Five things cities should be doing in the next decade

6th January 2020

By Vicki Sellick, Nesta’s Executive Director of Programmes, who leads the UK foundation’s work supporting innovation in cities and governments. 

As a decade of change comes to an end, what will the 2020s bring for cities?

Much of our work with city leaders and governments starts from an immediate pressing need–a housing crisis or a rise in knife crime–but so often moves onto preparing for the future trends that will change all of our lives, and cities as we know them.

But with the pace of change showing no sign of slowing–from the ever increasing power of artificial intelligence, the rise of robotics and automation and the drive to carbon neutrality, to the continuing population rise in cities–how do city leaders and mayors plan to stay ahead in the new decade? I think the smartest cities will be doing the following:

  1. Mapping live and future jobs to give data-driven careers advice

More than six million people in the UK are currently employed in jobs that are likely to radically change or disappear entirely by 2030. But we also expect millions of new jobs to be created (including in occupations which don’t currently exist) which people can be training for now. The problem is that many people who are in low-paid work, or who aren’t working at all, aren’t able to access the information they need to plan and train for the future.

Some governments around the world like Singapore, Denmark, France and China are already taking action to map workforce data at city, regional and national level and combining this with future workforce trends to develop digital career information for students and adults on the likely jobs ahead. We expect cities in 2020 to get much sharper on this–with live dashboards to access current and future jobs data–to harness technology to reduce (not drive) inequalities in the city’s workforce.

  1. Using the power of the crowd to solve problems

We know that the traditional way of solving public problems with isolated experts is insufficient for the challenges of the 21st century like climate change, human trafficking, obesity epidemics etc. In the next decade we’ll see more cities harnessing Collective Intelligence–ie the insights of both big data and the crowd–to solve problems.

For example, some cities are now collecting citizen science data on pollution levels or small maintenance jobs to augment their own data and get a full picture of what’s happening. Others are harnessing the power of the crowd to respond to life-saving emergencies with first aid skills, alongside professional medics using GoodSAM (which was first adopted in London and is now used across much of England, Australia and Asia). And the Taiwanese government asked citizens to help generate policies for Uber and Airbnb to operate with local sensitivity, using online consensus building tools.

  1. Getting serious about experimentation, with public service testbeds

Although they might not like to talk about ‘experimenting with their citizens’, cities are getting serious about experimentation by establishing public sector testbeds to test new ideas and technologies in real world conditions. For example, England’s biggest education testbed is now underway, comparing the efficacy of edtech products in the classroom to reduce teacher workload. And at Nesta we have been working with five city regions around the UK–Bradford, London, Preston, Southampton and the West Midlands–to think through how drones can be used to transport medical products and blood donations safely, paving the way for real trials and potentially saving £1.1 billion.

  1. Creating data collaboratives to maintain citizens’ data sovereignty

Data is the new currency of our economies and has the power to guide and shape smart public services like healthcare and even traffic flow. Three quarters of us are concerned about our data privacy, but this is not just a problem for big tech companies. The challenge of the next decade will be how city leaders can empower citizens to own and manage their data, and to trust city institutions to collect, store and interpret it for the common good, learning from cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona and Ghent who have established data collaboratives for citizens.

  1. Tackling fake news

We live in an information age, overwhelmed by news. Yet there has been a steep decline in the number of journalists and public interest news outlets at a local and regional level in the UK. Worse still, trust in governments (including city leaders) is at an all-time low. To ensure that fake news is countered and citizens have the information they need to hold institutions to account and restore trust in them, cities will need to invest in high-quality, independent, public interest news over the next decade.

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