Beyond roads, rates and rubbish: Global study asks how cities can be improved

31 October 2022
Urban governance innovation examined in over 300 cities
A team of leading urban scholars are gathering lessons from around the world that can help Australian cities navigate the 'perfect storm' of uncertain post-COVID recovery, pressing demands for climate adaptation and growing inequality among residents.

Key findings:

• New bodies such as philanthropic foundations are influencing innovations in urban governance

• Despite ambitious objectives, many initiatives function on limited resources

• The shape that innovation takes is highly contingent on local circumstances

• Enduring initiatives benefit from the support of elected politicians and the ability to reorient in response to shifting political landscapes and agendas

More than fifty percent of the world’s population lives in cities, and the continued concentration of human activity within cities can heighten the challenges posed by climate change, infectious disease transmission, increasingly unaffordable housing, and insecure work.

A recent paper, Innovating urban governance: A research agenda, co-authored by Professor Robyn Dowling, Dean, School of Architecture, Design and Planning, Alistair Sisson and Sophia Maalsen from the School of Architecture, Design and Planning, and colleagues from the University of Wollongong and University of Auckland,  offers the first detailed insights into the increasing innovation in how cities are governed as they seek new and collaborative ways to address diverse challenges.

The innovation mindset places new expectations on city governance to embrace new agile and experimental practices and inclusive, multi-sectoral collaboration.
Professor Robyn Dowling, Dean of the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning

“This might operate in ways that either allow greater inclusion and that authorise new urban governance aspirations and values, or in ways that reduce accountability and re-establish/reinforce already powerful interests.

“Understanding the implications of these shifts—their potential and their pitfalls—is essential to securing better outcomes for cities.”

The expert team from the University of Sydney, the University of Wollongong, and the University of Auckland, have currently looked at over 300 examples of urban governance innovation globally, taking an expansive view of urban governance that sees consulting firms, philanthropic foundations, universities, think tanks, NGOs, as well as different levels of government, as important city shapers.

Local governments—and city governments in particular—are rolling out a range of ‘innovation’ initiatives fuelled by international campaigns, aiming to advance visions of more effective and responsive government.

Driving this trend is a view of cities as places where the world’s thorniest public policy challenges are most intense. At the same time, cities are increasingly seen as spaces where the solutions to these problems are closest to hand.

“In contrast to the scale of national governments, often judged to be slow to respond to critical societal issues, the city-scale is presented as one at which innovative solutions can be rapidly developed, trialled, improved, implemented and then replicated or scaled to national or international levels,” says Alistair Sisson.

“Being closer to citizens, city governments are framed as more democratic and accountable; cities are where networks of powerful institutions and individuals are concentrated, where a mix of resources and skills allow for the delivery of innovative policy solutions to contemporary social, economic and environmental challenges.”

However, as questioned in the paper, researchers ask what exactly does this trend towards innovation within city governance entail, how does it work, whom does it involve, and what are its implications?

There are numerous examples of city innovation ‘labs’: Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics experiments with and prototypes policies and interventions such as additional dwelling units on existing residential properties as a way of increasing housing supply.

Co-design or human-centred design approaches are also prevalent, as seen in Singapore’s internal Public Sector Division Innovation Lab, which trains public servants across multiple departments and agencies in these practices.

Relatedly, prototyping policies and projects to drive more responsive governance is a popular practice, as seen in Vancouver’s City Studio, which pairs university students with city authorities and other NGOs to devise and test interventions ranging from migration services to bicycle repair stations.

There has also been a proliferation of competitions to source and fund innovative urban solutions, such as the City of Melbourne’s Open Innovation Challenge for supporting digital solutions to the City’s policy objectives. Or, at a global scale, the Bloomberg Mayors’ Challenge in which municipalities compete for million-dollar philanthropic grants to implement ‘best practice’ policies and programs.

It's tempting to position innovation in city governance as improving service delivery and enhancing the common good, but its disruptions to city governance must be carefully Judged. Innovation might deliver enhanced citizen participation in government or reduce its accountability. They might involve enhancing public value or monetising public services.

Maintaining a strong sense of public purpose in efforts to innovate within city government, serving citizens over consumers and prioritising social value over narrower financial metrics will go some way to ensuring we don’t replace one stereotype with another.

Innovating Urban Governance is an Australian Research Council funded project.

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