Why future-proofing cities needs trust and collaboration

Cities are looking for innovative ways to prepare for an uncertain future, including nature-based solutions, community engagement and driverless buses. Speakers at our World Café event explain how it’s done in the UK, Europe and South America.

In the face of complex and evolving global crises, those who plan, design and manage our cities need practical skills and approaches to future-proof decisions about urban change.

Our second Future of Cities event, hosted by Arup, heard real-world case studies from cities across Europe, in South America and in the UK.

Insight gathered from this highly interactive event focused on what we can learn from the other cities we heard from and how we apply that knowledge to London. Our findings were crowd-sourced from the audience and point to actions to help us prepare for a better, more inclusive and sustainable capital city.

The result was a rich exchange of learning between future urban leaders, helping to kickstart longer-term connections between London and other global cities.

What skills and capabilities do future urban leaders need?

Our research has identified key skills and capabilities that the people who plan, design and manage our cities need to develop – and priority issues that global cities are looking to address:

Skills and capabilities Issues
Resilience Digital innovation and data
Agility Community
Collaboration Connection to nature
Systems thinking Equality and equity
Trust Affordability
Learning culture Resource use

Each speaker presented an innovative example of how they have addressed one of these issues by applying one or more of the skills and capabilities we identified.

Collaboration

  • Daniel Clarke, Head of Technology and Innovation, Greater Cambridge Partnership, UK: collaboration in digital innovation and data.
  • Linda Gustafsson, Gender Equality Officer, Umeå Municipality, Sweden: collaboration and gender equality.

Resilience

  • Nicole Tarrio, Associate Landscape Architect, Arup, UK/Peru: resilience and connection to nature.

Systems thinking

  • Katja Sjöholm, Head of Co-creation and Innovation, Strategy and Development Unit, City of Espoo, Finland: systems thinking and digital innovation and data.

Trust

  • James Jones, Partner, Sheppard Robson, UK: trust and community.
  • Roland van der Heijden, Program Manager, Digital City Rotterdam, Netherlands: trust and digital innovation and data.

The lead moderator was Bridget Wilkins, Head of Adoption, Engagement and Innovation, Digital Planning, Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, UK.

These are the key themes that emerged from the six presentations and discussions that followed each. You can read more about how we gathered the insights below.

Long-term thinking, persistence and resilience

Long-term planning for city infrastructure and operations is vital in the face of the climate emergency. We must also recognise that cultural shifts and systemic change take time and require persistence.

Starting with smaller interventions and then scaling up pilot projects can help gather data for informed decision making and allow for experimentation.

For example, we heard how the Greater Cambridge Partnership has worked with Cambridge University and industry partners to deliver an initial early-stage trial of a driverless automated bus. This is part of a wider goal to encourage people to use public transport and reduce congestion. This project is now expanding to four vehicles on two sites in the city.

Projects often require longer timelines than initially anticipated, and enduring partnerships are essential for achieving sustainable and impactful outcomes. With the challenge of securing long-term funding for community projects, it’s important to build a case for collaborative approaches that demonstrate lasting benefits.

The creation of an independent established user group of young people was a key success factor of the Contact Theatre in Manchester, as James explained. They built long-term connections and dialogue between the community they represent and the project to upgrade the theatre. This was pivotal in building trust.

Nature-based approaches in urban planning can enhance resilience against extreme weather. These can help to lower temperatures, improve air quality, collect polluted water and mitigate the impact of flooding. Overall, they will help to create a more robust and responsive city infrastructure for the future,

In Peruvian cities, Nicole explained, the imminence of another extreme weather pattern following on from El Niño means that nature-based solutions are often implemented much more quickly than in European countries.

Challenging norms

Attendees told us that the event encouraged them to reflect on their roles as advocates for positive change. Creating equitable and sustainable cities often requires bold moves to challenge existing power dynamics and societal norms.

In practice, this could mean transforming the hierarchical structure of council administration and funding allocation to support a service-orientated model. This idea focuses on the integration of municipal services – both digital and physical – with community collaboration to frame the whole city as a large-scale service system. We heard how the City of Espoo is taking forward this approach.

Equality must be integrated into all aspects of city planning and development rather than being treated as an add-on. Linda showed how Umeå puts gender equality at the centre of planning and regeneration processes throughout the municipality.

The role of reliable data is vital here in being able to clearly understand disparities. Moreover, it’s also essential in providing supporting evidence of the need for structural change.

Flexibility and clarity in governance

The event revealed alternative urban governance structures and policies that prioritize gender equality, community involvement and transparency. Governance structures must be adaptable enough to accommodate changes in politics, society and culture.

Effective governance involves the active participation of the wider community. Similarly, clear agreements, decision-making processes, accountability and expectations are essential when working with many stakeholders.

Collaboration and partnership building

Collaboration means creating a shared worldview. But dialogue between public authorities, universities, the private sector, community organizations and residents must take place on equal terms. This is essential to build trust and foster innovation. Roland explained how this approach is embedded in the work of Digital City Rotterdam.

Collaboration is a skill we constantly need to practise. Effective participation and shared decision-making demand skills and training in facilitation and communication.

To be truly collaborative, public services and planning and design processes must prioritise co-design and co-creation with citizens. This is especially important when designing services and places for underrepresented groups like young people. It helps to ensure these are inclusive and responsive to community needs.

Driving projects and innovation forward requires building coalitions of interest among diverse groups. Furthermore, we need new metrics based on the effectiveness of collaboration and outcomes for the community, rather than the traditional KPIs of production, output and cost.

The event concluded with reflections on the responsibility of urban leaders and city makers to drive positive change while ensuring that no one is left behind.

How did we gather insight?

At ‘city stations’ dotted around the room, the six different speakers gave quick-fire online or remote live presentations.

Participants moved from station to station, on a fast-paced virtual journey covering the equivalent of 18,000 kilometres around the globe.

This tried-and-tested format ‘world café’ format can be a highly productive method of gathering input. Similarly, it can bring together and highlight diverse voices in the exchange of ideas.

Attendees took an active role in developing insight by answering three questions on a Slido after visiting each city station. These asked:

  • What they learned about the project.
  • How the skill or capability/approach was applied effectively.
  • How these learnings could be applied in London or to their work/organisation.

What did our attendees learn?

Our research questions eventually generated more than 250 individual responses from attendees on the day.

In the event’s spirit of innovation, we asked ChatGPT to help analyse all the survey responses and audience Q&A from the perspective of an early to mid-career built environment professional. Informed by this AI output, we provided the key learnings from all the presentations.

Our Future of Cities research programme looks for inspiration beyond London and asks how built environment professionals can futureproof their projects. Look out for more events by signing up to our newsletter. If you have an idea for a theme you’d like us to focus on next, please email Sarah.

Future of Cities is supported by Arup and Sheppard Robson.