For stronger cities, prioritize implementation, not just innovation

In an era when publications and conferences focused on urbanism are proliferating, do we really need more discussion about cities?

For Brian Swett, who leads Arup’s cities strategy in the Americas, the answer is an emphatic yes — with a caveat. For Swett, the answer isn’t necessarily greater volume, but a narrower focus on identifying effective, scalable solutions and finding ways to implement them.

Swett is serving as a judge for Doggerel’s recently launched writing competition, which asks for undercelebrated ideas to improve cities. (Read more here.) We asked him how this prompt fits into his thinking about today’s urbanism field.


What kind of solutions do you think are most needed in cities today?

For the vast majority of challenges facing growing cities, a new, yet-to-be-developed technology or innovation is not what we need. We need better politics, a better approach to appreciating triple-bottom-line benefits, and better ways to scale things up. We need implementation.

There’s often too much focus on, “OK, we need a new way of producing energy; we need a new way of capturing carbon; we need a new way of moving folks around on hoverboards.” The reality is, we have tremendous technological aptitude and examples of urban solutions all around the world that just haven’t been brought to scale.

One of the challenges in bringing them to scale is that the institutional winds tend to blow against change. There a general inertia to solutions that haven’t been either developed in-house or tested in a local market. And the status quo oftentimes has powerful vested interests.

One of the challenges in bringing urban solutions to scale is that the institutional winds tend to blow against change.

Another challenge is that folks in the urbanism world often talk to themselves. The smart-city folks talk to the digital folks; the CFOs talk to themselves about creative financing; designers talk about their cutting-edge designs. Oftentimes these conversations get siloed, and there are very few organizations or mechanisms that cut across those silos to bring good ideas to fruition across the stakeholder spectrum.

How has this evolved over the past decade? As the community of people interested in cities has grown, do you think the siloing has gotten better or worse?

The number and size of the communities talking about these issues has definitely exploded. I’m not sure if the diversity of representation has exploded, though. Are the right folks in the room actually bringing projects to delivery? Implementing solutions around these issues requires buy-in from diverse stakeholders, and there are very few organizations bringing together private-sector real estate developers, public-sector decision makers, community members, financiers, insurance companies, designers, banks, law firms.

Oftentimes when there is that mixing bowl, it’s assembled by a for-profit conference convener, so they wind up always looking for newer and bigger and grander solutions in order to attract high-paying sponsors. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself — I’ve certainly learned a lot from conferences like these — but it leads to a bias toward solutions developed by businesses that expect to make a lot of money from them. That’s very different than saying, “What’s the most effective and scalable way of solving this problem, regardless of whether this may make some company a lot of money?”

So there is definitely room for more wide-ranging discussion about these unheralded ideas that don’t get a lot of attention, sometimes because there isn’t a whole lot of money to be made on them.

Look at the complete streets movement — that was locally driven to address a giant part of our urban public realm that historically, due to regulatory policy and corporate profit-driving, has been largely focused on prioritizing vehicles. But the movement wasn’t effective at implementing change until it got federal regulators and policymakers deeply engaged, because the vast majority of work with streets that happens in the US, even when it’s run by city agencies, is tied to federal funding and has to comply with federal guidelines. So the local activists gave the federal regulators the vocabulary and the motivation to recognize that there are problems and to change their standards.

I think complete streets is also a great example because none of the ideas were new. You go to Copenhagen or Amsterdam or Malmö or Stockholm — they’ve been doing this for decades. So it wasn’t some new technology; it was like, “Man, we’ve got to figure out how to do this here.”

Right. It’s not just about the idea — it’s about how it can work in a particular context.

Having the best idea doesn’t mean that you’ll have the winning idea. Products that have good rollout and marketing strategies beat out better products all the time. Beta was technically better than VHS, but VHS had a much better marketing strategy and understanding of what consumers prioritized, so it became the dominant technology for years.

One of the most unheralded challenges of getting good ideas adopted is the human element. You can deliver the most fantastic piece of infrastructure or a new opportunity for powering your house, but if you need people to change their standard operating procedures, don’t expect that simply because you’re presenting them with a compelling business case, or whatever it is, that they’re going to adopt your solution. People are often not economically rational actors.

So you have to think about how to make your idea a reality by understanding how to change human behavior, because that’s usually what’s missing.

Learn more about Doggerel’s writing contest here.


Questions or comments for Brian Swett? Contact

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