The model city of Masdar on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi might be the most ambitious effort mounted anywhere to deliberately foster cleantech innovation. A $22 billion project launched in 2006, Masdar is intended to be a self-sufficient, zero-emissions model city of 50,000, with an additional 40,000-plus office jobs (many of them hopefully in cleantech), a state-of-the-art research institute developed in partnership with MIT, a hyper-efficient Norman Foster masterplan, its own leading-edge solar company in-house, and a transit system based around individual pods on rails like something out of a pulp sci-fi novel.

Thus far, there are a couple of solar installations in Masdar, the technology institute and a 10-megawatt solar farm are already up and running, and several more solar plants and residential construction is underway. And it may well be that half a century from now there are Masdar-clone suburbs on the outskirts of every city in the free world. My money, though, is on a different kind of innovation as the foundation of green urban design in the 21st century. If there is to be a single name on everyone’s lips as the first word in green metropolis-building, I think it should be this one: Jan Gehl.

So who is Jan Gehl? In brief, he is a Danish architect and the primary evangelist of an elite school of urban design often called “Copenhagenization.” Starting with the closure of Copenhagen’s main shopping street to motor vehicles in 1962, Gehl has meticulously documented the use of streets and public spaces in his hometown, and in recent years he’s become a consultant, statistician and muse for cities looking to follow Copenhagen’s path (which among other things has secured the city the No. 1 or No. 2 spot on Monocle’s annual “Most Livable City” chart the last few years). In a place like Masdar, you might find some fascinating future-tense technologies, but if you’re looking for the state of the art in complete street design, mixed-use development and multimodal transit — in urban sustainability, that is — then Copenhagen’s the place to go.

In recent years, many civic leaders have made such pilgrimages, and often they’ve dragged Gehl and his firm back to their streets to Copenhagenize them. Gehl helped London figure out how to reimagine itself after it introduced a congestion charge on its downtown streets, and he inspired the radical redirection of New York City’s Department of Transportation that led to the pedestrianization of Times Square. In Australia, where his status is particularly godlike, he helped downtown Melbourne reverse half a century of car-centred decline and reinvent itself from the sidewalks and back lanes on up.

The distance between what Jan Gehl does and what Masdar is trying to do is the difference between innovation and mere invention, between holistic green design and siloed technocracy. In Masdar, there will be lots of neat stuff made, and some of it will undoubtedly find broader application. But in Copenhagen, there is real placemaking going on, a toolkit for urban design being assembled that has application virtually anywhere people live in close proximity to one another. And because places built to Copenhagen’s standards reduce car dependency, increase residential density, and supplant the modernist template of sequestered single-use zoning with vibrant mixed-use life, there’s at least as much to learn about low-emissions innovation through Copenhagenization as through Masdarization (if and when the latter is even ready for the world stage).

In a sense, Masdar views innovation as a pure function of industrial R&D, a question fundamentally of technology. Jan Gehl’s Copenhagen looks at innovation as a question fundamentally of people, their wants and needs — a system design challenge, not an engineering problem. Masdar assesses the sustainability challenge as one primarily of energy production, and Copenhagen shows that it is much more a question of energy use. Masdar asks: How do you want to generate power in the future? Copenhagen asks instead: How do you want to live right now? And for now, Copenhagen’s innovation remains the far more significant one.

This is Part 3 of an introductory essay on the nature of innovation. Here are links to Part 1 and Part 2.

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