Making 21st century cities by making 21st century city governments
Ed. This article was written during August 2019, after Bianca Wylie and Matthew Claudel kindly asked me for a contribution to ‘Some Thoughts’, a wonderful compendium of short pieces on cities. positioned initially from a Canadian perspective but ultimately providing a rich stew of ideas on the future of cities anywhere. This is the original version of the shorter edit I wrote for their collection.
In ‘Ill Fares the Land’, Tony Judt essentially, if not quite literally, wrote “Don’t privatise railways, don’t nationalise sandwiches”.
With one fell swoop, Judt gave us a tool for sorting decisions about many things, including cities. Railways versus sandwiches questions the ownership of meaningful assets, values, and decisions. It suggests where the dynamics of the market are best deployed – the sandwiches end of things – and where the idea of public value, shared ownership and civic governance is just too important, valuable and, frankly, complex to be left to the simplified heuristics of the private sector.
Yet the last thirty years clearly saw a very different ideology locked in place, to hugely damaging effect. Deregulation, and the outsourcing of capability, intelligence and responsibility, meant the active loosening or dissolution of public governance in favour of market solutions, in railways, yes, but also housing, energy, mobility, and pretty much everything else.
In his essay ‘Down to Earth’, Bruno Latour directly links the deregulation that Judt was railing against to both “a dizzying extension of inequalities” and climate change denial, as three entwined phenomena, accelerating from the 1980s onwards until today’s looming realisation that we have entered some kind of endgame.
Perhaps this sensation of an endgame is created not simply by the obvious and tangible effects of climate change and inequality around us, but also this broader point: that it’s easier than ever to see that the private sector cannot do the public sector’s job, particularly in cities, where things happen¹. Given the nature of the problems, and opportunities, we now face, as citizens in global cities, it is time to use every possibility to rebuild a sense of ‘publicness’, to make the case for shared and civic values rather than private, individualistic ones, and so to better tackle these shared wicked problems.
Addressing Latour’s troublesome trio, this means largely rejecting deregulation in order to fix the other two. More fundamentally, it means a re-constructed municipal government capability of the highest calibre, which designs and crafts regulation with societal outcomes in mind, informed by active, direct engagement with, and ownership of, the core infrastructures of everyday life. This means no more outsourcing of the railway end of things, in Judt’s formulation. It means using every major urban opportunity to build up municipal capabilities in 21st century urban design and planning, in service design and design research, in data science and platform design, in total budgeting and system financing, and in participative, cooperative and shared governance – enabled by, and enabling in turn, a powerfully-engaged municipal government at its core. Easy!
This will not be easy. But as Donnella Meadows said, “I don’t think there are cheap tickets to systems change.”
Over the last few decades of neoliberal orthodoxy, many ‘Western’ municipalities have been denuded and constrained just as cities have truly come to the fore, and just as the internet has emerged as our shared infrastructure, the climate crisis our shared nightmare.
Yet perhaps because these forces — the city, the internet, the climate crisis — are greater than that blip, the last decade has also seen a resurgence in the idea of public sector innovation. Two high-profile examples:
- the in-sourcing of tech into the UK national government — where the Government Digital Service reverses outsourcing to build a better service in-house, via an ‘internet way of working’, based around delivery teams;
- the ground-breaking work done by Barcelona, where its BCN Digital City Plan technology agenda is well beyond anything Silicon Valley has produced in terms of true ambition, running from citizen-owned data services that enable broader communal data use, with appropriate privacy protections, to new participative democracy tools, from new inventive new housing projects to municipally-owned renewable energy companies that enable community-owned producers to aggregate output for public value.
These precedents for public sector innovation, are joined by the hundreds of ‘city labs’, ‘policy labs’, ‘urban innovation teams’ and equivalent that now exist in cities, from Malmö to Mexico City, from Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics to NYC’s Planning Labs to the UK’s Public Practice. These, and the supporting thousands of unknown ‘grey’ innovators, captured in Brian Eno’s repositioning of the idea of the bureaucrat: that they “are stabilising knowledge, keeping things running, and sometimes innovating quite radically”.
We can also find examples in our core urban building blocks, such as housing and energy. As Niklas Maak has so brilliantly described, cooperative own-and-build housing or good quality public housing, stimulated by strong governance and shared values, tends to be far more sophisticated than anything that a speculation-based property market can produce — better buildings, which are more advanced environmentally, with more interesting, inventive, adaptive and useful architecture, building social fabric from day one, and at lower cost.
The re-emergence, or ongoing resilience, of municipally-or community-owned energy systems — at all scales, from Barcelona to Wolfhagen to a Brooklyn neighbourhood — feels more genuinely valuable, and resilient, than an energy market dominated by a oligopolistic handful of corporate players (as in Britain), just as Germany’s impressive ‘Energiewende’ is predicated on almost half of the renewable energy infrastructure being owned by communities, enabled by government.
To continue to outsource such core infrastructures of everyday life solely to the private sector, in the light of today’s and tomorrow’s challenges, must now seem like a relic of the past. Only by integrating city services, dissolving 20th century silos, can we envision, finance and produce the kind of joined-up, legible and trustable² outcomes that are beyond the business-as-usual contracting-out of city life found in most privatised smart city projects, for example³.
So in this Great Renovation, with ‘railways and sandwiches’ in mind, we see the need for more directly engaged, multidisciplinary City Design and Delivery Teams, responsibly yet ambitiously creating or assuring daily interactions and environments, which not only directly deliver much of our necessary core public services – housing, mobility, energy, waste, streets, health, food, education, culture, communications, environment – but do so in a way that builds public value, increases health, stimulates culture, knits social fabric, and regenerates ecosystems.
These teams can no longer be ‘exceptions to the rule’ of municipal culture, or pop-ups which pop-down when times get tough. Instead, they represent the new culture of city government, the mainstream. They help us redesign the institutions that represent our collective good, our shared values. Jane Jacobs said that a city is not just a denser suburb. Equally, it is not simply a conglomeration of profit-seeking individuals. Our public institutions represent and articulate that ‘something else’, that ‘greater than the sum of the parts’ value we all instinctively recognise in a great city, in a richly diverse community, in shared cultural experiences.
Producing more than the sum of the parts gives us a motive force for these teams. We can no longer have a Department of Planning separate to a Department of Transit separate to a Department of the Environment separate to City Treasury. That is 20th century practice. As Gillian Tett wrote:
“The first step to mastering our silos is the most basic one of all: to think how we all unthinkingly classify the world around us each day. And then try to imagine an alternative.”
An alternative lies in diverse arrays of multidisciplinary teams, responsible for devising new products, services and spaces, from a people- and environment-centred perspective. They do this in partnership with citizens, cooperatives and businesses, and then actively deliver, operate or closely manage those things, as real-time public infrastructures and places, whilst continuing to adapt and iterate via ongoing research, design and development processes. (In essence, this is somewhat like Apple’s ‘parallel production’ model, but running for the benefit of public rather than private return.)
Such City Design and Delivery Teams could become a core unit of municipal government – there need be no separate policy teams. They combine to take on today’s complex systems on their own complex terms, in General Stanley McCrystal-mode as ‘teams of teams’, or in more fluid contexts learning from Amy Edmondson’s work on ‘teaming’. Yet delivery teams must also develop a strategic design impulse, to deliberately redress Tett’s ‘silo effect’, and ensure that each moment of delivery contributes to a blueprint for tomorrow’s organisation.
Thus design and delivery cannot to be separated, as per current standard practice of separating policy and delivery, but could instead be linked symbiotically in the same team. Rebecca Solnit wrote, “The magic of the street is the mingling of the errand and the epiphany”, and so it is with City Design and Delivery Teams; only by running something everyday (errands) are you in a position to discover the strategic breakthrough (epiphany). This builds on the numerous ‘policy lab’ experiments globally, as well as the network of regulatory experiment labs stimulated by the likes of the Legitimacities project, but crucially linked to the insights from delivery of real-time services. With digital services, as Andrew Greenaway notes, that idea is becoming very clear:
“Digital governments are composed of multidisciplinary teams tasked with delivering public services. Policymakers are part of that mix, instead of calling the shots.”
Yet all public services are now digital, whether bikes or energy or museums: it’s just a question of ‘how digital?’ So this idea that policymaking is done as part of delivery, and vice versa, can now be developed beyond websites, perhaps particularly when it comes to these these core shared infrastructures of everyday life. This of course includes data-driven insights, opening up advanced analytical possibilities, but crucially balanced by that of the Teams, and their capability with ethics, responsibility and social relationships.
My former team at Arup worked with municipalities in Stockholm, Amsterdam and Melbourne, running sessions where we would collaboratively sketch out the idea of these new municipal delivery teams. These composites comprised the usual array of planners, architects, project managers, and real estate specialists, but also data scientists, software engineers, ethnographers, service designers, design researchers, landscape architects, artists, food experts, health workers, economists, historians, educators, sociologists, community development, and so on. (Victor Papanek’s classic Design for the Real World, in 1971, sketched out a great early example of this multidisciplinary design team.) In reality, those roles might be split across multiple teams, depending on project or programme, but this capability could help develop the infrastructure of everyday life from multiple angles simultaneously, in conjunction with citizens and private actors, and in entirely new ways, generating data but also other forms of knowledge.
Further, only multidisciplinary ‘teams of Teams’ have the requisite agility, the capability to iterate, to live in the data and adapt, now that we are in a post-predict-and-plan condition for organisational leadership, as Esko Kilpi points out. This culture shift would be a meaningful step forward in itself. If we need to produce a new kind of city—and we do—we cannot produce this using the toolkit that created the previous, high-carbon, high-inequality version. We need to consciously use city-making to produce a new organisation, reigniting a positive symbiotic relationship between the matter of the city and dark matter of its governance.
Formally, this could run across multiple departments, as distributed teams glued together by a culture-building function (as per Google Design, perhaps) or sit ‘on top’ of existing vertical functions which can then be seen more as ‘plumbing’, leading to a horizontal membrane aligning all touchpoints with people and place, a kind of unified Department of Public Life.
A key point here is not that tech’s products or processes are intrinsically unhelpful – of course, they could help positively transform urban development and urban life in numerous ways. But equally, nor do they intrinsically belong to tech in ‘VC-fuelled startup mode’. As GDS and other examples have shown, the private sector does not have an intrinsic monopoly on technology capability, in terms of skill, speed, or quality – it has simply been allowed to obtain a monopoly. There is no technical reason why equally effective teams cannot exist within governments, whether we are talking tech or urban design. It is a choice.
Rather, it’s that the question of ownership of these products and processes, the value they produce (in data or otherwise), the decision-making they enable, and the kind of society they create, that is now too important for tech companies. Tech’s ‘sandwiches’ days are over; it has now become as important as railways, if not more so.⁴
And in representative democracies like Canada at least, we must recognise that only city governments have been granted the legitimacy to create urban policy with, and on behalf, of the city’s people. This necessarily participative and cooperative approaches means new skills, new tools, new platforms, new relationships – ultimately new social contracts. The trust required to build these new relationships has to be earned, and trust is forged in the white heat of delivery.⁵
If we can create missions that draw together public, private and civic, we also present numerous opportunities for the private sector to thrive – and not simply in ‘the sandwiches end of things’, but in making good quality products and services built on top and around those core public foundations – yet in a way that keeps things in balance, ensuring shared societal outcomes.⁶
Again, though it sounds a little prosaic, this ultimately means creating new teams that work in new ways, to make and operate not just new products and places but new forms of public institution, a new form of municipality, no longer defined by quiet complicity but through publicly-earned legitimacy.
Kieran Long, in his introduction to the ArkDes exhibition ‘Public Luxury’, described the implicit value locked up in design when it is trained on the public realm, whether in major urban developments or a transport ticketing system:
“We see in our public buildings and spaces (our park benches and metro trains; a hot dog kiosk and a monument to the dead) what we are made of. Design can not avoid this assignment – it either embraces the task, or it unwittingly displays, or even conceals, society’s prejudices and weaknesses.”
To continually outsource such fundamental decisions to the private sector would indeed display a lot of our “prejudices and weaknesses”.
Conversely, to use urban development opportunities to develop new forms of interaction, new civic relationships and new public capabilities within a retooled, reimagined city government, would speak clearly of a different sense of what a city can be: not a Petri dish for blitzscaling urban tech to be exploited elsewhere, but a place, a home, a theatre, a forest, a community, a broad canvas, a rich array of possible urban futures.
Ed. This piece was written during August 2019, after Bianca Wylie and Matthew Claudel kindly asked me for a contribution to a compendium of short pieces on urban tech, development, and governance they were pulling together, with Nasma Ahmed, Zahra Ebrahim and Christopher Pandolfi. This is the original version of the shorter edit that ended up in their publication, ‘Some Thoughts’. ‘Some Thoughts’ is an extremely understated title for what is an amazing collection of writing and writers expanding conversations around the contemporary city, positioned initially from a Canadian perspective but ultimately providing a rich stew of ideas on the future of cities anywhere.
- The impact of overly leaning on market dynamics for the delivery of the everyday seems clear. Outsourcing housing to the property development sector has made most housing both unaffordable and poor quality. Deregulating the food industry has somehow managed to produce both increased world hunger and an obesity epidemic simultaneously. An emphasis on privatised transport is killing us in numerous ways, whilst a Big Pharma-oriented approach to health, focusing on cure rather than prevention, engenders opioid epidemics as well as unjustifiably vast mark-ups on medicine. A largely privatised energy industry has become wealthy by fuelling a mass extinction event. And financialisation produces crushing inequality. Tech is bound up in all of this, as its circuitboard and operating system, as well as producing its own thorny bundle of issues. Its “data is the new oil” mantra is now looking more than a little foolish as a selling point during a climate crisis; telling rather than selling. That large a shift towards deregulation, dissolution, and privatisation over the last four decades has turned out to be, to coin a phrase, A Bad Deal. The idea that some assemblage of these sectors can simply ‘pivot’ 180 degrees on those trajectories — that they might in fact be the answer to the question of future cities, for example — would be laughable were it not so serious. This does not imply that all property developers are bad people, that all energy companies are leeches, that every tech company is shadowy, nefarious, and run by an uber-privileged manchild, and so on. ‘Some of my best friends …’ etc and so on. There are, of course, great individual examples of the exact opposite of this, in all of these sectors. Equally, all this has not secretly been done to us citizens, or been cheating and suppressing a pure and brave public sector. There has been complicity, or even active policy, all-round. Yet the sum total of all this activity is increasingly clear.
- Privacy issues take on a different hue if civic data is owned by citizens themselves, and managed by a responsive and strategic municipal government, the latter being the only truly representative arbiter of civic value that sticks around long-term, and is often democratically accountable to its residents. Yet citizens have been lured into trusting their personal data to distant corporations more than to the city government that belongs to the city’s people. The last few years has seen that argument begin to unravel. Similarly, letting core urban infrastructures, like taxis or housing or workspaces, be run by global tech companies that tend to leach value from local economies is increasingly questioned. Though those platforms continue to grow, the idea that they necessarily represent the very idea of progress has been usefully complicated, making room for the idea of a 21st century civil service — local, representative and responsive — which is not only fully accountable to citizens but a safe harbour for public data, driving highly-meaningful everyday public services, producing local economy, and providing strategic value over the long-term.
- Note also how contracting-out, or standard procurement, tends to instead reinforce silos. Further, should it matter, it is increasingly clear that it may be more financially prudent to build in-house capability, whether for policy research into major physical infrastructure projects, or noting the true cost of outsourcing or impact of financialisation, or specific cases such as Carillion in the UK, versus Government Digital Service (GDS) saving the UK taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds per year. More importantly, though, the product from GDS is better, which will produce further value well beyond these often false goals of cost saving. GDS is not an efficiency move—there was no promise made to the Treasury around savings—but it is a service improvement function. Doing things well, from the inside-out, will save money as a side-effect.
- There is of course considerable financial value in sandwiches. We just need to deliver on non-lethal versions of such things. Equally, Judt’s aligning of ‘railways and sandwiches’ also reminds us, a little ironically, of the notion of the ‘British Rail sandwich’ as cultural marker. In the UK, the sandwich served in the on-train buffets effectively stood in for criticism of the entire idea of British Rail as a nationalised rail service. Whilst the sandwiches may indeed have been poor quality, this conveniently ignores the high quality often present in British Rail—hence my choice of the exemplary British Rail corporate identity work to illustrate this article: graphic and service design work that was as good, if not better, than anything in the private sector at that time—just as it ignores the low standards (and high prices) of British rail services after privatisation. Given contemporary service design practice, there is little technical reason that the promise of that British Rail design work could not be now realised, extremely effectively. Perhaps proving Judt’s point, the quality of sandwiches on British trains improved via privatisation, but arguably little else did.
- And without trust, earned through direct engagement, there is little possibility of meaningful government. Governance, in this outcome, becomes a diminished group of procurement-handling project managers on short-term contracts, chewing over performance data. Ultimately, the players in that scenario are ripe for replacement by a suite of opaque algorithms. This is, of course, precisely what some are angling for.
- A simple operating model for this exists with many public transport systems, such as Transport for London (TfL), where trains and buses are designed, built and driven by private sector companies, but in the case of London, the overall operation is publicly-owned, regulated and managed by TfL. And crucially, the public’s interaction is with TfL, reinforcing its value locally. The next iteration of TfL may need to develop its in-house tech capability, to ensure full value is derived from the rich data its physical systems and spaces generate, but the same principles could apply there too. More advanced, ambitious models exist in many Asian cities, as is often the case. This recognises a that there is balance between private sector and public sector, and posits the question of where to draw the line; but importantly it is a balance, between the ‘sockets’ that the public can own and govern, and some of the ‘plugs’ provided by the private sector. It is not solely on the private sector’s terms. The line need not be at the level of brand and interaction, either: a scooter company like Voi makes a good ‘plug’, via their product and service, whereas a city can provide a well-conceived socket in the form of licensing, codes of conduct, data-sharing agreements and so on. Or the line could be drawn elsewhere, with a municipality-run service like TfL, which manages the direct interactions with customers and citizens, but uses ‘plugs’ provided by Alstom, say, who design and construct trains and buses, with maintenance companies, with unions, and with companies like GoAhead, who then employ the bus drivers. Of course, in this more harmonious, balanced relationship, both public and private would be running R&D projects, testing prototypes, doing design research. Where ‘the line’ is drawn concerns deeper questions than simply efficiency, despite the new public management rhetoric of the last 30 years. ‘The line’ also defines social contract and public value — “If I spend a pound on a TfL bus, that money largely stays in London’s economy” or “If I have a problem with TfL, I can take it up with the Mayor I elect” or “I feel proud to be a Londoner, given our amazing sustainable public transport” or, more powerfully again, “If that money stays in the local economy in a more joined-up public accounting, we can use strategic investment in transport services and urban planning in order to drive reduction in healthcare costs,” and so on.
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