Open Calls for Solutions – A Must for City Success?

Open calls for solutions is a phrase I hadn’t heard up until 12 months ago. Since then it’s become a regularly used term to describe a new approach to solving those wicked issues (and some much more mundane ones too).

As the economic recession continues to bump along the bottom and, perhaps even more importantly, public sector spending is cut, local authorities (cities in particular) are finding themselves unable to directly fund or commission services. They can now no longer pay for some of the things they might have done, or liked to have done, in the past. In many cases, this has hit the ‘nice to do’ areas of regeneration and development first in order to protect frontline services. But even they are now at serious risk and there simply isn’t enough funding to cover the very basic and important services that citizens have come to expect.

When you cant fund directly but the demand for that service remains it is time to remain fixed on the outcome you are trying to achieve. The most forward thinking cities are doing this. The ‘market’ for that service remains – there is still a value there for others to invest in provided you can demonstrate where, and who, that market is.

This is where ‘Open Calls for Solutions’ might assist.

Open Calls require you to do two things. Firstly, you must accept that your role as a city authority is going to be different in the future. You will no longer be in a position to simply agree an amount of cash you are willing to spend, define what you are going to buy, go out and procure it and then do it all again at the end of the contract. Forward thinking cities are emphasising their role as an enabler, facilitator and agent – focusing on the outcome, not the inputs.

Secondly, and importantly, city authorities need to be able to adequately define their challenges and be brave enough to admit they don’t have the solutions – but are willing to go out and find those who might. And in that process, cities will need to remain open-minded, accept that the solution might be technical, political, economic or an issue of ownership.

Like more traditional forms of procurement, there remains a need to manage the process appropriately and to identify and deal with the risks.

Rather than write lots about the process involved, because they are all nuanced and often quite different, take note of the organisations that are embracing this approach such as The City of York, Barcelona and New York. Take a look at the very interesting case study of the call from the City of Boston, who used the data collected from Boston’s Street Bump app to determine that Boston’s road bumpiness is primarily driven by metal castings that are no longer flush with the road.

These cities have all participated recently in the Living Labs Global process run by Citymart – who use a 7 step process. Others are embracing similar approaches. Closer to home in the UK, the Technology Strategy Board has designed a similar process through their SBRI approach which uses the power of government (local and national) procurement to drive innovation. It provides opportunities for innovative companies to engage with the public sector to solve specific problems.

And that is the key word: specific. The first challenge for any city (read Place) is to be able to define that challenge specifically well enough. The most successful applications of this approach have been able to specify the challenge and the outcome they are looking for. In short – they have been clear what they are looking for. That makes it a whole lot easier for the solutions providers to respond to.

Of course, my view of this is very much from the perspective of ‘commissioning city’ and not as a provider of those solutions. I would be interested in hearing from those organisations (businesses, academic institutions, entrepreneurs) who have sought to provide the solutions. What do you see as the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities afforded by this approach? And what are the pitfalls? How could cities make it easier for you to respond and provide the best solution?

You can see an early example of Sheffield’s experience of this approach in the work we have undertaken with Citymart.com and the Living Labs Global process in 2013. Sheffield has a large amount of industrial waste heat which is currently not utilised and in many cases, ejected into the atmosphere and simply wasted. Our call was to identify solutions to this and we were enthused by the large number of responses we received. Some good, some great. We’re now working with two solutions that we hope will work hand in glove to capture heat from our steel works, sports centres and other heat generators such as energy from waste plants, biomass energy centres and not emit it to atmosphere. You can read about the solutions for Sheffield and the other cities that participated in 2013 here.  

It’s still early days for the ‘open calls for solution’ approach in many cities in the UK. But early experience is promising and presents great opportunities for innovation, product and service development and the creation of new markets that will create employment opportunities and export markets because if it can work in one city the chances are, it will work in another.

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Sustainable Cities Need to be Climate Resilient

John Metcalfe of the excellent The Atlantic Cities site wrote today that ‘unprecedented high temperatures pushed the planet to one of the top-10 warmest years on record; in the United States, it was the hottest year known to humankind, with a particularly brutal heat wave punishing citizens in the summer. Dozens of people died, highways buckled, and farmers kicked at barren fields during the worst drought in 50 years.’

We are seeing what some have referred to as ‘global weirding’ – with abnormally high (or low), dry (or wet) seasons across the globe. Significant rainfall, falling in extreme bursts that our landuse patterns and drainage systems simply cannot cope with, has caused massive damage in the Indian Sub-Continent, China, Australia, the USA and Europe in the last couple of years. Close to home, here in the UK, we have seen a warmer summer for the first time since 2006. But that has come at a cost.

An estimated 650 people may have died prematurely due to the current heatwave in England, according to research by Professor Ben Armstrong.

Figures produced by Prof Armstrong for the Times looked at the number of premature deaths attributable to heat in England for 6 -14 July 2013. The estimate was calculated using a model published in 2011 research from Prof Armstrong and colleagues that used region specific estimates of risk due to heat for the period 1993-2006*.

– See more at: http://blogs.lshtm.ac.uk/news/2013/07/18/premature-deaths-from-heatwave-in-england/#sthash.w54yv2Tp.dpuf

And whilst heat has been a problem, along side that we have seen flash flooding on a scale that has seen people lose their homes, their livelihoods and their possessions. In upland hill towns in Calderdale, England the effect has been devastating: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leeds-22960628
What does this mean for cities? Climate change puts a magnifying glass on all the issues of social, economic and environmental inequality. Increased temperatures, storminess and rainfall will only widen those inequalities. Those who cannot afford to keep their properties dry, cool (and warm) and protected from structural damage will suffer more. It is these communities that should be given priority, particularly where there is evidence of poor health that compounds these issues.
Here in Sheffield, the ‘State of Sheffield 2013‘ report says ‘There is clear evidence that the climate is already changing, and the years ahead will be about adapting Sheffield to a different environmental future, and mitigating the impacts of global ecological change. Many of the significant factors that contribute to a sustainable environment remain largely invisible – the quality of the air, the release of carbon into the atmosphere, the use of energy. ‘
Direct effects of climate change on cities and citizens are, without doubt,  beginning to be clear and policy makers must take that into account. You cannot, and should not, plan for yesterday’s climate. You have to consider the evidence and the projections of climate change 20, 30, 50 years hence. Observations in 2013 largely mirror the projections put forward by scientists in recent years – so let’s start to implement the measures we need to protect our citizens and the infrastructure of our cities. That will mean new strategies for managing water, with city authorities having a greater say in the capture, storage, movement, treatment, use and disposal of water – with an emphasis on efficiency, reduction and re-use. We certainly cannot continue to treat all water to drinking standards for flushing toilets or watering lawns.
Urban areas need to be un-sealed so that hard surfacing is replaced with exposed soils, green spaces and water: green and blue spaces for leisure, recreation and urban cooling and flood mitigation.
Of course, lessons can be learnt from other cities where, over time, cultures, expectations, lifestyles, housing, diet, education, clothing and fashion, take into account climate.
It is time to learn those lessons – and fast.

Rethinking the definition of a Sustainable City

There’s a great piece on this written by Kaid Benfield, the director of the Sustainable Communities program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an adjunct professor at the George Washington University School of Law. See http://www.theatlanticcities.com/politics/2013/08/we-need-rethink-our-definition-sustainable-city/6536/ for more.

The piece should also be read in conjunction with the thought provoking piece on ‘Conserver Cities’ by http://sustainablecitiescollective.com/glenn-vowles/169666/creating-conserver-cities Glenn Vowles, Associate Lecturer in Environment at The Open University.

The dramatic shift of the world’s population into urban areas is encouraging citizens, city planners, businesses and governments to start looking at visions of ‘smart’ cities. Impressive infographic: http://postscapes.com/anatomy-of-a-smart-city-full

Smart Cities Need Smart Data

Underpinning any smart city – in fact, any city that will thrive in the future – is smart data. Data helps everyone, from individual citizens to city planners, make informed, intelligent and evidence-based decisions. It allows the development of new products and services and creates a new market for creative and digital industries to exploit. Data rich cities will be best placed to create that market.

Cities need to invest now in the infrastructure that will ‘harvest’ data they can provide. ‘Dumb’ cities will be left behind as those with high quality, fine granulated data will be attractive locations in which to do business.

Good data means lower risk investments – if you can predict with greater accuracy how a city responds to external effects, such as a prolonged period of hot weather, or through a football tournament, or when congestion is high on the road network, you can provide, with greater certainty, solutions to those circumstances that have value to customers.

Whilst investing in instrumentation to gather that harvest of data cities should exploit the data already available to them. Some already exists and is freely available. The UK’s Knowledge Transfer Network is promoting what is already available ahead of a formal launch of a call in the autumn – you can see some short videos online now: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxlnivuEFDA&feature=share#!

China recognises this and has launched 9 smart city pilots – they are Taiyuan in Shanxi, Guangzhou in Guangdong, Xuzhou and Wuxi in Jiangsu, Linyi and Zibo in Shandong, Zhengzhou in Henan, Chongqing, and Huhan in Hubei. Every pilot city will invest more than 36 million yuan ($5.8 million) in the program each year. Like the KTN, it’s led by the National Administration of Surveying, Mapping and Geoinformation which unveiled its Smart City program on Tuesday with the first nine selected pilot cities. Li Weisen, deputy director of the administration, believes the program will trigger a potential market of more than 30 billion yuan ($4.8 billion).

Alongside this, I have just read a great piece on the value of using geographical information systems – http://www.ubmfuturecities.com/author.asp?doc_id=525581&f_src=UBMFutureCities_theurbanizer written by Mary Jander, Managing Editor, UBM’s Future Cities. It advocates the investment in GIS such that cities remain resilient through being smarter and, ultimately, more sustainable.