5 Ted Talks | Great Minds on Innovative Government and Infrastructure

by | Dec 7, 2015


Henry II. Possums. Foldable cars. The Olympics.

Trying to figure out what these things have in common is an exercise in utter bafflement.

Rather than subject you to that, we’ll just tell you: everything on that list has served as an inspiration to innovative government and infrastructure.


SAFEbuilt is dedicated to improving the communities we partner with. In our more than 20 years of doing just that, we’ve learned that traditional methods aren’t always enough to effect real change or encourage meaningful growth.

So we’ve tried to think outside the box, to seek out innovative minds, to look for solutions that incorporate overlooked resources or emerging technologies.

Sometimes we find those great minds within our own reach: our employees, our partners, local citizens.

Sometimes we find our inspiration in other places.

We’ve pulled together a few of the great minds in government innovation and city infrastructure via TED Talks they’ve given on the subjects of their passion.

(As a side note, if you’re not familiar with TED Talks, we recommend you check them out. You never know what gems you’re going to find).


Each of these talks is a little different in its focus and scope, but as you watch them you’ll notice that they all agree on one thing:

Cities and the governments that oversee them are for people

The municipality, the infrastructure, the resources, the finances, the bureaucracies, even the technology: they serve the people. Not the other way around.

This is a core belief that SAFEbuilt shares and, as these experts prove, for good reason.

Demand a more open-source government: Beth Noveck

Beth Noveck, in her time as the United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer, led the White House Open Government Initiative. Her purpose was to find and promote ways for emerging technology to enable increased collaboration between state and citizen.

Don’t let the length of the talk put you off. It is rich with examples of governments and institutions using crowd-sourcing and open data to not just innovate but to actually redesign the flow of government systems to better serve the people. Or as she puts it, to “co-create the process of government.”

Key Takeaways?

1) The open government revolution is not about transparent government, but about taking the next step into true collaboration.

2) The evolution will come in two steps: receiving better info from the crowd into the government center and sharing the decision-making power back outward to the citizens.

3) Voting every four years is not the only way for citizens to express their values. Teach the next generation that we live not in a “read-only” society, but a “writeable” society.

Coding a better government: Jennifer Pahlka

Jennifer Pahlka founded and directs Code for America, which she describes as “the Peace Corps for geeks.” Code for America pulls tech & design rockstars out of the private sector for a year and sets them loose in City Hall, just to see and learn and teach how technology can improve the relationship between government and those it governs.

The result has been new apps and technological platforms that connect neighbors and communities to their cities and to each other in unprecedented ways. The word crowd-sourcing comes up again, as she provides examples of tapping the public know-how and willingness to engage to provide alternatives to government services.

Key Takeaways?

1) Government can work better, not in the style of a private or tech company, but like the internet itself: permissionless, open, and generative.

2) Don’t give up on government. Politics is only the top layer. The rest is, yes, bureaucracy, but it’s our contempt for that word and what it represents that keeps us stagnant and powerless. Engage with the machinery and you can change the way things work.

3) These applications and advances remind us that it’s not just about how we use our voices, but how we use our hands.

4) We are not consumers of government, we are citizens. Fix the citizenship and you fix the government.

Brilliant designs to fit more people in every city: Kent Larson

Kent Larson is the leading architectural researcher for MIT’s various projects for the future of places.

Read the title of his talk carefully; it’s not just about cramming more people into tighter spaces. It’s about genuinely making sure that they fit, that they are comfortable, that they are safe, that they feel at-home.

The designs and concepts he discusses seem like they belong in the futuristic visualizations of urban life you’d find in high-concept sci-fi movies. And then you realize that he’s actually building them. Now. Today. Yesterday, even.

And that they might just work.

Key Takeaways

1) The city is a place for people. It is a global imperative, as populations rise and the environment weakens, to create smarter cities.

2) It’s time to go back to the city design that arose when that was true, before the rise of the automobile culture, when a well was the town center and the boundaries were defined by “how far can you walk with a bucket on your head?”.

3) There are ways to have all the good things of cities without the bad (congestion, pollution, disease). This is re-inventing the arrondissements of Paris, compact urban cells that place almost everything the inhabitants need within a 20 minute walk.

4) Technological advances and innovations can change the way you think about city life, workforce mobility, energy efficiency, and even fitness and sociological concerns. And Kent Larson and his team are thinking about them all.

The 4 commandments of cities: Eduardo Paes

Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio De Janeiro, has put a lot of thought and effort into preparing his city of 6.5 million (including 1.4 million dwelling in the slum-like favelas) for not just the 2016 Olympics but the future beyond that.

We won’t spoil the surprise by enumerating his tried and true commandments for the city of the future, but we will tell you something that probably won’t surprise you:

All four commandments are based on doing what is right for the people.

Key Takeaways

1) Cities are and will always be a challenge, but original ways of getting things done ensure that cities can be the great places they are meant to be.

2) Find cheaper alternatives to expensive projects, but don’t cut corners when you’ve decided to pursue something. Make sure to keep the quality high.

3) A city of the future cares about its citizens.

Open ears and open minds

These are just a few of the voices that have inspired SAFEbuilt to think about the ways we can partner with local governments to bring together the city and the citizens.

What do you think? Are there other minds that have inspired you? And what about you? What emerging technologies or shifting paradigms can you envision for the city and government of the future?


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