To get an edge in a highly competitive global market place, having the reputation for being innovative goes a long way. National governments are acutely aware of the impact of perception and are taking steps to foster a culture of innovation.

Future Cities Catapult is the UK government’s innovation and technology centre, tasked with advancing urban innovation, growing UK businesses, and making cities better.

“We are interested in how data and design can improve cities. By bringing different actors together who may not otherwise meet, such as academia, the public and private sectors, and citizens, we can develop new ways of thinking about the city,” says Head of Projects Stefan Webb.

The focus of Future Cities Catapult may be innovation, but what does this oft-used word mean in practice?

“Innovation is about a new way of doing things, it’s about trying things that haven’t been tried before,” says Stefan. “I prefer the term experimentation, as innovation comes only after you’ve experimented.”

Many cities desire the mantle of ‘innovative’, but few are willing to invest in innovation because of the inherent risks involved. Future Cities Catapult aims to bridge that gap, lessening the risk for cities and businesses and allowing them to try new things in a safe environment.

“Part of the challenge is that for many businesses and cities it feels overly risky to carry out that experimentation phase, which can hamper innovation,” says Stefan.

“To become more innovative cities should experiment, but also draw on experimenters within their midst. Oftentimes cities aren’t thinking about local academic or civic institutes, which likely have greater technical expertise as to how to use open data, for example. These kinds of institutions, which operate between the bureaucratic boundaries of a city authority, can provide a sort of safe space for innovation.”

The smarticipate platform is reliant on open data, but not all European cities have embraced the concept. Many local governments point to the administrative burden of opening data as the root of their reluctance, while others cite security and privacy issues. But is open data necessary for a city to be innovative? Stefan says that the answer is more complicated than simply whether a city makes open data available or not.

“For the last years the mantra has been to open up your data and the market or citizens will use that data to fix problems. At times you have an abdication of duty by public authorities. In some cases it’s been an uphill task to get local governments to open data – they may open the data when it’s simple to do so, but if it’s more difficult or sensitive or not in as good quality as they’d like, they haven’t done so. It’s led to cities saying ‘here’s what we can do cheaply’ and giving it to the market. I’m an advocate of more proactive open data approaches. There’s a need for different groups to argue what needs to be open and to say what they could do with it once it’s open.

“My personal view is that there is a correlation between open data and city innovation. Public authorities should be more proactive in curating open data and setting challenges around ways that open data could be used.”

Stefan believes that it is possible for cities both in the UK and the rest of Europe to find cost-effective ways to improve open data. One of the most effective ways is partnering with an SME or NGO that has experience with open data and that can work with the public authority to get the most out of it.

“When it comes to investing in open data, it is important but there needs to be a business case behind it. That’s why the model of partnering with an agency that has the core skills as part of its business can help to alleviate costs – essentially outsourcing it to an SME that is civic-minded rather than paying a tech company to set up an open data platform and then leave,” says Stefan.

“Too often open data becomes the plaything of only geeky people! Government needs to build broader coalitions across business and academic and the public sector, making it clear that there are mainstream benefits as well as niche benefits.”

Citizen participation is at the heart of smarticipate, which works on the principle that the more people involved in and commenting on the urban planning process, the more successful and accepted the process is likely to be.

This positive perception of citizen involvement is not held by all local governments, however, many of whom prefer to leave projects solely in the hands of experts

This approach is outdated, says Stefan: “Planners may need to give up a bit of power and play a more curatorial role or commissioning role, and for many that’s a change of mindset. Once you open up a process to citizen involvement, you have to understand that that involvement can lead to change.”

“It is, however, necessary for ‘experts’ to check proposals in terms of feasibility,” he adds. “To my mind it’s about subsidiarity, the idea that all decisions should be taken at the lowest level appropriate.”

Stefan is positive towards the smarticipate platform, as he’s “absolutely for citizen involvement in urban planning.”

“There a number of factors to citizen involvement,” he says. “One is the digital divide – if you want to engage in planning it’s currently designed for those who operate in an analogue world: if you’re used to looking at posters on lampposts and copying down who to write to, then the system works for you. If you’re of a younger demographic and used to doing tasks online, then it’s less open to you.

“Another factor is how planning is communicated. There is often little done to communicate what planning is and what impact it might have, so there is a great opportunity to better engage citizens in this regard.

“There is value in moving from shallow engagement to more co-design, because that provides buy-in, local knowledge and context.”

For more information, visit the Future Cities Catapult website, or watch this short video.