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Unprogrammable Cities and the Department of Possibilities

It has often been said that cities are the ultimate serendipity engines – and this is what makes them such magnetic innovation hotspots. Yet the prevailing “smart cities” paradigm conjures up the promise of a programmable city where nothing is left to chance. The perceived safety and precision of data driven forecasts and surveillance technology leave little room for unpredictability. And yet, the more we understand of the innovation process, the more we realise that it has little to do with linearity. Innovation is best understood as a probability game: the chances of a problem finding a solution, but also, importantly, the other way around. “Research funding is already a lottery: let’s make it explicit” proudly states the website of the Volkswagen Foundation (who have decided to assign research grants on a random basis arguing it leads to better results than through traditional selection processes). This logic is of course particularly difficult for planners to accept. Smart cities, in this sense, seem to be designed to reduce the options for innovation, rather than augmenting them.

Accepting the unpredictable nature of innovation also means acknowledging that it is a phenomenon interspersed throughout the urban fabric and that innovation potential is distributed across citizens. It is not the exclusive purview of universities or technology parks, of innovation districts, or islands for the happy few like the headquarters of the Silicon Valley giants.

Imagine, then:

  • A municipal “department of possibilities” – just like the recently launched Ministry of Possibilities in the UAE or the City of Bologna’s Office of Civic Imagination. This would be a place dedicated to exploring options that are left open once the “unprogrammable city” paradigm is accepted: from spatial planning that can foster serendipitous encounters to rethinking municipal procurement so that it can unlock new possibilities (rather than reducing them), to a policy of attracting investments that can help unlock “adjacent possibles”.

  • Collecting data not for massive profiling, performance dashboards or “sentiment analysis” but to identify emergent, citizen driven innovations and empower civic innovators to connect and build on their early stage solutions through dedicated platforms. Amsterdam’s Citizens Data Lab follows a 1:9:90 heuristics: it assumes that 1% of citizens have already identified the next generation of urban solutions and uses data analytics to identify them to harness their collective intelligence.

  • “Innovation mirrors” scattered throughout the city to reflect back to individual neighbourhoods what is known about innovation emerging from that locality and engage citizens in discussions about strategies for fostering inclusive innovation. This could be paired up with the equivalent of the “innovation walks” of the National Innovation Foundation in India, where policymakers are encouraged to go out and document citizen hacks rather than asking for their needs.

  • Innovation districts designed to reduce inequality rather than increase it (has often been the case) by unleashing the power of local imaginaries, like in the case of Camden AltDev.

Ultimately, embracing the serendipitous nature of innovation is a lesson in humility and a public acknowledgement of the vulnerability of even the best laid plans. Could this be one of the ways for city planners to regain the trust of their citizens?