Planning generates valuable intellectual property. It’s time cities used it

A scale model of London. Why not. Image: Getty.

The knowledge economy has shaped cities. As part of the startup gold rush, civic administrations have toiled to create conditions that will attract entrepreneurs keen to set up shop and create intellectual property. But while doing so, cities have overlooked the fact that they have also been generating valuable knowledge.

The planning process intrinsically requires urban environment models to understand the best courses of action. These are often, though by no means always, based on data, perhaps formalised in a spreadsheet or jotted in notebooks. Regardless, they capture patterns, insights, and observations about how a city works, today and in the past; and are used to forecast how they may continue to work in the future.

Cities invariably don’t solve all of their problem alone. That’s because many – such as as, say, improving air quality or reducing traffic congestion – require expertise and resources that they don’t possess. In those cases, they turn to experts to help them.

But, the relationship between the two is broken. Cities pay large sums for experts to create models or refine existing ones, often with a great deal of input from the city authority. And yet cities ultimately retain the rights to use only a small proportion of the work for which they’ve paid: a report, perhaps slides from a presentation, maybe some results from the model in a spreadsheet if they’re lucky. Rarely, if ever, do they retain the model itself.

That means that, when the time comes to revise a strategy or plan, the city has to start from scratch. The Greater London Authority, for instance, has an annual budget of around £500,000 to employ external experts to update the London Plan. The majority of it is used to revise and refresh existing studies and models, rather than build new ones – and some of that could be done more efficiently in-house

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that domain experts hold the newly generated IP, which they can either sell on to other clients or else use to leverage new contracts. In extreme cases, the dual role played by experts – in supporting both cities and organisations that work for cities – can lead to perverse consequences.  The knowledge gained in developing affordable housing policies is, for instance, also useful to developers seeking to minimise exposure to such projects. In these cases, cities pay a consultant, give away their own IP, then allow other parties to use the knowledge against them.

City authorities and their staff must be far more pro-active in understanding and valuing the models and knowledge that they use to support the planning process. In the future, it should be the case that cities design, build, and own their own models of their city. These will still require the input of domain experts – but instead of handing over intellectual property, they will pay for the knowledge of others to create models that they can re-use, edit, and build upon, enabling the planning process to move far faster.

This will prove expensive in the short term. It will require cities to employ data scientists to capture and codify their knowledge, as well as altering their expectations about IP in relationships with contractors.

But costs will be easily recouped. First, cities will act as the gatekeeper of models built on their own data, that other organisations – housing developers, utilities companies, even other cities – will seek to utilise, and the city will be able to charge accordingly. Second, those same models could be used to inform broader city planning and service delivery, reducing duplication of effort and increasing consistency across the local authority.

At Future Cities Catapult, we’ve already started investigating how cities could adopt these kinds of approaches. With Space Syntax, we’re developing an innovative project called Tombolo that will provide an open source platform to streamline the connection of multiple urban datasets and models. Currently, we’re working with Leeds, Milton Keynes, and the Royal Borough of Greenwich to understand how their data and models could be simply and easily fused, to give policymakers new insights into complex challenges.

Tombolo, though, is just one of three large-scale products being funded by Innovate UK which are investigating how data modelling can be used to inform real world issues – and this must all be seen as part of a much larger trend towards the concept of modelling-as-a-service, which is being led by the likes of Andreessen Horowitz-funded London startup Improbable.

If UK cities take advantage of this trend and use their own intellectual property, they will be able to interrogate assumptions that sit deep within the myriad planning documents that currently remain inaccessible. Ultimately, that will allow them to perform land use planning with increased speed, efficiency, and transparency. By using their own knowledge, cities will finally be able to develop as effectively as possible.

Stefan Webb is head of projects at Future Cities Catapult.

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More than 830 cities have brought essential services back under public control. Others should follow

A power station near Nottingham: not one owned by Robin Hood Energy, alas, but we couldn't find anything better. Image: Getty.

The wave of cities worldwide rejecting privatization is far bigger and more successful than anyone thought, according to a new report from the Transnational Institute, Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation. Some 835 cities in 45 countries have brought essential services like water, energy and health care back under public control.

The persistent myth that public services are by nature more expensive and less efficient is losing its momentum. Citizens and users do not necessarily have to resign to paying increasingly higher tariffs for lower standard services. The decline of working conditions in public services is not an inevitability.

And the ever larger role private companies have played in public service delivery may at last be waning. The remunicipalisation movement – cities or local authorities reclaiming privatised services or developing new options – demonstrates that cities and citizens are working to protect and reinvent essential services.

The failure of austerity and privatisation to deliver promised improvements and investments is part of the reason this movement has advanced. But the real driver has been a desire to meet goals such as addressing climate change or increasing democratic participation in service provision. Lower costs and tariffs, improved conditions for workers and better service quality are frequently reported following remunicipalisation.  Meanwhile transparency and accountability have also improved.

Where remunicipalisation succeeds, it also tends to inspire other local authorities to make similar moves. Examples are plentiful. Municipalities have joined forces to push for renewable, climate-friendly energy initiatives in countries like Germany. Public water operators in France and Catalonia are sharing resources and expertise, and working together to overcome the challenges they meet.

Outside Europe, experiments in public services are gaining ground too. Delhi set up 1,000 Mohalla (community) clinics across the city in 2015 as a first step to delivering affordable primary health care. Some 110 clinics were working in some of the poorest areas of Delhi as of February 2017. The Delhi government claims that more than 2.6m of its poorest residents have received free quality health care since the clinics were set up.

Local authorities and the public are benefiting from savings too. When the Nottingham City Council found out that many low-income families in the city were struggling to pay their energy bills, they set up a new supply company. The company, Robin Hood Energy, which offers the lowest prices in the UK, has the motto: “No private shareholders. No director bonuses. Just clear transparent pricing.”

Robin Hood Energy has also formed partnerships with other major cities. In 2016, the city of Leeds set up the White Rose Energy municipal company to promote simple no-profit tariffs throughout the Yorkshire and Humberside regions. In 2017, the cities of Bradford and Doncaster agreed to join the White Rose/Robin Hood partnership.

Meanwhile, campaigners with Switched on London are pushing their city to set up a not-for-profit energy company with genuine citizen participation. The motivations in these diverse cities are similar: young municipal companies can simultaneously beat energy poverty and play a key role in achieving a just and renewable energy transition.

Remunicipalised public services often involve new forms of participation for workers and citizens. Remunicipalisation is often a first step towards creating the public services of the future: sustainable and grounded in the local economy. Inspiration can be found in the European towns and villages aiming for 'zero waste' with their remunicipalised waste service, or providing 100 per cent locally-sourced organic food in their remunicipalised school restaurants.

Public services are not good simply because they are not private. Public services must also continuously renew themselves, grow, innovate and recommit to the public they serve.

The push for remunicipalisation in Catalonia, for example, has come from a movement of citizen platforms. For them, a return to public management is not just an end in itself, but a first step towards the democratic management of public services based on ongoing civil participation.

Evidence is building that people are able to reclaim public services and usher in a new generation of public ownership. The momentum is building, as diverse movements and actors join forces to bring positive change in communities around the world.

You can read the Transnational Institute report, “Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation”, on its website.