CSR Ideas

Collaborating City: Reimaging Urban Futures (part 2/2)

In this second part of my post examining how collaboration might play a part in the future of a city, I focus on some possible scenarios where collaboration may be of fundamental value. One of those possibilities is the potential for collaborative infrastructure. The idea here is that we take a fresh view on the infrastructure that makes life in cities not just possible but, more importantly, assured of potential for growth.  In an immediate sense, infrastructure is something we do not think about regularly unless we are connected to it as part of our job.  Citizens expect infrastructure and in developed cities they get it. On tap!  However, how much conscious action is taken collectively in order to shape our desires so that infrastructure we demand (and pay for) is not misguided by attitudes and tastes of the moment?

Let me elaborate a little. In the past our city infrastructure mostly mimicked, more or less, the governance and management models that were corporate, hierarchical and reliant on the political sensitivities of the day.  It would be unfair to simply dismiss this as a non-functioning approach.  In equal measure it would also be plainly irresponsible to think that these factors should be preserved without reintegrating several key trends shaping cities globally.  Cities are not walled citadels.  They are mere platforms whose capacity to grow are directly proportional to their ability to accommodate other cities’ needs.  This may sound strange, but building a city for the citizens as key ‘consumers’ is not going to cut it anymore.  Cities of a prospering future will be more attune to the need to create infrastructure that does three things:

  1. accommodate its own citizens’ current needs;
  2. accommodate its own existence in the context of a region/state/nation; and
  3. accommodate its infrastructure to the level of compatibility of other cities across the globe.

I am particularly interested in the third factor which to date has not been part of much debate (and let’s not be shy about debates).  In my view, cities will need to revisit the idea of what constitutes infrastructure.  Sure, roads, utilities and so on are a norm. They enable us to connect, trade and grow. But how might the infrastructure of a city look when a person (or a group) connects and trades with people in other cities?  In this case, city infrastructure may resemble the web.  We may seek to have infrastructure that is more intelligent in the way it collaborates within its own system and with the users.

Before I reference a more realistic (read: currently in place) example, let me indulge in scenario building.  Would it be possible for a city to create infrastructure that is more interactive and responsive to its citizens.  Let’s take public transport for example.  We expect to have electricity, water and internet any time we touch a screen.  Trains, trams, ferries and buses do not respond like that.  It would be logistically near impossible to think that public transport could be so responsive. Or, are we just used to old ways of thinking? Would it not be possible, and in my view necessary, for future functioning to close the gap from ‘time-table’ to ‘just in time’ (or thereabouts) services.  Imagine a scenario where my desktop computer, which in any case sends a lot of data to various systems about me and my work/life habits, was used to inform city infrastructure designers about my needs.  Real time data feedback would then create social patterns that would allow transport terminals to adjust their rigid timetables and respond to ‘swarms’ of people.  This does not mean that public transport would work like taxis. It would mean that instead of a half an hour wait, it might be possible that data collected from citizens would adjust the timetable to reduce, or in some cases totally eradicate, waiting time.

I think that collaborative infrastructure is possible if the focus is shifted from creating patterns of human activity by conducting endless surveys on an annual or longer basis.  Instead, creating infrastructure functions which speak to each other, exchange data faster and, interestingly, lessen the demand for ‘dead’ infrastructure spots.  The agility of resources would then mean less resources better utilised to deliver more services.  A dream?

Now, for some real life examples.  The idea of a city as a collaboration market is not too farfetched. In a small but reliable scale we can look into examples where business groups have investigated business development potential based on collaborative strategy. As recently referenced on ROADMENDER (Collaboration key to identifying logistics opportunities), the logistics industry in an American city has identified a massive business opportunity for both job growth (60 000 jobs) and financial income ($10bil). A city plan which creates collaborative infrastructure that brings collaboration as both an incentive and strategy is in my view more likely to create a city of positive scenarios, outweighing risks by a long margin.

City leaders, as the mayor of Rio de Janeiro once remarked, are judged more by how they prepare for the future. Governing and managing the future of a city is easier said than done. However, this is not really possible to achieve by looking backwards for answers. There is little successful collaboration in the past that can serve as a blueprint for future action. Collaboration calls for two things: measured entrepreneurialism and innovation. These things do not occur by relying on the public’s appetite for change. They are fundamentally leadership principles.


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