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Building an ecosystem for innovation

As originally seen in ‘Building an ecosystem for innovation’ published by the New Statesman on 29 September 2017.


Nearly every major city holds a 2020 digital city strategy. While the topic of digital cities has been gaining popularity, we are still seeing a major disconnect between strategy and execution. Without a clear market definition, the digital city and smart city terms are often interchanged. We have all seen the perfectly designed simulation of buildings, cars, people, and public transport all centrally connected, hoping to create a seamless life for people in congested urban locations.



In theory, a perfectly designed, centrally controlled digital city is easier to manage. However, from our experience of building thriving digital enterprises for the past 25 years, designing a master plan years in advance is simply not feasible. This vision of a digital city originated from the world’s largest technology companies and therefore was pushing technology first, rather than putting citizens at the core of the design. Having few vendors controlling the infrastructure and flow of information could have compromised citizen data and their ability to influence change.

Becoming citizen-centric

Any organization believes that they are customer-centric, or in the context of a digital city, citizen-centric. A citizen-centric organization is about putting citizens at the core and working backward from their needs to innovate on their behalf and define solutions that satisfy their needs. While the concept of citizen-centric organizations is not new, the industry has been struggling with the implementation of citizen-centric strategies. GDS (the UK’s Government Digital Service) is a great example of an organization that transformed from citizen-aware to citizen-centric. We helped GDS deliver gov.uk, a single hub for all of UK’s departmental sites. A citizen-driven design resulted in a 62 percent increase in weekly visitors and reduction in yearly operational costs by £50m.

Services for citizens

In the meantime, the digital revolution has hit our shores and the internet created a global village; one world interconnected by an electronic nervous system. Start-ups such as Uber and Airbnb were able to design their products with a “global first” mindset. They tried to solve problems that real people face, regardless of their location. The ease of use led some of these platforms to gain a status of an operating system, as they unintentionally defined a new best practice for developing technology solutions in their space. However, the challenge of local authorities trying to solve problems for their citizens is that they are restricted to designing solutions within the boundaries of their geographies. The fact that single countries end up with multiple digital city strategies for each of their major cities, highlights the issue of groups that have a similar vision but run with a siloed execution. As technology removes geographical barriers for people, there is an opportunity to leverage innovation from around the world, rather than duplicate effort.

City as a Platform (CaaP)

At the end of the day, it all comes down to data. These new digital platforms are the new brokers of information, which allow them to connect to a large number of ecosystems, and by that provide even more value to their users. With the right data, nearly any problem can be solved. In Manchester, a small team of passionate ThoughtWorkers used publicly available data to address the challenge of planning a trip within the city. Developed in six weeks, Tramchester is an award-winning mobile app that models Manchester’s tram network using a graph database. It calculates the best route between two tram stations using a pathfinding algorithm. The technology behind this app means that Tramchester quickly processes data and is ready to face the future of more complex transport demands.

Given that Tramchester was brought to life in just six weeks, why aren’t we seeing more data-driven innovation in our cities? The challenge is that only some data is open, and the format of the data is inconsistent. Rather than try to own the innovation process, cities should take the role of a facilitator and bring together public and private sector, as well as citizens, to create a unified approach for data sharing. Unlike the utopian state of digital cities where information is centrally collated and owned, CaaP is a secured, scalable innovation approach. CaaP means that the city only facilitates the flow of data between parties, so it can have an unlimited number of people and organizations create innovative solutions using data.

In the photo: ThoughtWorks’ City as a Platform Model (CaaP)

Under this approach, the city will create a cloud-based API (Application Programming Interface) that standardizes data and gives a read-only access to approved parties. Technology methods such as blockchain guarantee secured data flow, as well as data authenticity. Operational efficiency is another advantage of this approach, as organizations only need to sign a security contract between their business and the city, rather than have a separate contract between each of the entities.

ThoughtWorks is part of a consortium Group under NESTA called Decode, which is working to build just this for the City of Barcelona and Amsterdam. Decode is a citizen-centric platform that gives people ownership of their personal data. This Model is focused on privacy and democracy, before technology, vendors and “owners” of the platform itself. By starting with the end user and beneficiary in mind, we stay true to the purpose, rather than the owner. The platform allows users to manage their data, including sharing it anonymously for the public good.

What’s next?

In the coming months, the hype around digital cities will continue to grow. Successful cities will be able to put technology aside and focus on designing a platform of collaboration that puts citizens first. Courageous leaders that will embrace the City as a Platform approach, will need to work with organizations on their data strategy and help them understand the implications of operating in a co-opetition mode. Advanced cities will have a global mindset and will allow popular platforms to use data to provide a rich experience for their user base in a city.

A well conceived, designed and engineered Digital City platform will succeed based on its purpose and by being open. A technical design model that captures funding, contribution and culture from many different sources will be its mainstay.