Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

'City 2.0': Where the TED conference just gave its $100,000 prize

December 6, 2011 - 02:44 PM
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Flying cars! Subways! Bikes! (Photo: TED)

The TED non-profit, which has hosted its conferences since 1984 and is well known for its widely acclaimed TED talks, gives out an annual prize of $100,000 and a wish granted. In the past, TED gave the prize to an individual, some expert or artist whose ideas had capacity to change the world.

Today TED changed the game.

This afternoon, the organization announced it will be awarding its 2012 $100,000 prize not to a person but to an idea — "City 2.0," the non-profit has been calling it, devoted to all the transportation and urbanism enhancements that will allow for a growing world population to prosper. It's the city that transit planners dreamed about at the Rail~Volution transportation conference, the traffic system that includes smart technology that allows cars to talk to one another as the U.S. Department of Transportation is now testing, the city that can maintain a functioning Metro, a well-distributed and convenient bikeshare system, that has alternative fuels like autogas and electricity, that can balance a network of buses and Zipcars and streetcars skillfully and in a way that's like ballet and not a train wreck of disorder.

In the eyes of TED, the City 2.0 embodies the following traits:

The City 2.0 is the city of the future… a future in which more than ten billion people on planet Earth must somehow live sustainably.

The City 2.0 is not a sterile utopian dream, but a real-world upgrade tapping into humanity’s collective wisdom.

The City 2.0 promotes innovation, education, culture, and economic opportunity.

The City 2.0 reduces the carbon footprint of its occupants, facilitates smaller families, and eases the environmental pressure on the world’s rural areas.

The City 2.0 is a place of beauty, wonder, excitement, inclusion, diversity, life.

The City 2.0 is the city that works.

The City 2.0 doesn't sound too bad. Its newly enshrined status is good news for advocates of better transportation everywhere and benefits all of us. D.C. in particular is already engaged in many dimensions of transit.

The non-profit says it awarded the prize to this idea rather than any one person because the future demands it, because "the future of cities is such a significant issue." It wants to inspire action and urgency. I like the spirit and agree that such smart growth efforts need even more momentum. These efforts tend to have passionate advocates but not always the money, time, and resources truly necessary to make the wisdom reality. $100,000 is not quite a princely sum in any grander sense but its power is, again, in the ideas and discussion it can provoke.

To satisfy this year's prize, TED is "bringing together a group of visionaries — urban planners, architects, technologists, authors, policy makers, and economists — to act as advocates for The City 2.0 and craft a wish capable of inspiring collaborative action by many." The wish itself will be granted on February 29, 2012. I'm curious to see how all this manifests in the coming months. It's a bold move on TED's part and one that may spark a necessary dialogue. The City 2.0 will inevitably involve the future of transportation, with serious attention paid to gridlock, walkability, commuting demands, and how technology will allow us to navigate around one another in way that makes sense.

As we learn more about the City 2.0 TED prize, here's another vision of the future from TED, one that didn't quite work, at least yet: the flying car, an idea imagined for a century but never has come to pass. Anna Mracek Dietrich discusses the history of this futuristic transportation concept and gives context about a company called Terrafugia working on its own version. Consider the possible:

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