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  • Geoff Mulgan

The City Collaborative – helping big cities to think and solve their problems

Big cities are full of clever people. They often contain multiple universities as well as research organisations, consultancies, specialists in economics and design, planning and technology, as well as vast investments in hardware and software.  But few have found good ways to connect the brain power of the cities to the needs and tasks of the city.  Several decades of initiatives under the heading ‘smart city’ have done little to make cities smarter in terms of their ability to solve pressing problems.

Getting this right is complex, a challenge of social organisation and institutions as well as technology.  It requires linking multiple tiers of government, communities and civil society, universities and colleges, and mobilising many different kinds of intelligence, from formal research to tacit knowledge and lived experience, entrepreneurship and innovation to data. It requires a continuous iteration between pressing questions and viable answers.

Yet there are many mechanisms that could be used for doing this better, and these are set to become more important as cities recognise the complexity of their challenges. Here I summarise the idea of a ‘city collaborative’ which seeks to help a city to think, and I describe two models, one recent and one current, that could steer big cities in the future.

The city as a mesh

The starting point is to recognise the governance of every city as like a mesh.   That mesh includes a series of ‘verticals’, the formal apparatus of governance, which usually includes:

·       A transnational level, the EU in Europe

·       A national government

·       Regional governments of varying degrees of power

·       The city administration itself, often under a Mayor

·       Local, borough or neighbourhood governments

These verticals then sit alongside many ‘horizontals’ – businesses (which themselves can be local, national and global); civil society; universities and others.  Together these constitute the mesh that in practice governs the life of the city. 

The question then is how that mesh can be intelligent. How can it mobilise shared knowledge and direct both material and intellectual resources to the city’s most pressing needs?  How can it best assemble the different elements of intelligence and apply them to a variety of tasks, from clean air to gangs, nursery education to infrastructure?  

Every city has multiple clubs, networks, councils, cliques and arrangements for organising thought and problem-solving.   But the idea of a ‘city collaborative’ starts from the premise that this can be done much more systematically: that cities can mobilise knowledge, share it and apply it across all the institutions of a city.   It argues that what they need is a form of ‘intelligence assembly’, that, like the human brain, connects the different functions of intelligence, from observation to interpretation, memory to creativity, and links them to action and learning. As with individual brains, the more these are connected, the more likely it is that intelligent action results.

The elements of a city collaborative

So how can a city collaborative work?  Essentially it needs to ensure that each of these functions is being carried out, and that they are connected together.    A collaborative is an arms length institution, ideally accountable to the key players in the mesh, and with sufficient capacity and resources to organise these key functions in respect of the elements described above:  to ensure observation and data, ideally in open platforms;  systematic analysis and interpretation; a shared memory of what had worked in the past; and mechanisms to promote creative and innovative solutions.

In practice, this is likely to involve curating a shared view of the four dimensions of the many issues cities face, from housing to care, transport to public spaces:

·       What are the crucial facts, patterns and trends?

·       What’s the evidence about what works – and what doesn’t?

·       What innovations exist or could be relevant to the city, including from other sectors and places?

·       Where could the city get to in the medium to long term, for example what’s the vision of how food, mobility or safety might be organised in 2040 or 2050?

Part of the role of a city collaborative is to commission these if they don’t already exist; to make them available to governments and other stakeholders; and discuss their implications, ideally involving the hundreds or thousands of people who make up the system of transport, crime, education, health or environment.

To do this, then the collaborative needs:

First, systematically organised informal networks. It’s vital that the people who help run a city get to know and trust each other.   Many cities have some closed networks and cliques.  But big modern cities need these networks to be more open and inclusive.  The only viable methods orchestrate gatherings, events, social occasions and online social networks to build up relationships of trust.  In some cases they may include diasporas (Barcelona for example runs an alumni programme).

Second, formal cross-cutting working groups to work on live problems. The informal relationships can be further strengthened by creating project teams that straddle the key institutions of the city: ideally, with members taken from multiple tiers and others, so that they generate options that can then be presented to decision-makers, but reflecting the perspectives of the different players.   Some city i-teams work in this way.

Third, shared processes for commissioning research that gather the most pressing problems facing the city and then commission academics and others to provide analysis and answers, with rolling processes to ensure these are on track.  Sometimes these will need to be activated very fast, as when a pandemic or disaster hits.  At other times slower timescales are viable.

Fourth, living repositories of knowledge and evidence.   Cities need their shared knowledge to be accessible and visible, and curated in ways that meet their needs.  Generative AI already offers powerful tools to gather, synthesise and adapt vast bodies of relevant research and knowledge and there are past examples like ‘What Works Cities’, C40 and Net Zero cities.

Fifth, platforms that make it easy for decision-makers to collaborate, sharing ideas and forming coalitions of interest that cut across organisational silos.

Sixth, linked data to spot and interpret emerging patterns and guide planning, from school results to crime, air quality to commuting patterns (in time feeding into digital twins).

Finally, many cities, from Seoul to Montreal, already have some crowd-sourcing systems in place, to tap into citizen creativity in solving problems.   These are bound to work best if they can tap into shared knowledge about facts, evidence and innovations.

With these in place, consciously and systematically organised, the city can start to think much more effectively about its common problems and common solutions.

None of these are substitutes for the many formal processes of negotiation and argument – about budgets, priorities, and laws. But they help to oil the wheels and ensure that the formal processes work much better.

My hope is that in the future it will seem strange that big cities lacked these linking mechanisms, relying on quite weak committees and advisory systems rather than making the connection of the city brain a core part of their job.  Hopefully, some variants of the ideas described here will become obvious and mainstream.

Cities are essentially vehicles for shared intelligence – by concentrating people and brains they make creativity and innovation possible.   But they now need to go a step further – to consciously organise the intelligence they need most, whether on pressing problems (from congestion to homelessness, crime to jobs) or new opportunities (growing business sectors or technologies).  In this way the city can become more like a brain – a true smart city – and at a cost far lower than many of the initiatives that described themselves with the ‘smart city’ label.

Example 1: Open Research Amsterdam

A first interesting place- based model is ‘Open Research Amsterdam’[i], which straddles the city administration and universities.  It describes itself as ‘a digital platform for research, knowledge and innovation about Amsterdam and the metropolitan region. Researchers (scientists, civil servants or others) publish their research on their own pages. This platform connects those pages, to show relations, to share knowledge and to facilitate collaboration.’

ORA systematically links supply and demand; engages with communities and municipalities to identity key needs and problems; mobilises research from universities; organises these together in clusters; is linked by 200 or so ‘editors’ whose job it is to orchestrate the knowledge and make it easily available.

It is overseen by the City’s Chief Scientist whose post straddles the city government and the universities and acts as chief editor.    She in turn connects a network of other city chief scientists who are beginning to establish themselves guiding cities on the many science-intensive issues they face, from clean air and decarbonisation to mental health.

This picture summarises some of the current projects, some on issues, some on particular places:



Example 2:  The London Collaborative

The London Collaborative[ii] brought together national government which controlled most public spending in the city; the Mayor and Greater London Assembly; and the 32 boroughs which were responsible for many key services such as education, in order to mobilise the knowledge resources of the city more effectively to solve problems – from long-term unemployment to cutting carbon.  It was jointly funded by the London peak bodies (national, city and borough governments), but run at arms-length by an NGO.



 The idea was to encourage more effective common problem-solving across the city through:

·       Joint events to create a community of leadership – with the 600-1000 or so leading public officials taking part in events together, some also involving business and civil society

·       Working groups cutting across all tiers focused on problem solving and innovation, specifically on workless households, retrofitting and behaviour change – drawing on the energy of younger officials, who then had to pitch ideas to groups of chief executives

·       Future oriented scans and events to forge consensus on major challenges and priorities

·       Events with universities to better align research work and city priorities, and ensure more efficient commissioning of research

·       A web space for collaboration

However, the London Collaborative was terminated when Boris Johnson became Mayor in 2008 and although there are many small scale initiatives in a similar space they are modest and none of the scale of the Collaborative.

Where next?

There are many other partial examples across the world, particularly in specific fields such as transport. But surprisingly few big cities have put in place the systematic structures needed to mobilise knowledge efficiently – and share it with those who need it.  Many spend huge sums on research:  publicly funded research in London, for example, amounts to nearly £2bn.  But no one owns the problem of organising and orchestrating knowledge to meet the needs of the city itself, and as a result no one can mobilise the far smaller sums needed to organise collaboratives and networks.  A similar pattern can be found in cities such as Berlin, Paris, New York and Los Angeles.


[I have worked in city government, national government and the European Commission, as well as in universities, and I’ve played roles in various bridging organisations.  This piece reflects that experience as well as some of my ideas about collective intelligence (covered in the book ‘Big Mind’ (Princeton UP, 2017), and about science and government (covered in the book ‘When Science Meets Power’ (Polity, 2024). I hope it sparks discussion – identification of good examples that could be built on and practical action]




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