Governing sustainable urban innovation: navigating the generic and specific.

In many UK towns and cities the search for responses to climate change is framed by extant urban fabrics and thus favour incumbent technologies and actors associated with these.  For example, road networks which favour motorised vehicles have almost inevitably directed sustainable transport innovation toward electric vehicles produced by established vehicle manufacturers.  Indeed, rendering transport sustainable through the ‘smart’ electrification of extant systems and infrastructures seems to be the leitmotif of contemporary sustainable transport initiatives. And now, multiple urban experiments have been established in many UK towns and cities to further develop EV charging infrastructures and prepare for significant increases in electric vehicle uptake.  In most instances, experimental activity aims to improve the transport system of the urban area in which the experiment is situated and in the second to develop technologies and management practices which can be used in other places, or in other words, can be upscaled.

Do such initiatives represent progress?  On one hand incumbent actors can access considerable resources and thus hold significant potential to rapidly respond to climate change at scale, e.g. to rapidly decarbonise road transport networks through electric vehicle adoption. On the other hand, such projects serve to illustrate two potentially pejorative phenomena.  Firstly, solutionism – within such initiatives incumbent actors use exclusive technical language in exclusive governance forums to define a problem for which they have a ‘near at hand’ technology, e.g. electric vehicles.  Here the status quo which helped cause the problem of climate change is maintained and the use of exclusive technical languages means local populations are potentially excluded from debates about sustainable transport in towns and cities and may not ‘own’ the initiatives they generate.  Second, universalism – electric vehicle charging innovations developed in one location can be upscaled and applied in others.  Thus such approaches potentially exclude diverse non technologically focused innovations which may respond to particular sustainability challenges in towns and cities.

Governance actors need to navigate the complex field between trajectories of technologically focused scalable innovation led by incumbent actors and the need to generate specific solutions to locally defined sustainability challenges in which local populations have a stake.  This situation harks back to the mid twentieth century planning debates between Lewis Mumford, who argued for grand visions and scalable planning solutions, and Jane Jacobs who argued that the essence of sound planning could be found in local actions.  Over time, planning experiences have shown that neither position is inherently wrong or locked into a zero sum game whereby an increased emphasis on one leads to a corresponding decrease in the other. Rather taken in the round, with a healthy dose of pragmatism, both generic scalable and local particular solutions are needed to respond to urban ills, such as the challenges of climate change.

Thus wise urban governance is needed to know when incumbent actors with all their resources and power should generate scalable solutions, and when community led specific responses to climate change should be fostered as a complement or substitute to these.  The pathway toward such desirable governance futures is unlikely to merely lie in drawing on smart city data but in the collective intelligence and wisdom of planners gained through practical action.

This is a joint blog post drawing on research led by Professor Matthew Cook and Dr Miguel Valdez.






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