Global Cities and the Promise of “Comprehensive Innovation”

Global Cities and the Promise of “Comprehensive Innovation”

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Although they take up only about 3 percent of the planet’s usable land, our global cities house some 55 percent of the world’s people—and by mid-century, this number is expected rise to 68 percent. At the same time, Earth’s population is projected to grow to somewhere around 9.8 billion people, leading to a total of 6.6 billion urban citizens by 2050. Our urban centers will face mounting pressures as a result.

It is in cities, therefore, where humanity will be most acutely under pressure to address climate change, and deal with the key sociological and ecological challenges of our era. This makes it essential that our cities become progressively more adept and sophisticated at meeting the needs of humanity.

I feel very strongly that cities must embrace innovation to deal with these challenges. Innovation represents an expanding toolset of options that humanity has to meet its needs. Innovation defines our ever-evolving civilization. However, I have found that there can be very different understandings regarding the interpretation of this idea, and the depth at which innovation must be embraced. I argue that the adoption of innovation in our cities must be comprehensive, affecting not just the adoption or purchases of new technologies, but a rethinking of the process of municipal governance itself.

More specifically, my key recommendation is the following:

To be best prepared to deal with growing challenges and accelerate the adoption of innovative solutions, cities need to consider, first and foremost, the fundamental “operating system” by which they make decisions, allocate resources, engage the private sector, evaluate progress, and understand the city that they govern. Innovations can help drive this leadership evolution in a virtuous cycle, with enhanced abilities to interpret data, understand currently “unseen” phenomena, and stimulate economic growth while simultaneously contributing to an enhanced standard of living.

I do not believe global cities can maximize the opportunities that are becoming available to embrace new technologies and solutions without fundamentally improving the art and science of governance as part of the process. That is, cities must embrace “comprehensive innovation.” City leadership itself must continuously evolve. The adoption of innovations, furthermore, can drive enhanced governance capabilities that lead to more effective and empowered decision making.

Let me expound on this with a routine example.

Imagine that a startup company would like to approach a city to deploy a new kind of sensor network—say, a network of air-quality detectors that offers block-by-block real-time updates, actionable predictions based on machine learning, and correlative analysis using other data points in the city.

First, the startup needs to find a point of contact to mutually explore the opportunity with the city government. But how? Is there a website that directs entrepreneurs or companies with innovative solutions how proceed to engage with the city? Or is there no clear pathway or resource? Is the appropriate resource hiding somewhere, perhaps abandoned?

Conversely, if air quality management was considered a priority for that city, is there a mechanism to proactively communicate that priority to the market—to encourage solution providers (either from within the city or elsewhere) to approach the administration? Is there a readily discoverable mechanism to communicate the city’s needs to the public? Which solutions, if available in the market, would be prioritized for consideration by the city government?

Is there a mechanism within the government (for example, a specifically appointed team, or even just one manager) whereby the government can learn about new innovations, and perhaps even learn about novel technologies and solutions that at first might not be obvious?

Somewhere in the world right now, an entrepreneur is working on solving a given city’s sweet spot issue. Yet, that city may have no established way to learn about and review such an innovation in the market, or even let the outside world know that it is interested in gathering information.

There are many talented entrepreneurs with strong solutions on one side, and many cities with very serious pressing needs, with budgets to support projects, on the other. But it seems that in many cases the two sides lack efficient mechanisms for engaging each other. There’s a major opportunity in bridging these two ecosystems.

Moreover, when a city engages start-up firms and creates market opportunity with budget resource, it isn’t just procuring a solution to improve local quality of life or decision making, it’s also stimulating the local economy by making market opportunities available and attracting entrepreneurial talent.

Many cities commonly seek to attract top entrepreneurial talent, but don’t necessarily leverage their own demands and marketplace opportunities fully to attract it. This is a lost opportunity.

One of the exciting opportunities of our era is the ability to simultaneously foster entrepreneurship and job growth, while adopting innovative solutions that fundamentally enhance the lives of all citizens in a tangible way. Moreover, if your city is a recognized “first mover” it could encourage more entrepreneurs to establish a meaningful presence in your city, enhancing reputation both with entrepreneurs and citizens alike.

A city that is “going places,” building up resilience, and doing smart investments that result in quality of life improvements and longer-term lower operating expenditures for inhabitants, can improve its position to attract talent, homeowners, developers, and more. The rising tide of innovation can raise many ships.

Decision Making and Evaluation Methodology

Let’s consider the evaluation and decision-making process. Taking the air-sensor example a step further, how is a city prepared to evaluate and decide on a path to deploying that sensor network? Does the city have a methodology or a team that can quickly build out an operational budget forecast, illustrating essential items such as required capital and operating expenditures, and forecasting targeted revenues and savings and other values (such as reduced CO2 emissions, for example, or improved health metrics)? Can such a forecast be put together in days or weeks rather than months or years? This is expected in business enterprises, but it can sometimes be more hit-or-miss at the city management level, where many questions can go unanswered and the key assumptions sometimes aren’t very clear.

Once a decision to deploy has been is made, is the project delegated to a leader with sufficient authority to move it forward, and does that leader have some room to operate? How much agency do city managers have to lead a project and demonstrate success, and how are they encouraged to do so? Is there a mechanism for evaluating the project after it has been deployed to ensure it is performing according to expectations?

All of these principles are commonplace and essential operating aspects of the innovator’s business world. Quick forecasting, rapid delegation of responsibility, post mortem reviews, and so forth, are all part of the innovator’s tool kit. My view is that fully embracing this sort of “comprehensive innovation” approach will allow for cities to engage much more effectively in the coming era of technological innovations that will tackle global challenges. 

The Opportunity is Now

A sea change in technological innovation to address global challenges is on the horizon, and an increasing number of start-ups are emerging to help cities solve those challenges. Whether it involves water security, transportation, human health, waste management, environmental quality of life, or any other area, the global city is perfectly poised to catalyze the market—as a key customer, a partner, a facilitator or all of these together.

City managers will play an increasingly important role as drivers of innovation and ensuring that important new technologies will thrive, by helping to launch new markets; providing critical cash flows to entrepreneurs and startups (and creating new jobs); and evangelizing to other cities about how new solutions that have made a critical improvement in quality of life.

If a start-up in your town has deployed a solution that has been a game changer, tell your sister city partners about it and support the growth of your local start-ups! You could have a new global leading firm right at your doorstep.

Never have the opportunities and challenges facing global cities been greater than they will be in the coming years. Demands from growing populations will be unprecedented. The time to embrace a comprehensive innovation strategy is now.

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Jim Staab

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