There is a lot of frustration in our inability to make our cities work more effectively for citizens. We can see the problems, and we have a large number of solutions being offered by everyone from big multinational engineering consultancies to fast moving data start-ups. But somehow it is not happening. Why?

What is stopping the wider use of city solutions?

Many people have tried to diagnose the problem, suggesting that:

  • Cities lack the skills and capacity to be effective customers for smart city solutions
  • Procurement processes get in the way of taking a risk on innovative solutions
  • Election cycles make it hard for a city to develop a consistent strategy and keep focused
  • The fragmented way that budgets are managed make it difficult to tackle any challenges that cut across established organisational boundaries
  • Cities don’t own/manage critical infrastructure and lack the levers to execute their vision.

This is not something particular to the UK. The same problems are reported internationally, and although the specific challenges are local, the same problems crop up across the globe.

What is striking about these common diagnoses is that they are focused on the city, the customer, not the supplier. It is as if the suppliers are saying:

“we have all these great solutions that can really help you to make your city run better, but you are not listening!”

Mind the gap!

I think there is a much bigger and more symmetrical problem at work. The enormous conceptual gulf between the big hairy challenges that cities are facing, and the solutions the market are offering them. This gulf makes it difficult for cities to buy and hard for suppliers to sell. It is not a problem that belongs to the city alone, it is shared by those who would provide solutions, and cities and suppliers must work together to bridge the gap.

So what is the origin of this gap and what can be done to bridge it?

To succeed cities must provide a strong economy, support well-being and provide a good quality of life, and do all this in a way that is flexible, resilient and adaptable to environmental, social and political shocks.

Cities are struggling with challenges such as:

  • A lack of quality jobs and economic growth
  • An ageing population stressing healthcare provision
  • Air quality issues and heat island effects
  • Congestion problems and transport systems that are not serving the city or its citizens
  • Crime and security
  • Too much water, too little, or in the wrong place at the wrong time

“The biggest drag on the economic performance of my city is the diet of the people who live here. What do I ask IBM to supply me with?”

These are big hairy challenges at the system level. They are problems affected by many different factors, and where fixing one part of the problem can cause another problem to pop up somewhere else.

And what is on offer when they go to market?

  • Integrated data platforms
  • Smart CCTV systems
  • Low carbon energy systems
  • Distributed energy generation and energy networks
  • Advanced traffic control systems
  • etc…

All good tools which can help cities tackle their problems, but there is an immense gap between what cities want to do and what suppliers are offering.

The problem was posed very graphically for me a few years ago when the CEO of a major city said “The biggest drag on the economic performance of my city is the diet of the people who live here. What do I ask IBM to supply me with?”.

A missing ladder of logic

That question shows the heart of the problem. There is a ladder of logic missing to connect the real problems of cities with the individual innovations and solutions in the market.

We need that framework to help cities to explain what their big problems are and to engage effectively in a debate with suppliers and innovators about solutions. We need that framework to help suppliers explain to cities how their solutions will address the core problems the cities face. And we need that framework to be able to understand the system-wide and city-wide implications of adopting any of the solutions on offer.

This will be difficult. Very difficult.

We tackle big complex problems by breaking them down into manageable components. We feel it is the only practical way to make progress. We subdivide budgets, responsibility and authority. We solemnly tell each other “when eating an elephant take one bite at a time”.

If you only take one bite at a time you will never tackle the elephant in the room

It is an understandable strategy to avoid paralysis, but it carries real risks if you do not re-integrate what is going on at the system level. If you are not careful you and up with a decision process that goes:

  • The city has a real congestion problem
  • It is having a real impact on the willingness of business and workers to locate here
  • A lot of the traffic is associated with provision of healthcare
  • Some parts of the city are losing jobs and others gaining jobs as the economy changes
  • We are under pressure to cut carbon emissions
  • Our high streets are losing footfall and activity because of online shopping and parking problems
  • The congestion is making the air quality worse and that is increasing healthcare demands, but a lot of the traffic is connected with healthcare…
  • …this is really difficult…
  • Let’s put in a tram line!

Obviously an exaggeration, and a grave insult to the legion of urban planners and city officials that struggle with these issues daily, but that is what can happen. The pressure builds and builds until there is a sense that action must be taken. Then the action taken addresses the visible symptom of the problem, not the root causes.

The very structures we develop to pragmatically manage our cities reinforce this behaviour. After all the congestion problem was on the transport department’s desk, so a transport solution is obvious.

In search of a map

But how can we build this framework, this ladder of logic, if the systems is so complex and the outcomes so emergent?

I honestly have no idea, but whilst cities cannot articulate their needs in ways that suppliers and innovators can respond to, and suppliers cannot explain to cities how their solutions will help, we will not take full advantage of the business opportunities or of making cities work much better.

I don’t know whether a useful way of mapping the connections between problems, systems and solutions will be something done with paper and post-it notes, or a computer model and visualisation, but we need something that works for both cities and suppliers. I don’t know what the mapping process will look like, although I am sure that some of the old ‘root causes’ tools from way back like Ishikawa diagrams and asking why five times will help.

So here is a challenge for the thinkers, the researchers and the innovators. How can we build the framework that will allow cities with problems and innovators who think they have the solution to bridge the conceptual gap between the needs and the solutions?

Bridging the Gap in Future Cities
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One thought on “Bridging the Gap in Future Cities

  • 12/04/2017 at 3:56 am
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    Hi Richard,

    Varun from ARGO Labs (www.argolabs.org) , a US-based startup nonprofit that exists to prototype, demonstrate and scale-up public solutions to “some” of the intractable problems you mentioned here. Really enjoyed this.


    Tip of Hat: “we have all these great solutions that can really help you to make your city run better, but you are not listening!”

    *Wag of Finger:* “What do I ask IBM to supply me with?”.
    *Me*: Nothing. IBM or any for-profit-corporation for that matter, in the business of public service delivery, are inevitably engaged in “shareholder”-centered design and hardly ever “stakeholder”-centered design. Not saying they are incapable of meaningful solutions – just that time and again a few big bad apples in the private sector have subverted the public in the name of efficiency.

    Evidnce: (VW + Fossil Fuel Inc. + ENRON + California Energy in 1990s + all the actors in NYTIMES’ Bottom Line Nation: Articles in this series examine the growing influence of private equity investors in daily American life. – https://www.nytimes.com/series/private-equity-bottom-line-nation)

    Let’s be honest about carrots and sticks here and meaningfully equip those who actually give a damn!

    Good news is that there are GOOD private actors who democratize tools and tech so that give-a-damners can get stuff done.

    Evidence: Airbnb open-sourced its entire data engineering workflow automation stack called AIRFLOW that is used by many public organizations to improve public, digital architectures and be less reliant on vendors to supply

    *Tip of Hat:* “We need that framework to help cities to explain what their big problems are and to engage effectively in a debate with suppliers and innovators about solutions.”

    *Me:* ….this is what we did during our scrappy + naive grad-student phase – curious to hear your reactions.
    http://www.argolabs.org/marketplace/

    “The pressure builds and builds until there is a sense that action must be taken. Then the action taken addresses the visible symptom of the problem, not the root causes.”

    *Me:* *So create CREATIVE VENTs …. an official + sustained + apolitical environment, culture, and capacity of open and measured experimentation. We intend to be just that.*

    “But how can we build this framework, this ladder of logic, if the systems is so complex and the outcomes so emergent?”

    Our thoughts on this matter: http://www.argolabs.org/blog-1/2015/11/26/decision-making-within-the-civic-data-science-framework

    ARGO currently organizes our energies around developing a groundtruth, digital metric for citywide street quality through SQUID and pioneering a data-collaborative/co-operative approach in California to ensure that water is managed openly, transparently and efficiently for all in the West.

    Reply

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