The 2012 TED Prize Goes To Cities 2.0 (No, Cities 2.0 Is Not A Person)

In a step away from its usual procedures, the TED Prize is going to an idea, not a person. Cities are important drivers of ideas and where most people will live in the future. But what, exactly, is going to come from a TED Prize without a real winner?

The 2012 TED Prize Goes To Cities 2.0 (No, Cities 2.0 Is Not A Person)
Flickr user francisco diez

For the first time in its seven-year history, the winner of the 2012 TED Prize isn’t a person–past recipients include Bono, Bill Clinton, and Jamie Oliver–but an idea: City 2.0.


“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,” TED explained on the prize website. “The City 2.0 is not a sterile utopian dream, but a real-world upgrade tapping into humanity’s collective wisdom.”

Winning the prize cements cities’ white-hot status in the zeitgeist as the nexus of humanity’s efforts to build a cleaner, smarter, and more equitable tomorrow. Cities are simultaneously the future of human habitation (the world is 50% urbanized, on its way to 80%), the greatest source of our carbon emissions (70%), and, as both the journalist Steven Johnson and the physicist Geoffrey West have argued separately, the places where good ideas come from.

Now it’s TED that’s looking for a few good ideas from our urban centers. Punting on awarding the prize to an individual (or individuals) means the $100,000 prize and its “one wish to change the world” are up for grabs and will effectively be crowdsourced. (TED is currently asking for submissions.)

TED’s refusal to award the prize to a single individual because “the future of cities is such a significant issue” is puzzling. Through the years, the various TED and TEDGlobal conferences have featured a murderer’s row worth of qualified candidates who have revolutionary ideas about cities, including West, Worldchanging founder Alex Steffen, Stewart Brand, former Curitiba mayor Jaime Lerner, Zipcar founder Robin Chase, and economist Paul Romer.

Whoever effectively wins the prize for their idea will likely come from one of three camps. The least likely candidates are large corporation such as IBM or Siemens, which are heavily invested in the future of cities and have charitable arms of their own. (A corporation has yet to win the prize.)

With only $100,000 at stake, perhaps the most effective option would be to follow the path blazed by Architecture for Humanity’s Cameron Sinclair, a 2006 prize winner who used his wish and prize money to create the Open Architecture Network, an online community of more than 13,000 architects and other professionals who have collectively developed 1,200 projects to date.


The Institute for the Future’s Anthony Townsend, suggested something similar on TED’s site Tuesday afternoon. “My wish is that cities build a network of experimentation and learning around smart technologies and service innovations that will be the main tool to create City 2.0,” he wrote. “These computational leadership networks” should take inspiration from the rapid spread of sustainable innovations like bike sharing and bus rapid transit to cities around the world in just a few years.”

It’s not hard to imagine an “Open City Network” designed to do just that, sponsored by a nonprofit such as Open Plans or Code for America.

The alternative is to narrowly focus on a single project or projects around a single issue, whether it’s urban farming, electric car recharging stations, or one of the dozens of other ideas already posted on TED’s site. The urban historian Leo Hollis made the most unusual request, calling for a conference “on the question of Trust and the city.” “Big ideas that do not take a people-first position [are] bound to fail. City 2.0 is a just city, not just the internet of things,” he wrote.

About the author

He is the author, with John D. Kasarda, of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, which examines how and where we choose to live in an interconnected world.