Pushing Meaningful Innovation for Cities onto the Fast Track


Cities have always been the natural accelerators for experimentation, change and progress, always attracting those seeking opportunity and personal fulfillment. Like other complex systems, cities to-date have escaped our desire to fully understand, model or predict them. They do not follow the rational laws of nature alone, but are the space in which many forces negotiate their co-existence.

In short, if innovation is change, there isn’t a city that doesn’t innovate. Yet, in our modern urban societies expectations today are beginning to be more articulate and intentional.

Explosive expectations…

In a world where Amazon delivers within a few hours, where Twitter provides a real-time infrastructure for political expression and where more than 50 million drivers collaborate through Waze to help each other through traffic we simply have come to expect our cities to change faster, and deliver more value to our diverse personal aspirations.

In the words of our citizens, this may be expressed as “I expect my problems to be solved fast”. As we have learned to appreciate the value of innovation in solving problems in our private lives, and celebrate innovators like Steve Jobs even in children’s books, we expect the same to happen in the urban environment around us. But we we have also become pickier: solutions should not undermine opportunities for others, should not be inferior to those available elsewhere or damage the eco-system.

Our desire for innovation is expressed in the choices we make - whether it is at the ballot box, what we apply our talent to or by disrupting established urban rules by choosing services like Uber or Airbnb - fuelled by an entrepreneurial and technological ecosystem that has been radically democratized and accelerated.

…meet complex systems

On the flip-side of these truly explosive expectations are the established services and organizations that deliver many of the critical services in our communities. Most of these were conceived for a world in which a city was an island, defined by monopolies of local information and infrastructure systems and layers of obligations, regulations and contracts built up over generations.

Often big and complex, these services and organizations are certainly where the ‘big money’ of city government goes. Together, local governments around the world spend over 10% of world GDP, or USD 4.5 trillion, a year. Yet, most investors in urban innovation start-ups will tell you they prefer business models that work around, rather than with these systems.

Why meaningful innovation lingers on the slow track

As a result, we now live in a 2-speed urban world where solutions that require institutional collaboration scale at a fraction of the speed as solutions that don’t. And given the flows of venture capital and complexity of deal-making with city governments or agencies, we can expect fast to only get faster, and slow to remain a business proposition not for the faint-hearted.

To illustrate this point, let’s reflect on a simple question: “What are my chances of getting the best innovation to improve my life?”

A good way of looking at this is to understand how some solutions have become available in cities within 5 years of conception. Clearly, a solution available in more cities is more likely to be available to me quickly.

Solutions availability vs need for local institutional collaboration

Solutions availability vs need for local institutional collaboration

It is notable that there is a direct co-relation between the level of local institutional collaboration a solution requires and its ability to scale rapidly. This is not news, but can we as citizens really accept that innovations are only within our reach if they do not require our local governments, business, agencies or regulators to be involved? Can we accept that the evidently most meaningful solution on the above table, the navigation system for the blind, is not going to be available in our cities?

In short, the question of innovation in cities is not just one of change or progress, but raises questions about who innovation is meant to serve and what problem it is meant to solve. And this is where we see a painful divergence between the needs of communities (meaning) and those solutions that the marketplace today is able to deliver at scale.

How can we sustain meaningful innovation in cities?

We formed Citymart 5 years ago to deliver such meaningful innovation in our cities, by transforming the way cities solve problems. Working with 58 global cities on solving more than 100 problems we have learned the importance of involving and supporting the institutions and services that have traditionally proven to be harder to change.

Cities can take leadership and sustain meaningful innovation when they collaborate to create opportunities for change.

Firstly and foremost, we need to revisit some of our assumptions as a society as to who does what. In our fast changing world we cannot expect anyone to just fix things for us or that size alone is the answer. Each and every member of our community - citizen, business or organization - has to be empowered to participate in solving problems. Unless change is a collaborative effort of tackle problems, we are not able to make innovation meaningful in our cities.

Secondly, it requires institutions like city governments to make problem-solving their primary business. Sounds obvious, but in a survey of 50 global cities in 2012 we found that none had an explicit mission or method to solve problems and that 80% responded that they only trust solutions from companies they already know. This is why programs like Sheffield Smart Lab or Breakthru Long Beach are important in formally providing a path to tackle problems in the city, and breaking down the barrier of trust with start-ups that have the innovations that can make a noticeable difference.

Thirdly, measuring progress will sustain innovation. Unless we size-up our problems, we will not be able to measure the economic opportunity of solving them or creating the appropriate reward system. What value do we place on achieving our environmental goals, what value does the integration of a disabled person in the workplace have? Too many times we simply celebrate that something new is happening, rather than tracking the progress we make in accomplishing the goals we set out to achieve, to then immediately look to innovation to take us forward.

Yes, it is beginning to happen.

The good news is, many cities are already doing this. Global cities like New York City, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Barcelona that are transforming the way they solve problems, involving citizens and entrepreneurs alike. In the process, they are turning complex systems like adult social care or urban lighting, or processes like government procurement on their head to more immediately serve their mission of improving the lives of their citizens.

Cities are supported in this transition by a growing eco-system of organizations like the 100 Resilient Cities Initiative pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation and What Works and other government innovation programs by Bloomberg Philanthropies help drive the systemic and institutional change toward a more intentional and explicit agenda and marketplace  for change. Building the new practices, measuring progress and using evidence as the basis for shared learning are the underpinnings tackling the risks of meaningful innovation falling behind in today's marketplace.

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