Global Thinking and Shared Strategies at Cities for Life

By Jake Maguire, September 3, 2015 - 5:03pm

Given the diversity of people in attendance (sectors, approaches, positions, cultures, etc.) it was surprising and inspiring to discover we were all speaking the same language— collaborative, human-centered design that harnesses data and technology to improve lives.

Paul Howard, Senior Director of Knowledge Sharing at Community Solutions, spent the week at the inaugural Cities for Life conference in Medellín, Colombia. The conference brought together more than 1,000 people from 120 cities from around the world, including 60 mayors, to share knowledge and tackle together the complex challenges facing our cities.

Paul sends the following dispatch from Medellín:

No one came to Cities for Life to discuss small problems. The people joining me in Colombia were here for one reason: to solve the biggest social, economic and environmental problems confronting global cities today. Given the diversity of people in attendance (sectors, approaches, positions, cultures, etc.) it was surprising and inspiring to discover we were all speaking the same language— collaborative, human-centered design that harnesses data and technology to improve lives.

As a panelist in the wide-ranging Social Development session, I asked myself, “What can a relatively small nonprofit add to the conversation?” The tagline for the conference was “Let’s Co-Create,” and so I chose to share about our highly collaborative 100,000 Homes Campaign. In just 4 years, that campaign was able to develop a robust network of 186 communities to co-create a new system for housing our most chronic and vulnerable homeless neighbors.

The 100,000 Homes Campaign also demonstrated that communities can use improvement science and design thinking at the systems level to achieve ambitious, shared goals. Community Solutions teams have been applying those same tools and processes to a variety of other complex social issues, from unemployment to overuse of hospital emergency departments, with promising success. We’ve even begun to aggregate these approaches under a practical framework we call Agile Problem Solving, and we are now teaching other organizations to become agile problem solvers.

The communities we have worked with are not alone. I strongly believe that the great cities of the world can collaborate and problem solve in many of the same ways we have found to be so effective in the U.S. Cities for Life reaffirmed and strengthened that belief. Presenters and participants shared the results of their innovative work and were more than willing to help others adapt these practices for use in their own cities.

My Cities for Life highlights included:

  • Domenic Di Siena from CivicWise (Paris) proposed ways for city government, city residents and other actors to work better together. He focused specifically on ways to move beyond representative governance models toward a collective intelligence model that views a city’s residents as “prosumers”— people who both use and design public services. Domenic also called for the conversion of government agencies from insular institutions to outwardly focused “exstitutions” and proposed a 10-step Civic Design Method to design inclusive programs, services and systems.

  • Several presenters discussed the creation of “Living Labs” at major universities, like MIT’s Senseable City Lab, Open Lab in Stockholm, The Center for Innovation in Cities at ESADE Business School in Barcelona and Impact Labs in Medellín. Unlike traditional academic approaches, these labs work directly with cities and nongovernmental agencies to test, evaluate and refine solutions rapidly. Examples include MIT’s joint venture with Copenhagen to develop the Copenhagen Wheel, a bike wheel that transforms ordinary bicycles into hybrid e-bikes that double as mobile sensing units. The wheel captures the energy riders generate through cycling and braking and redeploys it when they need a bit of a boost. It also maps pollution levels, traffic congestion, and road conditions in real-time.

  • Cities as diverse as Cape Town, Tel Aviv, Medellín and Singapore are using new problem solving methods to tackle complex issues on a large scale, including urban sustainability through green design, efficient infrastructure and household improvements in low-income neighborhoods, and human-centered design for massive development projects.

While most presenters covered topics outside my area of expertise, I couldn’t help but feel we all had something in common. Everyone seemed to be approaching social challenges in much the same way, and in many cases, we were using the same concepts and frameworks to solve a variety of issues.

The co-creation sessions on the final day of the conference demonstrated the abundance of ideas and creativity that arise when a diverse group of people come together around a common goal. It was only a first step toward co-creating together, but there was widespread support for the creation of a virtual platform to continue to facilitate co-creation online. Paris will host next year’s Cities for Life Conference. I’m excited to see what we can all do together in the meantime to make our cities places of opportunity for all.

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