.

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In recent years, he's been looking for cities and corporate partners. Captivated by the ideas and the possibility of a new sort of urban development business venture built around technology, Mr. Kotyck contacted Mr. Larson and asked him to put Toronto on his short list. Mr. Larson obliged and unveiled his ideas to a well-connected crowd earlier this week.

"I saw a blue ocean opportunity to deploy R&D and science focusing on cities," says Mr. Kotyck, who has set up a company, BridgeRock Inc., to attract government, philanthropic and, eventually, venture capital funding. "There's been some investment in this space by companies like Cisco, but no one's tying it all together."

Mr. Kotyck emphasizes the scheme is at a very preliminary stage, and he hasn't identified a potential location. But he's been talking to Metrolinx, which has been working on planning visions for a series of "mobility hubs" around the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area. Several senior Metrolinx officials attended the event.

City-related technology is an extremely hot field these days, and multinationals such as IBM, Siemens and BMW are racing to develop and sell products and services, such as high-tech traffic management computer systems.

Waterfront Toronto is installing high-speed digital networks in its new development projects, and also building an "innovation centre" that will house tech start-ups that will test drive new digital services with the area's residents.

Medialab is working in Hamburg, Germany, with a site slated for land on the city's docklands. Mr. Larson has also attracted corporate backers, including IKEA and a Chinese auto maker, keen to test new technologies with the residents of these urban petri dishes.

Academic groups, such as MIT's City Sciences lab and New York University's Centre for Urban Science and Progress, have been looking to capture huge quantities of urban-related data – e.g., cell phone signals or tweets – in order to solve age-old problems, like improving transit. The University of Toronto has also assembled vast tranches of urban data that can be used to guide development policy and create digital visualization tools meant to help decision-makers.

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Mr. Larson is merely the latest in a long line of visionaries drawn to the problem of city living. In the late 19th century, Ebenezer Howard laid out a vision for "garden cities" designed to distance families from the noise and stench of factories. In the next generation, modernists such as the Swiss architect Le Corbusier sketched modern cities dominated by soaring apartment towers that would replace crowded, noisy neighbourhoods.

The current visionaries focus on the economic possibilities of new technology, as well as the benefits to be had from living in compact, mixed-use neighbourhoods that appear to be fertile ground for creativity and innovation.

In some cases, the future appears to have arrived, in the guise of mobile technologies such as Uber, the ride-sharing app that is rapidly emerging as an alternative transportation system for anyone with a smartphone.

During his presentation this week, Mr. Larson talked about emerging mobility ideas, such as shared cargo bikes that could be used by individuals during the day and small deliveries at night. "You have the right mode at the right time for the right trip."

He also showed schematics of "transformable city home" apartments – tiny units with walls and fold-down furniture that can be moved with the press of a button so the occupant could reconfigure the space depending on their needs. IKEA is working with the Media Lab on the furnishings.

Some of Mr. Larson's ideas met with skepticism. Former mayor Barbara Hall, who attended, asked him pointedly whether "equity" considerations factored into his vision of innovation-driven communities.

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Mr. Kotyck insists he's soaking up feedback right now, and adds that he's not wedded to a particular plan just yet. He's invited another MIT city sciences expert to visit next month, and is continuing to talk to local government agencies.

But he is also actively looking for investors – and presumably some real estate – for a project that will not just test-drive MIT's urban innovations, but eventually sell those technologies to other cities around the world for a profit.

"Research is not enough unless an entrepreneur or enterprise is there to commercialize it," he says. "The objective is to create an ecosystem of organizations that will see things through to the end to ensure that citizens reap the rewards."

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