Smart Governance and Place-based Leadership

Today, more than ever, cities need to adopt participatory and innovative forms of governance to address increasingly complex urban development challenges.

It is estimated that 5 billion people will live in cities by 2030 and the total built up area of world cities is expected to double. These phenomena alone make cities the key focus of sustainable development discussions. What is often offered as “the north star” to address this challenge is the smart city. However, there is growing concern that smart cities tend to lead to a more technocratic way of governing. They focus too much on technology and not enough on people, places and institutions.

Taking the “place-based ecosystem” view of cities enables us to show that the ‘success’ of smart city projects depends on innovative governance practices that foster collaboration across all interested parties and sectors to create their city’s future together. This way we can define success as providing a high quality of life for all.

“The future city vision requires a major transformation in the way that we design and manage our cities and urban neighbourhoods.”

Future cities can be defined as sustainable citizen-centric places with thriving inclusive economies, integrated and seamless transportation, accessible education and healthcare facilities, low-carbon, efficient and resilient infrastructure, affordable housing, and a vibrant, liveable and nature positive environment.  Achieving this future city vision requires a major transformation in the way that we design and manage our cities and urban neighbourhoods.

While smart cities are key enablers in transforming today’s cities into future cities, they are more likely to be successful if they are accompanied by innovative governance strategies. The need for innovative governance has become even more important in today’s knowledge-driven innovation economies and digitally savvy and socially responsible societies. More and more citizens are expecting their city leaders to design and deliver integrated urban policies: they are demanding a far greater level of joined-up actions. Local transformation in this new era requires networking and cooperation among various players, entrepreneurship and partnerships. This in turn means having an innovation-driven, user-centred, and multi-stakeholder take on urban governance.

In view of the foregoing, it becomes an imperative to explore how innovative governance strategies can enable cities to nurture their local ecosystems and to build on their strengths. Successful smart cities have been able to work together with stakeholders and local communities by adopting innovative governance practices which are more suitable for fostering innovation. They have been able to develop plans, attract resources, create solutions and partnerships to speed up the application of sustainable measures in order to offer better quality of life for their citizens.

Some examples of these practices are: shared governance, citizen-centric e-governance, platforms for policy intelligence, co-creation, self-organisation, urban living labs. They all involve experimentation and collaboration with local stakeholders. They support collaborative planning, citizen participation and coordination of the efforts at different levels: inter-organizational, cross-sectorial, or through the government-citizen relationship.

“Creating people-centric cities places responsibility for realising the future city vision at every level of government.”

While an integrated urban policy can help cities bring all actors together around a city’s priorities, its successful implementation on the ground often depends on how cities work effectively as a part of broader regional, national, and international networks. A more transformative approach to local governance should be based on networking, breaking barriers between organisations, and integration and cooperation of different sectors. Creating people-centric cities therefore places responsibility for realising the future city vision at every level of government. In particular, city leaders are tasked with the challenging job of securing a consensus for the future direction of the city.

This is where place-based leadership can become a crucial part of the solution. Cities need to show proactive place-based leadership to seize global opportunities for their citizens and to establish meaningful partnerships with all tiers of government, the private sector and academia. On the ground, this means that city leaders are at the forefront of choreographing the development efforts. They need to establish a balance between the various interests of multiple urban actors to deliver the future city vision.

“An ability to inspire a quest for the future city vision and to forge a stronger cooperation within and beyond the city borders are key skills for today’s city leaders”

This emphasis on the place-based leadership concept is an important one. Because it demonstrates the need to reconsider our understanding of local government leadership today and into the future. It shows that focusing on quality of life challenges city leaders to rethink the system and the type of cities we want for the future. It brings out that, in order to deliver the required transformation, city leaders need to overcome barriers to change, create and nurture new partnerships with different actors, enable new ideas for service delivery to flourish, and test innovative solutions coming from external actors.

Indeed, there is an overwhelming need for strong place-based leadership. As city leaders embrace their new role of advocates for integrated local solutions, they will need to develop new skills. The ability to inspire the future city vision and forge a stronger cooperation within and beyond the city borders are essential skills for today’s city leaders. They need to start smart city strategies from the knowledge base of the city, from its society and stakeholders. They need to adopt innovative governance strategies enabling bottom-up innovation, experimentation and collaborative planning and participation practices. They need to build on the local characteristics which give them a comparative advantage in order to create a genuinely smart city.

Arzu Ulusoy Shipstone

Based on the study presented at the PSU Sustainability Conference on 21st February 2022

Special thanks to Center for Local Governance to support the development of this study.