4 ways in which cities transition to “city as a platform”

“We tend to think of government as doing things…but we should also think of government as a platform that lets things happen.” -Tim O’Reilly

I remember the first time someone explained the concept of an open source platform to me — “imagine the green board of a Lego kit, underneath is all the data from different sources, on top of that you can build anything you want, as long as it is it is informed by what is underneath — you don’t really have to figure that out; it’ll either fit on the blocks, or it won’t”. They were explaining an API for open source medical systems, but the analogy struck like lightning — because of course, on Lego boards we build the cities of our dreams!

(This is, of course, a radical overs-simplification of standards, taxonomies, architecture and governance).

Since then I’ve been writing and talking about this concept in different ways. As we “approached” Day Zero I was adamant that the days of local government for and of bulk service delivery (only) were over — the City needed to plan for enabling decentralised modes of delivery. Around the same time I was invited to be a panelist at an event where I was asked about the capabilities needed in the future of local government. I spoke about the ability to govern an interoperable platform — by being the provider of grids, regulating standards, collecting data, ensuring quality, and equity. I got a luke warm reception, while fellow panelists who trotted out the usual tropes about “political will” were well received.

I get it — how on earth do we transition to something so radically different, when our whole government system is built on the premise of providing bulk services to “customers”? And when we have major catastrophic today-problems like droughts, fires, homelessness, poor sanitation, violent crime, etc.

Privately run tech cities

Have you ever met someone who thinks that cities fully run by tech companies are the ideal future? I have. Complete with “membership levels” — “Prime” buys you access to certain parks, a special level of healthcare, based on which level of employment you have. (I never quite grasped how this was different from a formalised cast system).

And it’s not that implausible. Nevada have introduced a bill to allow tech companies to register as local governments.

In our context, perhaps it will happen partially — on the campuses of Amazon, within the boundaries of tech enabled private security estates, or through the proprietary deals struck by large tech companies with weak or dysfunctional governments, not fully capable of recognising that today’s IoT is tomorrow’s expensive licensed software update.

What’s this? An outlier, a distraction from pressing issues? Or competition for the rate payer base and a threat to the fundamental model? Or something to look at and adapt with proper public-good governance?

I first met Richard Gevers in 2014 for coffee after a fellow data geek insisted we know each other, after she had seen me present on open data and “responsive cities” at some or other tech event. Rich and I immediately bonded as “recovered economists” — having both earned our stripes as urban economists using traditional econonic methods and producing static reports. We both envisioned a world where people involved in planning and running cities had access to more dynamic tools on which to plan and respond; and in which citizens have transparent access and active inputs.

Soon he had launched Open Data Durban, now Open Cities Lab, and with the help of the legendary Kirsten Pearson, and others involved in the CivicTech space, we were engaged in various data related initiatives with National Treasury, and the metros they support and collaborate with.

My focus shifted (but always focused on Cities), but Rich and his team went deeper and wider and, in 2019 we were brought back together to work on the Future Cities South Africa programme.

Rich has re-ignited my belief that “city as a platform” is not only possible, but inevitable. And that it needs to be done within guiding principles of safety, transparency, democracy and accountability.

Below are some ideas on how cities in our context can practically transition to “city as a platform”. We get it — this is a lot to take in, and it can’t all be done at once. So what are the adjacent possibilities?

(There are many more — in informal settlements data and planning, for example, the Asivikelane programme is just the thin end of the wedge. I’ve chosen the below because each has an element where the wave is already crashing on the shore, so to speak — some element of private expansion, that if City governments don’t get on top of, they’ll be knocked out at the knees, and certainly some citizens taken out with them.)

Public Safety

Safety is so many people’s biggest concern, and it’s also a concern that is driving a reduction in freedoms — no longer walking or using public transport, being willing to allow CCTV a cameras all over our neighbourhoods with no real knowledge of where or how that data is used, etc. CCTV today can be programmed with incredible accuracy for facial recognition, identify people not wearing masks, riding bicycles or walking, identify by race, even determine moods. It is now also audio-visual. I recently encountered someone who was worried that the audio component would be programmed to trigger an arrest should he use “the k word”. This man also happened to be involved in the roll out of the technology among a private group of businesses; on a public street. If he was so comfortable with the K word, I was left wondering what sort of triggers they might use to exclude certain groups from the area…

While local governments do not have a policing mandate, public safety as an outcome can be achieved through many different types of interventions. Placemaking, walking buses, good urban management, playing music at taxi ranks, investing in social development and mental health, and indeed surveillance all come into play.

As surveillance technology is being rolled out by numerous private groups by volunteer clusters of neighbours, neighbourhood watches, CIDs, business forums, rate payers associations etc at a rapid pace.

This is a space in which City governments could play a strong role — providing an interoperable platfrom, connecting the systems together, but also providing strong regulatory standards to minimize harm and ensure that these systems are not abused to exclude or create a CCTV apartheid.

Digital Urban Management and Budgets — CIDs2.0

CIDs are interesting vehicles. Through a special rates collection mechanism, a budget is transferred to an organisation that is governed by a board, elected by the community, to implement a set of programmes that that community must approve.

Sounds an awful lot like participatory budgeting doesn’t it?

It really could be. This is something I’d like to write a little bit more about — because we aren’t there yet — CIDs in Cape Town operate in vastly different ways, and implement programmes with very different mechanisms and outcomes.

They are all governed by the same by-law, and required to make the same information about their membership, governance, budgets, plans and meetings available online.

There is also potential for them to be established in many areas — there are 47 CIDs in Cape Town alone, with many other areas applying, and CIDs in Durban, Joburg and by-laws allowing CIDs in other municipalities. While the current mechanism relies on a rates base; I wonder (alloud) why areas without the ability to pay (let’s do a proper mapping of this?) couldn’t be given an urban management “allowance”?

Around the world, CIDs are going digital — digital tools for communicating with residents about service complaints, for communicating about City departments about service delivery, for tracking waste; storm water, movement in and out of areas for business information (let’s make It accessible to informal businesses too) etc.

How about a City that creates platforms for digital services and engagement that makes sense for all of these organisations and then growing number of communities they serve?

Energy Coops

How long do you need to subsidise energy to a household before it would have been better to give them a capital loan/investment into an energy source?

There’s a false dichotomy in the energy debate at the moment between big IPPs outside of the urban edge, distributed via the network to all households, some paying and some subsidised (the favored model by traditional government — as — services thinkers) and fully decentralised models where each household has a tiny cheap solar panel on its roof that barely boils a kettle (the strawman representing the “decentralization” or “alternative service delivery” side).

City as a platform in this space would see the City creating service standards, investing in technology solutions for theft or on-sell (similar to DSTV only working where it’s meant to); allowing for REFITs so that people’s energy contributes to the grid when it’s not needed and they take from the grid when needed; and empowering shareholdership in utility scale micro grids, within the urban edge.

(With costs of installation compared to mega sites; this may indeed not be preferable… but I like to keep challenging us to think our way out of forever cross-subsiding models, and into models of direct ownership of means of energy production, if at all possible… perhaps eventually that shareholdership becomes worth something even more to a household.)

Structural change

Ok, so these ideas are not actually that easy. And this one isn’t either — to really transition to City as Platform, Cities must invest in internal culture hubs that are training officials to think differently about the future, to anticipate these new trends and become comfortable with digital and data skills. And that does not mean (only) hiring a bunch of techies. It will include people who are astute in thinking about the potential harms of technology; of data bias and knowing when to enable and when to regulate.

These structural changes are also about the fundamental “business” of local government.

Local governments money through land use management, and the provision of consumptive services. City as a platform disrupts this fundamentally — with a new balance in the core functions between provision, enable and regulate; and much more enable and regulate.

Doing away with outdated business models, slimming them down, getting in place transparent and fair governance for new functions will take time, investment and careful monitoring of impacts. A lot of learning by doing, and learning along with other cities on the same journey. And indeed, good old “political will” ;).

Archive of thoughts. Imperfect, incomplete and not assumed to be my final position. My actions speak louder than my words. Learn more: https://jodi.city