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TEAMS OF TEAMS, RAILWAYS NOT SANDWICHES

In ‘Ill Fares the Land’, Tony Judt essentially, if not quite literally, wrote, “Don’t privatise railways, don’t nationalise sandwiches”.



With one fell swoop, Judt gave us a tool for sorting decisions about many things, including cities. Railways versus sandwiches questions the ownership of meaningful assets, values, and decisions. It suggests where the dynamics of the market are best deployed – the sandwiches end of things – and where the idea of public value, shared ownership and civic governance is just too important, valuable and, frankly, complex to be left to the simplified heuristics of the private sector.



Yet the last thirty years clearly saw a very different ideology locked in place, to hugely damaging effect. Deregulation, and the outsourcing of capability, intelligence and responsibility, meant the active loosening or dissolution of public governance in favour of market solutions, in railways, yes, but also housing, energy, mobility, and pretty much everything else.



In his essay ‘Down to Earth’, Bruno Latour directly links the deregulation that Judt was railing against to both “a dizzying extension of inequalities” and climate change denial, as three entwined phenomena, accelerating from the 1980s onwards until today’s looming realisation that we have entered some kind of endgame.



Perhaps this sensation of an endgame is created not simply by the obvious and tangible effects of climate change and inequality around us, but also this broader point: that it’s easier than ever to see that the private sector cannot do the public sector’s job, particularly in cities, where things happen. Given the nature of the problems, and opportunities, we now face, as citizens in global cities, it is time to use every possibility to rebuild a sense of ‘publicness,’ to make the case for shared and civic values rather than private, individualistic ones, and so to better tackle these shared wicked problems.



Addressing Latour’s troublesome trio, this means largely rejecting deregulation in order to fix the other two. More fundamentally, it means a re-constructed municipal government capability of the highest calibre, which designs and crafts regulation with societal outcomes in mind, informed by active, direct engagement with, and ownership of, the core infrastructures of everyday life. This means no more outsourcing of the railway end of things, in Judt’s formulation. It means using every major urban opportunity to build up municipal capabilities in 21st century urban design and planning, in service design and design research, in data science and platform design, in total budgeting and system financing, and in participative, cooperative and shared governance – enabled by, and enabling in turn, a powerfully-engaged municipal government at its core. Easy!



This will not be easy, of course – but then as Donnella Meadows said, “I don’t think there are cheap tickets to systems change.” Fortunately, there are numerous precedents for this municipal innovation, building on the high- profile examples of Barcelona’s exemplary BCN Digital City Plan or the UK’s Government Digital Service, as well as consolidating and supercharging of the hundreds of ‘city labs’, ‘policy labs’, ‘urban innovation teams’ and equivalent that now exist in cities, from Malmö to Mexico City, from Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics to NYC’s Planning Labs to the UK’s Public Practice. These, and the supporting of thousands of unknown ‘grey’ innovators, captured in Brian Eno’s repositioning of the idea of the bureaucrat: that they “are stabilising knowledge, keeping things running, and sometimes innovating quite radically.”



Only by integrating these capabilities in new city services, dissolving 20th century silos, can we envision, finance and produce the kind of joined-up, legible and trustable outcomes that are beyond the business-as-usual contracting-out of city life found in most privatised smart city projects.



Find the full essay at medium.com/@cityofsound