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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Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.