Collaborative partnerships must evolve to succeed

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This week, I am speaking on a panel at the Smart Cities World Congress in Barcelona about “Collaborative Partnerships to achieve common urban goals”. As a board member of Future Cities Catapult, I’ll be asked to talk about the role think-tanks and wider civil society can play in the implementation of sustainable urban development.

Having recently attended the Habitat3 event I’ve been reflecting on how we move to a more active path forwards with smart cities. The New Urban Agenda highlighted that public-private cooperation is key to making significant progress. So, the topic collaborative partnerships is an important one and I believe think-tanks, one of the players in such partnership, can contribute significantly to better cities as they seek to deliver on a wider set of goals and objectives for all stakeholders.

I believe that more effective collaborative partnerships are fundamental to accomplishing the mutual goals of smart city projects and sustainable urban development. Participants in truly collaborative partnership should share common goals and can include central, regional and local government representatives, businesses, suppliers, academia, civil communities, think tanks etc. Historically such collaborations were created as “top down” structures often just containing government and the suppliers who would deliver the project. The remaining interested parties were “downgraded” to stakeholders rather than partners or peers helping to develop and specify the solution.

Habitat3 reminded us that we understand many of the challenges we need to overcome to move towards smart cities but also that some of the building blocks we have to work from may be part of what’s limiting progress at present. How we collaborate is part of this.

Other challenges need to be recognised and solved at the same time. For example, cities are under enormous pressure, populations are rising at best faster than resources are being made available to support their growth. At worst, this growth is happening in a financial environment where budgets and staff levels are being cut. In many parts of the world, we’re also seeing the private sector being positioned as the answer to these challenges that private sector funding, expertise and technology can plug those gaps and make it all work.

While I believe that the private sector is an essential part of the solution, there are some elephants in the room too and I think the perspective of a think-tank can help bring people together in a neutral environment to nurture the ideas and evidence to help us move towards better solutions.

I think some of the key challenges we’ve yet to overcome to better and more successful collaboration include:

  • How do we engage the private sector much earlier in the discussions when we’re looking for smart city projects?
  • How do we ensure we have strong and stable political environments as projects will almost always cross political terms?
  • How can we improve the way we procure? The way cities “buy” smart city solutions needs to evolve to ensure it includes externalities and account for the impacts on other areas (such as public health and air quality for example).
  • To make strong evidence based choices, cities need to nurture and develop the talent to deliver complex projects. How can they do this with declining budgets and a world that often believes the cost of government is a burden that needs to be minimised, as opposed to in investment in the future?
  • How do we ensure that businesses are working with us on a long-term agenda, not focussed on the next quarter’s results and expecting cities to write big cheques up front for every project?
  • How can we see business demonstrating that this is about more than simply profit, that we all have a collective responsibility to ensure our cities are clean, healthy, inclusive, accessible and a pleasure to live in?

Perhaps the biggest elephant in the room that also applies across all of the above is trust. In many countries trust can’t be taken for granted but it is fundamental to successful collaboration. Citizens may not trust government to act in their best interests, nor can they trust big business to do the right thing. Can business trust government that they will be consistent and not change the rules? Can government trust business not to overcharge and under deliver?

Trust is a big issue & it’s one that brings me back to collaboration and think tanks. Of course, think tanks also need to be transparent and trust worthy, with clearly stated positions on how they’re funded, by whom and what control funders have over the direction and the messages. They need to be trust worthy to begin with.

Trust worthy think tanks, I believe can help bring all of the parties that need to participate in major smart city projects together to collaborate successfully. These groups will necessarily be wider and fully reflect all aspects of society impacted by the projects of the future.

Doing this will enable the creation of common goals, neutral ground, ensure access to all players as well as contributing evidence and proof to use in determining plans and strategies to solve the challenges above and begin the path to successful delivery.

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