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Model of Masdar City, Courtesy of Creative Commons
John's Perspective: Building Cities from Within

The age old (or at least Kevin Costner old) statement: “if you build it, they will come,” seems to be the rallying cry for many of the countries who are now coming into technologic prominence due to the effects of the internet.

Take a look at the Abu Dhabi, which is building a new city, dedicated to education, clean technology and progress. Their $18bn Masdar City development is hailed as a mix between a higher education hub and Silicon Valley. But as of yet neither of those goals seem close to being realized.

South Korea is already building its next capital city, Sejong City. A $20bn project expected to house 500,000 people, and become the world’s most technologically advanced capital city while it’s at it.

And now the latest mega-development, the “Silicon Savannah” in Kenya. Officially known as Konza Techno City, this $10bn project being built 60km outside of Nairobi, is projected to create 200,000 new jobs and become the high-tech hub of Kenya’s burgeoning IT economy. Fortune 500 companies and other international conglomerates have purportedly signed on to be part of this development.

Yet, isn’t it interesting that the reason behind Kenya’s new found IT credibility is derived from their widespread use of an exceedingly simple technology? I’m talking about M-PESA. A mobile banking solution that (depending on your source) anywhere from 30-75% of Kenya's daily economy runs through. So what gives? Kenya jumped the need for a banking system infrastructure with the advent of M-PESA and cheap cell phones, so doesn’t this infrastructure-heavy master plan seem out place with the incredibly flexible startup mentality currently pushing innovation in Nairobi and the surrounding areas?

There is no doubt cities need to be dreamed up and built, and it isn’t like this is a 21st Century phenomenon (remember Brasilia?), but did anyone ask the bottom-up entrepreneurs how they might like to see a new city created? It appears, like so many of these projects before Silicon Savannah, like a top-down public-private approach, less of a collaborative approach. And this can affect how people view these glittering cities, not as their own, but instead, living inside of someone else’s single-minded vision. Instead of building a city 60km away, doesn’t it seem like a better plan to serve those entrepreneur catalysts and surround them with the services they need to succeed? We’re often quick to forget where a city’s innovation comes from before we jump into the next mega project to capitalize on this energy.

MindMixer is a company that is taking a bootstrapping approach to community development. By offering a platform for conversation on municipal and community betterment, MindMixer is making it possible for those living in cities to truly get their voice heard. Often times constituents propose an idea for their community, which is then discussed and voted upon by others living in the same neighborhood. Their grassroot energy is shown to those who have the power to enact change--the final result (hopefully) being a positive change to the community that the constituents feel ownership of. These small changes can lead to vibrancy in communities and can provide the same type of benefits, at much lower costs, that are being promised in the built-from-scratch mega cities.

So with apologies to Mr. Costner, maybe it’s time for an update: “If WE build it, WE will come.”