Innovating at the Intersections of Cities

This blog coauthored by Brian English and Janice Perlman is part of a series I convened and edited for Global Communities called Accelerating Innovation in the Internet of Cities which discusses how cities can learn, adopt and transfer innovations between each other in order to solve local issues of global significance.

Why we need to cross borders, disciplines, and other boundaries to create solutions

By Dr. Janice Perlman, Founder, The Mega-Cities Project, March 26th, 2014

Brazil Oct 20131

If we stand tall it is because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors. – Yoruba Proverb

We Cannot Wait Another Generation
It is widely accepted today that cities are a positive force in global development and that the future of the planet depends on the future of its cities. But experience shows that there is often a 20-25 year time lag between new ideas and their incorporation into public policy. For example, in many countries it has taken decades for policy makers to stop looking at slum neighborhoods as problems, and instead see them as solutions developed by families seeking a better life for themselves and contributing to economic growth through the cities’ informal economy. Only then have appropriate policy responses followed, where policy makers focus on providing land-tenure instead of bulldozers. But not every city is at this same juncture, and many individuals and institutions throughout these cities are hungry to learn how they can advance their own solutions.

With the mounting challenges facing cities today – climate change, violence, job creation, democracy building, and inequality – we cannot afford to wait generations for new policies to be developed. Now more than ever, we need to turn our attention to how we can speed up this process and facilitate greater participation by all city residents and institutions.

Let’s be clear. Cities do not learn, only people learn. City governments can budget for and structure learning activities, build networks, and organize exposure trips, but ultimately learning and capacity building cannot just be a city hall endeavor, it must be a citywide and multi-stakeholder endeavor. Cities have short institutional memories and uncertain continuity. They also suffer from the “not-created-here” syndrome. To build continuity, cities need independent NGOs, research centers, academic consortia and other institutions with life spans beyond the electoral cycle or quarterly earnings statements.

Generation 1.0: The Mega Cities Project
I founded the Mega Cities Project in 1987 to “shorten the time lag between urban innovations and their implementation and diffusion”. To do this, we created a global network among 21 mega cities anchored by project coordinators and multiple-sector committees in each city. Together, we operated through a “dual strategy for deliberate social change”  that drew knowledge and know-how from empirical research and community wisdom.

We used a rigorous five-part methodology to search for innovative solutions that were socially just, ecologically sustainable, politically participatory and economically viable. We also sought to gain a deeper understanding of the process of innovation and the consequences for deliberate social changes in cities. We looked at: 1) Where do innovative ideas come from? 2) What are the conditions for successful implementation? and 3) How does innovation transfer work?

We found that the most fertile ground for urban innovation was – and still is – at the local level and at the nexus of poverty, environment, and inclusion.  It is at such intersections where people must cross disciplines, sectors and silos to experiment, learn, and collaborate.

Over our 25-year history of action research it has become clear:

1) There can be no urban environmental solution without alleviating poverty. The urban poor tend to occupy the most ecologically fragile areas of our cities, such as steep hillsides, low-lying swamplands, or areas adjacent to hazardous industries.  In addition, their lack of resources often prohibits them from having adequate water, sewage, or solid waste management systems. Without alternative locations and income for basic needs, their survival will be pitted against environmental needs.

2) There can be no lasting solutions to poverty or environmental degradation without building on bottom-up, community-based innovations. Since creativity was not distributed along lines of race, class, or gender, experts and policymakers are not always the best source of system-transforming innovations. The most creative and resource-efficient solutions to urban problems tend to emerge at the grassroots level, closest to the problems being solved. And, without local participation in implementation, even the best ideas are doomed to fail.

3) There can be no impact of scale without “sharing what works” across communities and cities and scaling up into public policy. While small may be beautiful, it’s still small – and the problems are enormous. In order to have meaningful impact, micro-initiatives need to be replicated through peer-to-peer learning or incorporated into public policy frameworks.

4) There can be no urban transformation without changing the old incentive systems and “rules of the game.” Since every sector of urban society holds a de facto veto on the others, local innovations can never achieve scale without cross-sector partnerships involving government, business, NGOs, academia, media, and grassroots groups. We need to create a climate conducive to experimentation, mutual learning, and collaboration.

Generation 2.0: Mega Cities x Mega Change (MC2)
Members of the Mega Cities Project founding network are now coming together to support the creation of the next generation of a global network that will foster urban change, the diffusion of urban innovations, and the development of new urban leaders. At the EcoCity conference in Montreal in 2011, it was named Mega-Cities/Mega-Change or MC2 (i.e. pure energy). MCengages the emerging young leaders in every sector and draws upon evolving information and communications technologies that enable us to reimagine elements of our network, from peer-to-peer learning to crowd-sourced funding of local projects.

Our original Coordinators and participants in our research-action teams have become leaders in their countries, regions and internationally. Today they are respected “elders” holding senior positions and have agreed to become mentors for those who share their passion. This fulfills a second mission: “to shorten the lag time between the next generation of urban leaders and their ability to make a difference.” MC2 is the fusion of the accumulated wisdom, credibility and trust of our founding network with the creativity, passion and technological sophistication of the next generation of urban change-makers.

Smartness in Three Flavors

By Tim Campbell, PhD Global Fellow, Urban Sustainability Laboratory, The Wilson Center
Tim CampbellBeyond smart Cities
This blog is part of a series I edited for Global Communities on Accelerating Innovation in the Internet of Cities which discusses how cities can learn, adopt and transfer innovations between each other in order to solve local issues of global significance.

Several years ago in Beyond Smart Cities*, I wrote about cities on the prowl. By the thousands, cities from around the globe are flying every which way, searching like so many hunters and gatherers to learn and share information. By one estimate, the 1,000 cities on the planet that have more than half a million people are engaged in many thousands of exchanges every year. Why so much prowling? It’s much cheaper and less risky to pick up the secrets of success by examining innovations at close range in other cities, where new practices have been tried out, than to reinvent the wheel back home. Nothing has slowed that pace, but some of the consequences of so much international inter-city exchange is smartness that is now appearing in three flavors.

First, cities are learning how to learn. This week, C-40 reported that cities are learning how to design and implement home-grown climate change reforms by picking clues and patterns from each other. In C-40, as with ICLEI and dozens of other special purpose NGOs, new attention is being paid to the learning process. A cottage industry of city-related web-sites, magazines, conferences, and blogs has shot up over the past decade. Atlantic Cities, Cities Today, CitiScope, New City, Sustainable Cities and many more aggregators specialize in pumping out lessons, spotting connections and focusing information on issues, policies and practices. The same is true of city-based membership organizations like CityNet, Global Cities Indicators, ICMA, Metropolis and UCLG. These organizations have always traded in information and knowledge, but the focus and sophistication are on the rise. These make it easier for cities to access and absorb new information.

A second flavor is that cities are learning how to be smart cities. One of the most ubiquitous, if not most popular topics of exchange concerns the high-tech and usually web-based applications that are at the core of smart cities. The prospects can be dazzling. Most involve sensors and feedback, in public spaces, parking spaces, car lanes, water systems, power grids, public lighting, neighborhoods and much more.

Consider autonomous vehicles as a publicly-owned utility. A recent traffic model at the University of Texas showed that autonomous vehicles numbering only a fraction of a city’s total fleet could reduce by an order of magnitude the number of vehicles on the road at any given time. That reduction could also clear the way for amenities in expanded open space and lead to dramatic reductions in accidents and fatalities. In the case of electric utilities, power management ranges from the individual household feeding the grid to smart grids at the regional scale feeding each other and each benefiting from reciprocal flows depending on grid requirements.

All these and other examples to some extent depend on centralized and decentralized elements reading and reacting to each other. We are told that the actions of thousands upon thousands of individuals can be rendered into patterns that can be made sense of, helping both centralized elements of the city—utilities, managers of vehicle fleets and buildings, first responders—to make more informed decisions just as individuals themselves can benefit by making more informed choices, for instance, to avoid congestion, find parking, adjust heating and lighting, or book a car. Most of these examples are already out there, and cities are quickly spreading this second flavor of smartness.

Third, and most important, cities are taking on a new awareness about themselves, a new and potentially transformative smartness: the collective identity of cities on the global scene. One of the by-products of so much city intercourse is the growing awareness among cities that they as individual actors have a vast greenfield of common ground. This terrain is rich in possibilities for cooperative action on many issues of national and global significance. National actions on global issues have proven to be sluggish and disappointing. Meanwhile, cities have made steady progress on a dozen fronts, some modest, others promising. Hundreds of cities have taken comprehensive action on climate change. Many have found novel ways to handle immigration, to set up first lines of defense to prevention of epidemic diseases, to strengthen resilience, and to a lesser extent, to fight poverty and preserve cultural assets. Sooner or later these small bricks will pile up to a more significant edifice of change. In all these flavors of smartness, private industry has shown an eagerness to enter these arenas bringing a fresh sense of possibilities and partnerships in cities that are simply not possible at the national level.

Cities have entered a transformative period of smartness in many flavors. They have shown us that city-to-city learning is alive with possibilities. City-to-city exchange leads to improved learning as well as to smart technologies that can revolutionize the relationships between center and periphery at every scale. Perhaps most intriguing, a new dawning has arrived as cities become cognizant of the benefits of cooperation with each other on problems of global goods.
_______________________
*Beyond Smart Cities:  How Cities Network, Learn and Innovate.  London:  Routledge/Earthscan, 2012

4 Lightening Presentations, One Spark: Open Data For Development

Last week I presented at the Geo DC Meet Up to a crowd of more than 80 development professions and techies crowded into the second floor of a bar. With a large flat screen TV to project our slides, four of us set off on our “lightening presentations” with a 5-minute time limit. Mikel Maron, cofounder of Ground Truth, talking about using Open Street Maps to help the residents of Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, map their neighborhood. Joshua Goldstein talked about mapping Dar es Salam with the World Bank’s Open Development Technology Alliance and how they got the university to host the data so no single agency could silo it or manipulate it. Christoph Koettl from Amnesty International talked about how they are using remote satellite imagery to look at eviction of squatter settlements in locations not safe to enter themselves. I talked about how CHF India mapped almost 500 slum pockets in Pune, India, using more than 1,000 volunteers, then helped their communities implement action plans based on their new community understanding.

The common thread amongst all our presentations was how “open data” can translate into more informed and empowered citizens.  Open data should be seen within the context of the Open development movement, which provides citizens with the information and tools to access, understand and influence their own development. Instead of institutions just producing large analytical volumes, surveys, and reports, domestic governments and bi-lateral aid organizations can increasingly share data and software tools, so policy makers, NGOs, community groups and individual citizens can do their own analysis, their own verification of the results, and develop their own plans for action.

As new systems are created to gather data, either traditionally or through new means with information technology, many stakeholders are now arguing that data should be made open so the latent energy of a broader group of stakeholders can legitimize findings and inform solutions.

For example, the World Bank’s Open Data Initiative has released over 7,000 indicators and they are producing free software to allow citizens, researchers, and policymakers to analyze household surveys and undertake their own poverty assessments. “OpenStreetMaps” is a collaborative project to create a free editable map of the world by volunteers using copyright free sources and the widespread availability of GPS tools often available in mobile phones. OpenStreetMap allows anyone to view, edit and use geographical data in a collaborative way from anywhere on the globe.

Because slums are “informal” settlements, by definition, these communities often live in the shadows of formal sector data coverage. City governments often know very little about the actual socio-economic conditions of households, their living conditions or urban service levels. This data gap is a tremendous stumbling block in efforts to plan more strategically, at scale, or monitor progress of investments. At the same time, there is also a huge information gap for residents of slums, and often for citizens in general, to understand how to gain access to urban services, the governments that administer them or to have a voice in planning decisions.

Many institutions are attempting to fill this gap, including CHF International. In 2008, CHF designed a program called ‘Utthan’ (‘to rise from the bottom,’ in Hindi) with the Pune Municipal Corporation, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Utthan collects information on the physical and socio-economic conditions of Pune’s urban slums and uses this information to empower residents and local government officials to undertake community development projects.  The Utthanprogram is distinct because data is being collected by an extensive network of approximately volunteers that reside in the slum communities. To date, these volunteers have collected detailed surveys in 360 of Pune’s 477 slums, covering 86,000 households (approximately 430,000 residents). Over a two-year period, 130 slums have participated in the micro-planning process and almost all of them have completed tangible outcomes that improve their living conditions.

One volunteer explained, “Now I know everything about my cluster. While talking to the corporator I can give quick evidence of the amenities and residents of my cluster”. “Once there was a debate on the availability of garbage bins and water taps and because of the mapping I knew exactly the status in my cluster and the corporator had to listen to me.”

CHF’s development work will always rest on people power. But intermediary institutions like CHF and other stakeholders are becoming increasingly connected with emerging tools of the information age. And with these new powers, we can help create more powerful solutions.