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Exploring the AIA’s New Cities as a Lab Report

By Brooks Rainwater, Director, Public Policy

Stay tuned for an upcoming series of articles that explore the new Cities as a Lab: Designing the Innovation Economy report. This is the first in the series.

Cities can thrive in the 21st century by building transformational places that incubate creativity and adapt to future challenges and opportunities. The fabric of the city, with its people, buildings, commerce, and transportation networks, promotes relationship formation, business creation, and game-changing ideas. Innovative design is helping to strengthen urban economies and spur invention in cities across America. The AIA report “Cities as a Lab: Designing the Innovation Economy” describes how design can foster innovative approaches to American cities’ changing needs. As political and economic power increasingly finds its greatest expression through municipal governments, cities have become laboratories for innovation and change.

Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that will continue to increase rapidly—up to 70 percent by 2050. Cities and their wider metropolitan regions are increasingly asserting themselves as fundamental units of the global economy. The U.S. Conference of Mayors reports that U.S. metro regions alone comprise over one-third of the world’s 100 largest economies.

By designing both spaces and policy frameworks that cultivate dense business networks, cities can tap into the sustainable prosperity the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley have described in their book The Metropolitan Revolution. David Brooks of The New York Times also writes about the economic benefits of urban areas. For example, a 20 to 30 percent increase in patents occurs when employment density is doubled, according to the Philadelphia Federal Reserve. When companies move more than a mile apart, research by Syracuse University and the University of Toronto shows that intellectual spillovers that often advance innovation fall off precipitously. Add to this the partisan gridlock that has made new investments in urban infrastructure and economic development few and far between at the federal level and municipal governments are perhaps the most level, most willing, and most able component of civic leadership to further these trends.

Whether transforming old spaces into new ideas or reacting to changing environments as they happen, design serves as a critical linchpin that allows cities to prosperously evolve. The ability to overlay quantifiable data-measurement systems into the built environment is changing everyone’s relationships with physical space, and allowing people to see things that would have previously been unimaginable. In all of this, good design is not an afterthought; it is instead the glue that creates great places. The cities that seize this moment have a unique opportunity to shape the future.

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This content is published by the AIA Government and Community Relations Department, 1735 New York Ave., NW, Washington, DC, 20006. To contact the AIA’s Government & Community Relations team, send an email to


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