How cities are regaining control of the urban innovation agenda

11th September 2019

By Bob Bennett, Chair, and Bas Boorsma, Managing Director, Cities Today Institute*

The past decade saw urban innovation agendas being dominated by private sector players in the shape of ‘smart city’ demonstration projects and transformative digitalisation initiatives–with community leaders playing a supporting role in such public-private efforts. The balance has now shifted significantly: community leaders are driving change and leveraging partnerships with the public and private sector as they see fit. Here are five reasons behind the shift.

  1. Citizens are the focus of current innovation efforts

Most urban innovation strategies and initiatives of the recent past have been tech-centric affairs carrying a strong scent of ‘solution-ism’. What can be called the ‘smart city chapter’ has provided many insights, helped to articulate agendas, and raise awareness. Some valuable lessons were learned from the pilots that were executed in countless urban centres and testbeds with tech companies sponsoring many of these academic exercises and pilots in order to refine R&D ideas in the field. Technology has been de-emphasised as of late however, with the community itself, its constituents and citizens, taking centre-stage–with technology being seen as “the easy part”.  With citizens at the heart of the process, the technological nature of the solutions that a community actually needs gets redefined, and at times even marginalised. In short, it is becoming less of a technology ‘push’. In the words of the mayor of the City of Genoa, Italy: “If an analogue solution matches the actual need I must address, then analogue it is.”

  1. From technological optimisation to design thinking

Urban innovation agendas have become a design-thinking exercise, more than a question of technology feats, which were hailed as the way forward in early smart city initiatives. City innovation leaders increasingly focus on addressing digital divides, on citizen engagement, and on user-centric service designs. City leaders also increasingly busy themselves with mitigating the negatives that come on the back of digital innovations such as social disruption and concerns over privacy and exclusion. Such issues are on the desks of community leaders well before they land in the boardrooms of private sector partners. Whereas the private sector innovates to create or address a market (even if the innovative solution caters only for a limited segment of society), community leaders need to constantly address inclusion and conflicting values within society. With every innovative solution proposed, community leaders need to ask the question: who or what is being left out of the solution design we are staring at? Solving such design challenges is key to the success of urban innovation strategies.

  1. It’s all about data

Much of the time, money and effort in ‘smart city’ endeavours of the past decade has ended up being spent on hardware technologies, vertical point solutions, sensors and pilots proving out the Internet of Things. Current urban innovation agendas, however, focus on data above all. The art of connecting everything in cities incorporates the recent insight that not everything needs to be connected. Many situations exist where the right samples of datasets, data models and algorithms may be all that is needed to accomplish what needs to be done. For instance, a smart waste pick up solution may not need to sensor-enable every bin in a city. A limited number of connected bins may provide sufficient data to arrive at workable insights and algorithms that help improve waste collection. Further, community leaders often discover they may already have the data they need. Abundance of data rather than scarcity is the norm. Insofar as relevant data may come from private sector partners, such data does not equal insights. For data to produce insights, a data analytics model is required, and in the world of data analytics context is king. Community leaders understand the context of data related to their community better than most. For instance, a bike sharing company may compare the differences in usage from one neighbourhood to another, yet the community itself is best positioned to understand why neighbourhood ‘X’ scores highest on usage–it could be because the neighbourhood has a demographic which is ready to be among first adopters, or possibly it’s a low-income quarter of town with citizens having less money and fewer private vehicles to go by.

  1. The rise of innovation ecosystems

Most community leaders are focused on developing a diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem in their cities, and for civic tech, such ecosystems can flourish. The goal of these programmes is to integrate private and public sector players to deliver on specific community challenges. Many of these ecosystems get forged with a reduced expectation on what the contribution of big tech companies may be. Openness and an avoidance of proprietary pitfalls–another set of care-abouts that is central to many an urban innovation leader–are easier to facilitate through such ecosystems than close-to-exclusive partnerships with one or two preferred private sector partners. And start-ups may generate the disruptive innovations one may never get from a large, established tech company. However, start-ups require an ecosystem, something they can rarely produce by themselves so cities and community innovation leaders are increasingly focused on building such ecosystems. And as they do, they maintain insight and oversight as to who does what, who can transact with whom, and what is needed next.

  1. Linking community knowledge through intra-city and regional cooperation

Regional and intra-municipal collaboration is more important than ever. Many urban innovations do not stop at city limits, nor do dataflows. For instance, mobility-related innovations can be as relevant on highways as they are in downtown areas. Smaller communities may need to rely on expertise that exists within municipal organisations in adjacent, larger cities, and intra-municipal collaboration can help innovation to arrive at scale, lower costs of procurement and offer higher degrees of interoperability. However, the governance required to arrive at such regional and intra-municipal collaboration cannot be delivered by the private sector; it needs planning and execution by community leadership and the dedicated teams and organisations mandated by them. The imperative emergence of smart region initiatives is set to further cement the role of community leadership.

It is time to look beyond what can now be called the smart city chapter of urban innovation. Urban innovation has always been a key factor in humanity’s social-economic evolution and in order to drive the next chapter successfully, the role of the stewards of urban innovation is being redefined. When it comes to engaging citizens, tackling digital divides, addressing privacy and digital rights, understanding the community specific context of relevant data, and the implementation of effective governance, the responsibility lies with city leaders.  No one else can or will govern any of this effectively and technology players cannot take that role. Private sector leaders have a new role: they are becoming public service partners. As such, their commitment and investment should be long term with sales dynamics becoming more complex and sales cycles being longer than most have been used to. Their leadership continues to be imperative to the success of urban innovation agendas. Tech companies retain a robust talent pool and capacity to assume greater risk in research and development and profit motives drive technological innovation forward at an increasingly fast pace. The tech sector plays as important a role in modernising our cities as it ever has. Local champions, emerging mid-sized companies, start-ups and scale-ups supported by academic centres of excellence populate urban innovation ecosystems ever more effectively. The cities that have proved the most successful in implementing their innovation strategies are those that have managed to build ecosystems of this kind.

Urban innovation is alive and well and in the hands of those best placed to serve the different interests and values of our communities.

* The Cities Today Institute (CTI) will be officially launched in Chicago, 18 September during the City Leadership Forum, convened by Cities Today. It serves a community of city leaders and private sector peers who share the responsibility for identifying opportunities to employ innovation in the delivery of civic services. Cities set the agenda. Training, knowledge-sharing forums and the CTI library allow members to learn from and contribute to each other’s development. To learn more, please contact:

Login or Register

Like what you are reading? Register now to get FREE access to premium content and to receive our newsletter.

Login Register