City Center as Innovation Lab

Egon Schiele: Crescent of Houses II (Island Town) (1915) // Public domain

The global covid crisis has hit cities in Germany, Europe, and all around the world. A core characteristic of cities is the crowds of people you see in their centers. Cities are the place where people meet, interact, and exchange ideas.

It is no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic – which has made the close contact between people a health risk – has been a huge threat to cities. This is especially true for city centers, which are (in most cities) the main meeting point for people with office spaces, stationary retail and food service industry.

It is not the first time that cities had to deal with such health risks. Diseases spread more easily when many people are close to one another. However, cities have always been an engine for progress and innovation.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, cities can use this strength – with the combination of e-commerce and stationary retail, innovative mobility solutions and the optimal use of space. Our study Future of City Center in cooperation with the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (Fraunhofer IAO) shows the enormous innovation potential in the development of sustainable inner-city concepts.


As it turns out, cities and city centers find themselves in a permanent process of change. This process has not started because of covid, but has accelerated in course of the new health threat. The authors Patrick Ruess, Božana Vrhovac and Katharina Yoga show that the transformation of stationary retail, the rise of the traffic volume in inner-cities and the problem of a low quality of stay have arisen long before the pandemic.

This process of change does not have to be a bad thing – quite the opposite is true. As our study shows, many cities and city centers have already created some urgently needed innovation. Traditional specialist shops can benefit from digital marketplaces. With urban production and urban agriculture, cities can open up entirely new markets.

Digitally supported delivery zone management can optimize inner-city logistics. Pop-up street eateries provide culinary diversity and can counteract the increased demand for space in city centers. Augmented reality navigation gives users the possibility to explore a city independently and offers reliable navigation in outdoor as well as indoor areas.

In the future, city centers have the potential to be real innovation labs. In order to reach this goal, cities, retail establishments and the food industry must find the best conditions to put their ideas into practice. To that end, cities need municipal administrations that create the necessary framework conditions and see themselves as real problem solvers.

Each city is different, so there are no one-fits-all solutions that can be implemented everywhere. However, the more ideas and innovation arise and become known, the higher the probability that one of these solutions also applies in other cities.

It is possible that cities and city centers will not only survive the covid pandemic but will emerge from the crisis stronger than before. With the study Future of City Centers the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom aims to make a small contribution to this goal.

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