#citiesshare Session 2: Sharing solutions

Why are good solutions not spreading more quickly across cities? Scott Cain, Executive Director at Future Cities Catapult, and Sascha Haselmayer, Citymart CEO, challenged city officials during a peer learning session to ask themselves how good solutions could scale faster.  City officials were asked if they had bought or “copied” a solution from another city, instead of reinventing their own. One of the ideas stressed during the session, was the importance of embracing failure and learning from mistakes.

What did city officials take away from this creative session?

Sharing and borrowing ideas (or shameless “stealing”)

  • Take something that works 90% and improve it rather than trying to (re)invent something from scratch that is 100% right.
  • Collaborate: find partner cities and work together.
  • Political transitions can be complicated, but sharing can be enabled by political change (post-mayoral legacy), not for political gain.
  • Being a first-mover city means making more mistakes, and there is often political risk involved.
  • Define a process to collect bottom-up data.  
  • Solutions are not always transferable. It is important to adapt and align, taking the key elements, and analyzing the ability to implement it (considering organizational challenges, resources, economic environment, and citizens).
  • Seek innovation through start-ups, create capabilities and provide training to align departments. 

Embrace failure

  • Cities never talk about bad ideas or experiences, however, this information should be shared. Learning from what did not work minimizes risk. City officials should get together to discuss.
  • Open and honest sharing of failure (“permission to fail”) should not only be acceptable, but part of the scaling process. As an example, in Philadelphia, one out of three projects is expected to fail. It is important to agree on an acceptable amount of risk and failure.
If we do not fail we are not trying enough

Buying ideas and spending on scaling

  • Beware of provider “lock-in”. Cities are supersaturated with vendors all claiming to have the “best” solution, and it might become too overwhelming to choose one solution and be sure it is right.
  • In a snap survey in which cities were asked what percentage of annual budget they should spend on sharing solutions, all agreed that at least part of their annual budget should be allocated to this purpose (answers varied from 10 to 60%).

Creating a common framework for evaluation

  • Cities need a more coherent framework that focuses on their needs, starting with problem definition and service delivery.
  • Think fast-follower: see solutions and learn why they worked; let others make the mistakes and learn from them.
  • Evidence and KPIs: identify and engage what can deliver and measure priorities. Proven ideas bring more efficiency.
  • Consider the viewpoints of citizens on how to create trust and validate ideas.  Their opinion should be represented and they should be involved in identifying challenges through open innovation platforms.
  • It is important to break silos. You could either nominate and train a high-level team of “barrier-busters” as a “coalition of the willing” that can break down the silos between different departments through collaboration, or invite anyone that wants to join to a crosscutting innovation forum.
  • Change attitudes from “Nice idea, but it wouldn’t work here because…” to “Nice idea! Here’s how it could work here…”

What else can be done to share high-impact solutions among cities? Share your insights below. 


From 23-25 June 2014, Mayor of London Boris Johnson hosted Cities Summit | Solutions Worth Sharing together with Citymart and supported by Citi. The Summit brought together city governments, businesses and entrepreneurs with bright ideas to help improve citizens' quality of  life. The Summit kicked off with a Peer Learning Session for cities, creating a dynamic dialogue among city officials around four key themes on how to make innovation a tangible reality. Participating cities included London, Barcelona, Dublin, Fukuoka, Heerlen, Kristiansand, Krakow, Lobito, Louisville, Madrid, Malmö, Moscow, Newcastle, Philadelphia, San Luis Potosí, Sant Cugat, Seville, Sheffield, Tampere, Tartu, Valencia, and York. 

Next post will cover how to overcome public procurement barriers.

Conferences: knowledge exchange of the past or for the future?

agglomeration economies As I write this, I’m preparing for my second Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. The 11,000+ attendee conference takes place January 22-26, and covers all topics related to transportation planning, policy, and engineering and related topics like health and land use planning.

The preparation work got me thinking: a conference this big is a wonderful opportunity, and at the same time it’s also a burden. In order to get the most out of it, that is, in order to catch a raft on the river of information exchange, one must do a lot of prep work – who’s going to be there? Who should I see? What topics are being covered? What topics overlap with my current projects? And then, one actually has to go there and see those people and talk to them in person. It got me thinking. This type of information exchange seems a bit antiquated. Or is it? Today, we have tools like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and even simple email that allow rapid communication without physical proximity. Individuals are putting together knowledge share events, where subject “experts” educate their friends in a fun, relaxed, and community setting, negating the need to rely on a large centralized entity to plan the exchange event. Do these things better facilitate information exchange than the traditional conference? Judging by the popularity of the “unconference,” perhaps a hybrid model is appropriate.

One thing we know for sure: collaboration is the new black. Whether it’s through bike sharing, car sharing, crowd sourcing, or peer-to-peer anything, the 2010s are all about collaboration. What traditional conferences do is exemplify how Richard Florida’s creative class flourishes in Edward Glaeser’s agglomeration economies: bring smart, motivated, interesting people in close proximity with one another and they’ll start collaborating. This collaboration is at the heart of innovation. But again, are traditional conferences the best vehicle for delivering this collaboration, if attendees are meant to shuffle themselves into pre-assigned sessions with pre-assigned topics, hour after hour, day after day?

Would smaller, collaboratively-led “unconferences” be a better answer? Would more or better information be exchanged in these settings? Maybe the success of a conference as large at TRB actually is due to its sheer size: the conference itself is a city of the creative class, rubbing shoulders with one another.

-          Terra Curtis

Data-driven Design Occupy Design, a new website to connect designers and protestors in the Occupy Movement, was born as a result of three hackathons in San Francisco, New York, and Washington, DC.  On October 14th, San Francisco-based designer and activist Jake Levitas organized the three events in order to bring data to the people and power to the movement.

Based on the philosophy that “It’s a lot harder to argue with statistics than it is with talking points,” Occupy Design hosts several images to both standardize and make more succinct the messaging of the protestors.  Some of the designs even help with the simple logistics of such a movement – need a bathroom, a place to sleep, a trash can?  Standardized signs will show you the way.  Protestors can go to the website, download the imagery, print it, and carry it to gatherings on the street.  Designers can go to the website, check out the list of requests, and create images for the people in the streets.  It’s a simple use of technology to organize, standardize, legitimize, and make more efficient a popular movement.

The mostly black-and-white images paint a starkly black-and-white picture of the state of the American union: the top 1% of earners have more wealth than the bottom 95% combined and something must be done to re-equalize the nation.  What’s not yet black and white is exactly how this could or should be achieved – a set of objectives that, once formulated, could benefit from Occupy Design’s message framing expertise as well.  Now, which tech solutions will enable millions to draft a set of concise objectives?

- Terra Curtis