Andrew Wisdom, Catalyst, Keynote, Project, Team, Individual


What action might we take to point our cities in the direction of helpful change and evolution? How might we achieve urban transformation?

Given the challenges cities face, how do we drive the urban transformation they need?

Urban Transformation: Systems view of Cities

Undoubtedly, it is more effective to take a holistic approach to planning and managing the complexity of our cities than simply trying to solve problems piecemeal as they present themselves. It is depressingly easy to find examples of the ineffectiveness of the latter approach – whether it is encouraging residential construction on the fringe of a city as a response to a perceived high cost of housing or taking a ‘tough on crime’ approach to addressing social ills. There are, however, some good examples of the effectiveness of integrated thinking in pointing the way to urban transformation. See my post on Wellness for a discussion on this or see my presentation in Toronto on Cities as Systems of Systems.

Urban Transformation: Productive Cities

Our key ambition could be to make cities self-sufficient in energy, water, materials, food and waste. It is easy to say this can’t be done, but we shouldn’t automatically accept that this is so. The key thing is to adopt an attitude of inquiry and innovation. What barriers are there and how might they be overcome? Only a few of the challenges to achieving various kinds of self-sufficiency at a precinct or metropolitan scale are technical. We have most of the answers available to us, if only we were to act.

For instance, Germany’s impressive credentials in installed renewable energy capacity are well known and provide an interesting case study of how to transform energy generation and distribution at a country scale. What are the barriers to doing the same in other places? Around the world plenty of advances are being made in developing systems for growing food in highly space-efficient, energy-efficient and water-efficient ways. What would a city that was self sufficient in a variety of foods look like? Where might we grow the food? What organisational arrangements might we establish to distribute it commercially? How would we manage its quality?

For several years, I drove a development in Melbourne’s west where ambitions match this kind of aspiration. See my post on Capturing and Creating Value in Melbourne’s West.

Urban Transformation: Resilient Cities

The Rockefeller Foundation frames urban resilience as people, communities and systems being prepared to withstand catastrophic events – both natural and manmade – and being able to bounce back more quickly and emerge stronger from these shocks and stresses. The Rockefeller Foundation couches its definition in terms of building urban resilience, which implies a process rather than an endpoint. Cities are in constant flux and building resilience is about directing that flux towards flexibility and elasticity rather than brittleness or plasticity.

The idea of urban resilience builds on a risk management approach but moves beyond it. It is not confined to an attempt to identify all possible risks and develop appropriate response processes, but to build capability to anticipate and respond to whatever shocks might emerge. This is about ensuring shocks are not surprises and about establishing and maintaining the systems, processes and capability necessary to ensure a city and its residents can survive and thrive regardless of what happens. This implies the city and its people are nimble, ready to respond to whatever might occur, and adaptable to whatever future might unfold. This implies an attitude of learning and sharing of experience, of being prepared to work in unconventional ways in response to unconventional challenges. This in turn points to the need for a holistic approach to planning and managing a city, rather than one constrained by artificial barriers to communication and action. It also implies that a city’s residents are part of the resilient attitude, that they are ready to play their part in responding to unusual circumstances.

The Rockefeller Foundation identifies five basic characteristics of a resilient city: Spare capacity; flexibility; limited (as opposed to catastrophic) failure; rapid rebound; constant learning. This is similar to a list of essentials developed by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) and by AECOM. Arup, together with the Rockefeller Foundation, has developed a Framework for articulating City Resilience. They identify four broad categories of resilience: Health and wellbeing of individuals (people); urban systems and services (place); economy and society (organisation); leadership and strategy (knowledge).

All this helps to identify areas where a city is most vulnerable to external changes and acts as a pointer to action. With cities home to an ever-increasing part of our population and increasingly important as generators of wealth and nurturers of wellbeing, it is critically important that our cities embody resilience thinking into their development plans. See my post on Melbourne’s Heatwave Hypothetical, my reflection on the meaning of Resilience in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, or my post on Why people choose to evacuate or not, in the face of threats to their Homes.

Urban Transformation: Institutional Evolution

The institutions that have served us in the past may not be adequate for the future. It is clear that the political cycle, political noise and lack of public funds are all making it hard for us to take effective action. This had led to a problem for our cities, where already inadequate infrastructure is being increasingly challenged by burgeoning populations with changing needs.

The challenge of responding to an evolving decision-making environment is being tackled in various parts of the world. Helsinki had its Helsinki Design Lab. Singapore has its Centre for Strategic Futures, whose mission is to “drive the development of public service capabilities in preparing for the future, and in addressing emerging strategic challenges and opportunities. Denmark has Mindlab, a “cross governmental innovation unit which involves citizens and businesses in creating solutions for society. The UK has the Institute for Government.

This is not simply about how our public service should be arranged. It is clear that the way decisions are and will be made is changing, and that the way decisions are funded and implemented is changing also. These institutes, and others like them, are about meeting that challenge.

These institutes come primarily, although not exclusively, from a top-down starting point: How best should we arrange our institutional framework to meet the challenges of urban transformation? I am also interested in the way groups of people can identify, articulate, fund and act on opportunities to improve the way cities operate. Teams of diverse people working together to solve problems can find creative solutions. These teams need not be drawn from conventional and enduring formal organisational structures. Indeed, the collaborative economy offers a gleaming chance for us to establish new ways of tackling complex problems.