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Blog #1: Innovation Assessment

Is your city innovating well enough for you and your offspring’s future?

Statistically, 80% of you will be reading this as a resident of a city. So, think of the city you are in – does it have a net zero target?, and if so when does the city plan to be net zero? A highly ambitious 2030, or a more relaxed 2050? (some might argue the latter is still far from ‘relaxed’!). Maybe you’re in a smaller city or town that doesn’t feel sufficiently in control of its own destiny, and perhaps doesn’t have a specific target? Irrespective of that, we all need to get there – and fast. Probably, unfortunately, faster than the reality of adding up all the plans from cities.

The implications of not getting to net zero are no longer unimaginable, unimportant, or someone else’s problem. We cannot rely on politicians, businesses, or academics alone to fix this for us. It’s both a personal and a collective thing. The emerging evidence of our inactions appear now in the news daily.

Doing what we did, in the same way we always did it, will achieve what we have always got. And that’s clearly not good enough. We must do things differently, do different things, and all much faster. Together.

That will require ongoing systemic innovation.

Innovation – what’s all that then?!

That word – innovation – is, like many other trending words, one that is bandied around so much in documents and discussions its meaning has rather meandered and become bland and diluted. In the city context – urban innovation – it has particular nuances which make things harder, yet more impactful, and thus more important. In the public sector and city context, perhaps more so that in private, innovation capacity starts from a lower base. It also requires innovation in process, not just in product or service.
And ‘systemic’?: well that’s an important feature of cities, which are highly interdependent complex systems of infrastructure, services, and governance. It is in this context that we focus.

That said, any discussion about innovation must remain real and meaningful, so in keeping with being practical, we can perhaps consider some of the examples of what needs to change (indeed transform) in our cities:

    • From Waste to Circularity – how we deal with multiple forms of waste stream, be that the traditional ‘trash’, or physical things (like un/under-used spaces in buildings), or ‘things’ (potentially shared equipment and other assets), or resources (people with knowledge). Cities offer a very logical geographically-bounded locus for circularity. City hall can play an important convening role amongst the myriad actors that need to be involved. They can also focus on delivering public value outcomes, rather than the potential financial and perhaps ‘we win / you lose’ motives that commercial enterprises may move towards. Overall that’s all a massive shift. Are we up for it? As public servants, as businesses, and as citizens?
    • A ‘volte face’ for the energy system – flipping the system from monolithic polluting power plants to distributed, connected, mixed source local renewable sources. To add to that we must consume relatively less energy, so our buildings need to be much more efficient. The move to community energy management and micro-optimisation involves a people and motives dynamic which is necessary helpful yet complicated. Again, a massive shift.
    • Reformed ‘Public Place’. Working habits (‘wfh’, one benefit from the pandemic), value and use of green spaces; and on-line shopping have all established very different needs for our high streets, parks, and business centres. This has ongoing both positive and negative impacts on urban plans, infrastructure, and place. Non trivial.
    • Transforming our habits of movement – embracing the accelerating introduction of electric vehicles; getting away from our reliance on personal cars and into public transport, or a shared car, on a bike, or our own two feet. Imagining the third dimension, and the increasingly helpful role that urban air mobility (drones and the like) can play. This whole topic is a big one, and one that we are already making some good progress with.
    • The list goes on – fixing cities so they’re much more economical with water; ensuring we make places that feel and are safe; ensuring we adjust things to mitigate and adapt to the ever-present changes in climate – and more.

Central highway in Katowice, Silesia, Poland

Underpinning all of these is the need to innovate. In a complex interdependent local urban environment. With a multitude of actors. And a host of worsening challenges that society faces on a worldwide basis.

These are all deeply interconnected topics. Two vitally important ones are the built environment and transport, which combined, represent the bulk of the greenhouse gas (GHG) issue, so unsurprisingly most cities are focused on these themes.

There are three important cross-cutting points to note when systemic multi-thematic change is considered as a whole.

  • Firstly, and most importantly, these changes will not happen effectively, and they will not endure, until and unless there is a big shift ‘between the ears’ of people. Change of behaviour and actions are required, more than just change of opinion. The latter so often supports the need for change, however falls short when that needs to become an action. Understanding how people interact with their city, and finessing the incentivises to stimulate enduring change of habits is a good example of a topic where modern digital approaches can complement and step-change traditional in-person involvement.
  • Secondly, data and modern technologies offer a really helpful fillip to support speedy transformation. The opportunities feel endless, and appear at rapid rate. There are upsides and alas downsides to digitalisation. The smart approach is to know how to identify which, and manage both.
  • And thirdly, governance and city planning are now back at the forefront of making this all possible. Agility is perhaps the biggest innovation here, swiftly followed by the need for transparency. The huge advantage that city hall has is that it is charged with delivering public value for all (not by any manner of means an easy task!), and is more trusted to do so that most other parties. It can also naturally convene the necessary stakeholders to collaborate in support of innovation, and balance the various form of value that may emerge on both short and long time horizons. The challenge is perhaps to help city hall perform such tasks faster than perhaps they have been done.

Doing these three things well provides a solid foundation for making game-changing improvements in all areas of urban life. Few might think of cities – at least the public sector bodies within them – as being the natural harbingers of innovation. We must change that perception; indeed reality.

There is no choice about whether to do so. The challenge is about how, and how fast.

It is warming to think that we are not at point zero on these topics. Many cities have made solid advances. It’s just that we need to figure out how to do that collectively faster, better, and cheaper.

The CLIMABOROUGH project as a showcase for urban innovation

The CLIMABOROUGH project, funded by the European Commission, is not approaching the term innovation in a passive or dismissive sense; it is taking innovation seriously. The dozen cities involved, from all quarters of Europe, and of varying size (from tens of thousands, to several hundred thousand inhabitants), see the imperative to innovate, and through the project can do so collaboratively – for the benefit of all.

The starting point for all cities was to take a baseline reading. This has been accomplished by undertaking an initial assessment based on a specific and systemic urban innovation framework developed some years back in support of innovation within the Indian 100 smart cities mission, and subsequently used with a number of European cities.

The framework addresses 4 pillars, and includes in total 16 interdependent elements:

  1. Framework Conditions – to what extent are national through to local level foundations in place to foster innovation; how connected is the city to international practices; has the city really looked to changes on the horizon and determined what is the best focus for innovation given the specific context of the city?
  2. Network Enablement – how well do the various stakeholders connect and collaborate to stimulate and bring new ideas to fruition; and are the services that support this suitably in place and digitally enabled?
  3. Innovation in Action – is the city blessed with effective physical locations that attract and foster innovation; are these suitably connected to maximise the overall portfolio of places; and do they combine physical environment with skilled experts and processes that collectively heighten innovation performance?
  4. Sustaining Value – how well is innovation monitored; do business models and sources of financing emerge that ease and speed innovation; and how well is the overall innovation system governed?

This systemic approach contrasts with cities where perfectly good innovations may emerge, with much labour and angst, that may look appealing, however rather like fireworks they lose the attention after the bang; and if not appropriately choreographed, the emerging experience feels all too disjointed. We need to shift from occasional fireworks to an indefatigable roaring flame!

It is through building this vital innovation capability in a new, different, comprehensive, and managed manner that cities can underpin step change. And it is through making an honest assessment of where things stand that the right improvement plans can be made.

The result for the 12 CLIMABOROUGH cities shows, as expected, quite some diversity. However, for each city, it stimulated the right debate about the way things were and could be. importantly also, the process was fairly painless, being something that can be done swiftly and if necessary, through one or two online working sessions. This initial assessment can be made based on expert city judgement – and that most likely is suitably accurate. At least as a solid basis for debate, validation, then action.

The overall picture can be seen below, showing for each pillar the average score (thicker line), and individual city assessments.

Pillar 1: Framework Conditions

Pillar 4: Sustaining Value

Pillar 2: Network Enablement

Pillar 3: Innovation in Action

The full report can be accessed >here.

And where to next?

The average assessments, and indeed most individual city assessments identified a wide variety of opportunity areas where action could be taken. There was considerable variance in the assessments for quite a number of the cities from ‘red issue’ areas for attention to best practice exemplars. This offers scope to identify areas of good practice that could perhaps be transferred from one city context to another, or captured as suggested best practices to offer to the market.

For each city, the opportunity is to convert the assessment into a specific action plan to strengthen the city’s innovation capacity. This will typically involve engaging the principal stakeholders in the innovation ecosystem to validate, ideate, align, prioritise, and take action in the most appropriate areas.

As the CLIMABOROUGH project progresses the innovation agenda moves from building out an action plan for each city, to addressing innovation needs for specific sectors in focus – like energy systems, mobility, or circularity; or seeking to drive innovations in common enabling areas like digitalisation, planning, or societal involvement. This will be done through collaboration amongst the cities in thematic hubs facilitated by various expert partners.

CLIMABOROUGH is also pushing boundaries through its approach on procuring innovation from the market through an ongoing pan-EU managed tendering process. This will bring the private sector into the innovation ecosystem in a commercial manner which will help to appropriately incentivise innovation. It is through this overall managed process that the project can, we hope, identify and demonstrate innovations that can be captured and replicated more broadly by the market so that the bold net zero targets that many cities have set feel somewhat more achievable.

We look forward to reporting on these upcoming innovations in future articles.


Graham Colclough (URBANDNA)