Innovation as a key identity trait
Boston is the 21st-largest city in the USA, with a population of more than 656,000, 35% of whom are aged between 20 and 34. Average income is 30% higher here than the median level for the USA as a whole. This elevated figure is explained by the high purchasing power of city residents and the dynamic local employment market in key sectors such as life sciences, health, financial services and higher education.
The city boasts a particularly high concentration of world-class graduate schools and universities. Bordered by the campuses of Harvard and MIT, Boston is also home to other high-profile universities (Boston University and Northeastern University), and therefore has a close relationship with the academic world, which in turn encourages the emergence and implementation of innovative initiatives designed to respond effectively to the challenges faced by the city, which include climate change and social inequality.
The analysis and use of big data to develop city policies extend well beyond a catchy headline. « In Boston, data are integral to every conversation; they influence political decisions and the way in which we envision the future of our city, » explains city mayor Martin J. Walsh. City Hall is the driving force behind many projects designed to explore the solutions offered by the digital world in creating interaction with citizens and working with them to improve the quality of urban services. Imagine Boston 2030 is an excellent case in point. This collaborative project was initiated in 2014 by City Hall with the aim of involving citizens in the forward development of their city in terms of transport, homes, arts and culture, health, public space development and countering the effects of climate change.And the younger generations are fully engaged. The ONEin3 programme in particular encourages them to take part in the life of the city and facilitates interaction between young adults and decision-makers.
Big Data, City Resilience are central to the Boston strategy
The Climate Ready Boston programme is another significant initiative brought forward by City Hall to anticipate the local impacts of climate change and develop appropriate solutions. The fact is that Boston is the fourth most vulnerable city in the USA in terms of rising water levels. As a result, transport infrastructure upgrading is a major challenge. 40% of Bostonians do not own a vehicle, and the existing public transit system is not up to the job. The Boston subway is one of the most congested in the USA. Also launched by City Hall in 2014, the Go Boston 2030 initiative sets out to improve the transport system by involving its users: an action plan has been implemented to deliver significant improvements to the transport system, reduce inequality between neighbourhoods, improve links between individuals and centres of employment, and anticipate the effects of climate change more effectively.
At the same time, City Hall is encouraging the development of alternative transport options, including working alongside car share startups like Zipcar. In 2015, the city also announced a data sharing partnership with Uber and Waze. Partnerships like these should have the effect of supporting urban growth, relieving traffic congestion, developing public transport and contributing to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. All of which proves that it is possible for a major city to embrace new ways of using transport and benefit from the resulting changes to make public transit options more complementary.
A more efficient city… but is it soon to become more inclusive too?
With its City Score Project launch this January, Boston City Hall wants to go further still in the use it makes of data. The project concept is simple: the City Score is a rating that reflects its state of urban health. A rating of 1 is the perfect score; a rating above 1 means that the city is ahead of its targets, while a figure below 1 means that it has more work still to do. The City Score is arrived at by adding together a number of publicly available data across a very diverse spectrum, from the number of knife attacks to tree maintenance and traffic light operation. This resource is designed specifically to facilitate decision-making. With this project, Martin J. Walsh is envisioning his city as a company by setting quantified targets measured by performance indicators.
But this city also faces a number of major challenges, one of the greatest of which is combating social inequality, because Boston is the country’s second most unequal city. The median salary here may be high, but one in five of all citizens live below the poverty line, and access to housing is all the more challenging since the average price of homes has risen by 76% since 2000. In 2014, the Mayor of Boston launched the Housing a Changing City: Boston 2030 plan to break this inflationary trend. The programme is designed to enable the construction of 53,000 new homes at prices that make them accessible across a broad range of incomes. The Housing Innovation Lab was launched in parallel with this programme in 2015 to identify solutions with the potential to reduce the costs involved in home construction, purchase and ownership.
All of these innovative, inclusive and participatory projects share the same aim of solving the complex equation of achieving urban efficiency, equality and sustainability in the City of Boston.