Urban Innovation - is it more than a buzzword?

Updated: Dec 11, 2019

The Urban Innovation and Policy Lab is ending 2019 with reflection how we define and think about urban innovation – a term often linked to grand challenges or technological imaginaries of urban futures, but also rapidly rising as a nebulous contemporary buzzword in policy-making. Prompted by a blog post from Bloomberg Cities with leading thinkers defining city innovation, Lab members gathered for a seminar to discuss how we think about the essence, opportunities and challenges of urban innovation in our own work.

The short pitches below from STEaPP faculty, Doctoral Candidates, MPA students and Lab-affiliated researchers at the Business of Cities cover a wide range of issues, ranging from innovation policy approaches, nature-based solutions, spaces of the urban innovation economy, and the power of technological innovation for both strengthening and eroding equity and social justice in the city. Urban innovation can be more than a buzzword if researchers and practitioners can find ways to collaborate, and reflect on its role in producing public value.

Cities hold huge potential for progress, but only if we address the pitfalls of innovation policy

Jen McArthur

Lecturer, UCL STEaPP

Most cities have a long list of things that could be improved, in everything from cultural policy to clean water and garbage collections. So while few people would argue that we don't need innovation, many cities need to confront an uncomfortable reality - the policies and public investments spurred by the promise of innovation have often failed to question who benefits, and to what end? As a result, we have highways that divide communities, driverless cars that aren’t designed to detect jaywalkers, and smart cities that pose serious privacy risks. Innovation can be recovered as a way to improve quality of life and prosperity for large, diverse urban populations. To learn from the pitfalls of innovation policy, this must start with honest conversations about who will benefit from innovation and how to avoid technology-led solutions.

Urban innovation can’t ‘save the planet’ alone, but municipal experimentation is crucial for exploring responses to the Climate Crisis

Emilia Smeds

PhD Candidate, UCL STEaPP

In the 21st century, great expectations have been placed on cities – particularly when it comes to addressing climate change in the context of slow international and national action. Climate diplomacy driven by Mayors has been accelerating over the last decade, and since the Rio Earth Summit, city governments across the world have been experimenting with retrofitting urban energy, waste and transport systems to reduce GHG emissions. 28 years later, however, we have to look back and admit that even in cities, change has been slow. With the declaration of Climate Emergencies and Green New Deals now on the table, in the 2020s we will have to explore new approaches to accelerate transitions towards urban climate justice.

This means asking some hard questions: we need to accurately diagnose the current limits to urban climate action, in order to work to overcome them. While there is a lot of focus on innovative urban policies – particularly low-carbon technologies – spreading through city networks, thus bypassing national governments, we need to pay more attention to what extent urban and national policies really link up. However, we may also not have time to wait for perfect policy coordination to be achieved. The world is on course to fail to meet the 1.5 degree climate target, and thus municipal governments need to and will be taking independent action. This is why we need to support municipalities in lobbying national government for greater fiscal and political autonomy where necessary, or effective funding for urban areas within large-scale state investment programmes.

In 2019, mass social movements such as the Climate Strike student movement and Extinction Rebellion shifted the Overton Window on climate change, at least in the UK. 2020 will be a year presenting opportunities for researchers and policy-makers to discuss the future of urban climate innovation, such as municipal ownership in relation to infrastructure. This time around, urban innovation will need to be system innovation.

A wealth of urban innovation will come through a renewed connection with the environment

Carla Washbourne

Lecturer, UCL STEaPP

As a species we are fascinated by novelty (a topic of research interest for some time) and throughout history have made both wondrous discoveries and terrible mistakes in the pursuit of new and exciting things. Technological innovation in particular has improved our lives in so many ways but has also, arguably, made us more and more confined to human-built and digital worlds. It is one of the key mechanisms disconnecting us from, and causing mounting damage to the environment.

There are many excellent projects around the world seeking to (re)establish the importance of nature as a key part of urban life and provide opportunities to (re)connect those living in urban areas with it. The inspiring London National Park City activities in London, UK have set nature access as one of their key aims, and there are mounting calls from environmental NGOs to alert urban dwellers that nature experience is critical to our personal mental and physical health and wellbeing particularly for young people. But it goes much further than that; urban nature can also play a role in connecting heavily developed spaces to our wider environment and providing a focus for building social connections.

‘Innovation’ can sometimes be found in the considered and intentional return to a previous state, from which we have so largely detached that it becomes new. Successful future cities will take a more mindful view on the ways in which policy and practice generate our built, technological and social worlds and how these interface with the wider, and wilder(!), natural environment.

The innovation economy will transform the relationship between urban business, citizens and built form

Jake Nunley

Senior Research Associate, The Business of Cities

Dozens of cities on every continent are adapting their physical urban fabric to accommodate what's known as the innovation economy. There are already more than 500 urban locations that seek to concentrate talent and technology through optimising density, variety of amenities and land uses and co-ordination between different stakeholders and land owners – from Singapore’s One North to 22@ in Barcelona – and this number is set to grow even further.

The next decade should see cities develop a more nuanced approach to understanding what the innovation economy really is, which types of urban environments are really conducive to it, and what kinds of public policy interventions are appropriate. There is still a great deal to discover about the synergies and trade-offs between so-called ‘smart cities’ and innovation eco-systems. And there are also a whole host of implications both for how innovation businesses engage in city governance and how governments experiment with new land use regulations, platforms for citizen engagement and coalitions with other types of stakeholder to optimise the innovation economy’s effects on cities and communities.

Getting real about the dead weight “creative” spaces in cities

Tuukka Toivonen

Honorary Senior Lecturer, UCL STEaPP

In just a decade and a half, cities around the world have been quietly transformed by the rapid growth of the urban workspaces sector. By the end of 2019, Deskmag estimates that nearly 2.2 million people will work in approximately 22,000 coworking spaces globally, of which around 800 are operated by the troubled WeWork, reportedly the single largest private tenant in London and New York. This is up from virtually zero in 2005. There are also a myriad of makerspaces, accelerators, labs, incubators and other hub organisations that together comprise what some call the sector of ‘creative spaces’. But what if we’ve been sold a dud? What if the majority of (self-proclaimed) creative spaces amount to little more than a real estate ploy sucking resources away from impactful innovation activity? Are workspace companies acting as value extractors – selling passive 'holding spaces' for people lured in by promises of entrepreneurial buzz and community – while refusing to live up to their potential as genuine catalysts of diverse types of innovative work?

In the next 5-10 years, cities will need to work closely with researchers and experts to demand all manner of innovative spaces to evidence their 'creative value added'. This will require holistic community strategies, new toolkits (that can capture various intangible benefits) and transparent benchmarks. City leaders are in a position to incentivise the creation of a credible evidence base, collaboratively improving the quality of the entire sector while guarding its diversity and openness.

Overcoming the problem of dead weight spaces will result in dramatically better urban infrastructures for emerging entrepreneurs, mobile employees and freelancers alike, pointing the way towards future innovation economies that can be trusted to deliver public value.

‘Tech for Good’ will flourish, enabled by new platforms and financing

Naomi Black


An index has become a common tool to ignite a bit of healthy competition between cities and the latest addition came this June in the form of a European Digital Social Innovation Index (EDSII). This particular tool has an impressive offering underneath it, in the DigitalSocial.EU platform and its library of case studies. Launched in 2017, it is an important knowledge transfer and networking tool for a disparate field.

However, the barriers to maximum impact for the sector are also systemic ones, including funding and digital skills shortages. Fortunately, there are also helpful trends on the horizon in the UK, with good performance of socially-minded Venture Capital firms such as Bethnal Green Ventures, municipal governments embracing DSI project grants and research-intensive universities doubling down on their enterprise ecosystems. If this momentum can be harnessed by city leaders and policy-makers, then Tech for Good will flourish in the long-term.

Wearable devices in Chinese cities: increasing efficiency, violating privacy?

Yiying Qian

PhD Candidate, UCL STEaPP

The proliferation of wearable devices provides new opportunities for performance evaluation of public services by real-time data collection. However, experimental applications in China show unintended consequences and have aroused extensive public discussion about their effectiveness and potential harms.

In Nanjing, wearable devices worn by street cleaners send a voice message telling workers to 'cheer up', if they detect a lack of movement within a 20-minute time period. Some workers may fail performance measurement due to their ‘insufficient distance’ covered.

In another case, wearable devices were procured as a replacement for student cards by a Guangzhou middle school. Although it is claimed that the device only collects data in class, these expensive gadgets have been criticised for potential privacy violation.

These examples reflect a lack of regulatory capacity, as regulators fail to balance the intended and unintended consequences brought by technological innovations – a major challenge for contemporary regulators.

Innovating to realise accessible and barrier-free cities for all

Xiaolu Zhang

MPA Candidate, UCL STEaPP

Urban innovation provides solutions for infrastructure managers to respond and adjust policies quickly in dynamic cities. By collecting and analysing data, with policy innovation, infrastructure services can be delivered more efficiently and equitably. For example, we must provide more barrier-free facilities to reduce the inconvenience of the disabled and the elderly. It is a must for urban planners and policymakers to collaborate with associations for people with disabilities. We need to make sure that accessible design standards are revised in time. For instance, there is an ongoing debate in Shanghai about what kind of electric wheelchair is to be permitted to enter metro carriages. Considering that existing regulations lack specification on drive modes, size and other aspects of emerging electric wheelchairs and other equipment, relevant regulations are needed to modify to better serve citizens with special mobility needs.