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Preparing Global Cities for a Dynamic Future: 5 Key Principles

David Wallerstein
Chief eXploration Officer, Tencent

Working with Tencent now for over 20 years, I often speak about the promise of new technologies in development, and the amazing global marketplace of passionate entrepreneurs. My title of “Chief eXploration Officer” only serves further to raise expectations to share ideas regarding the latest technologies and portfolio of solutions being built for humanity.

Yet, obstacles to progress have become more clear to me over time. Over the years, as I have had opportunities to meet more city leaders and administrators around the world, it has increasingly dawned on me that the relationship between city leaders and innovators is more typically like that of “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,”—to refer to the title of a book that showed how difficult it is for two different groups of people to communicate well with each of other.

It is now my view that this lack of dialogue, cooperation and integration is further endangering the planet, by delaying the progress that we must make to address critical challenges on the horizon.

Why make such a bold statement?

It is because I feel that we are witnessing—on a global scale—a low efficiency adoption and collaboration rate between city leaders who are facing greater and more complex challenges on one hand, and innovators who are trying to bring important solutions to market on the other, but lack critical feedback, projects, funding, initiatives, and dialogues to help validate their efforts, or instruction regarding where their efforts would be most valued. We end up with a global market failure with material consequences for the future.

What are some of these “challenges” to which I refer? They may vary on a global scale, but what we have seen very clearly in 2020 is the confluence of various crises exacerbated by climate change—e.g., drought, floods, wildfire, power outages, agricultural stress, locust swarms, air pollution—coinciding with a viral pandemic—i.e., COVID-19. Both are crises related to factors imposing themselves on human life from the natural world, and then permitted—or even exacerbated—by our failure to foresee the challenge or react in an efficient manner. Some regions around the world have even seen themselves battling these challenges simultaneously, such as the San Francisco Bay Area in the summer of 2020 dealing with COVID, wildfires, air pollution and power outages in existential “perfect storms.” Many regions will find themselves bouncing from crisis to crisis, dealing with a new playbook, year after year, as the natural world continues to impose its mighty force on humanity.

The key question is: how can we, as city leaders, better prepare to address these challenges? Is it possible to do a better job seeing into the future, and having more solutions at the ready to mitigate and potentially even snuff out the looming impacts?

Just as we have seen with the outbreak of COVID around the world, some cities, regions and nations do fare better than others. Some are able to “crush the curve” with a thoughtful web of initiatives and solutions, while others are less prepared and may even question the fundamental value of science to understand a virus. In 2020, the full range of potential leadership responses to a common enemy from the natural world has been on transparent display. One can see that initiatives, planning, processes and culture that take many years to foster in the making can indeed pay tangible dividends in a crisis. What we know is that in a world of a dynamic climate, steady ongoing urbanization, and growing human population globally, that these crises will continue to emerge, and it is more essential than ever to prepare.

Therefore, in considering a methodology for preparation, I believe it is essential to go “back to basics” and ensure that the 5 key principles below are embraced by city administrations globally, as a key starting point. These points are deceptively simple. However, even among the most progressive city administrations in the world, it is rare that all 5 are implemented. As you will see below, these points not only help city administrations identify and attack looming challenges, but they will also facilitate the essential function of harnessing the private sector and innovators with alignment and focus, and very well may stimulate economic growth and opportunity.

The 5 Key Principles

  1. Identify and target your city’s key short, medium, and long term challenges.

    The is the most obvious first step, but do you have an articulated “challenge targeting road map?” Could that challenge targeting roadmap be discussed with the public? What are the key existential challenges facing your city? Which are the challenges that cause concern, and need serious attention, but perhaps you still don’t understand well? It’s just as important to identify “poorly understood” challenge areas, because that becomes an invitation to experts and the public to engage in a process to better understand critical looming challenges and find solutions. An important concept here in Principle 1 is that this is not about having a solution already. One common approach is to only discuss a challenge when public support for a particular targeted solution is being pursued. This is putting the cart before the horse. All too often, the public may not like the proposed solution, may find it too expensive, untenable, and so forth. Now they have become more sceptical about the challenge area in the first place. The proposal herein is to identify the challenge and dive into the discovery and description of the key facts around the challenge FIRST (and being open to explore solutions in later phases). In short, goal 1 is to articulate challenges, embrace a process to understand them better, and flesh out the implications.

  2. Discuss those identified and targeted challenges with the public, to ensure they are aware and have an opportunity to take interest.

    Share the state of your understanding, and engage external experts in your research process. Educate the public with a campaign of supportive media (videos, websites, white papers, public talks, advertisements, etc). The public can understand and learn about the challenge as part of an evolving process, where city administrations do not have to show that they have all of the answers on day one, but rather that a challenge area has been identified and tackling the area will be a longer term engagement process. What is powerful about this step is that it can be a first opportunity to build a dialogue with previous unknown experts, scientists, innovators, solution providers, etc. When a city says that it is now committed to tackling a challenge, that sends out a message to the local and global community that it might be willing to engage to learn more and have a dialogue. With an education effort to familiarize the public, you may also encourage various experts and innovators, both locally and even from around the world, to get involved. Put conversely, without this public education step, an opportunity to get more people interested to work on this challenge area has been lost, and the market has not been catalyzed.

  3. Develop a specific process and budget to address those challenges.

    Having a process, and some kind of budget (however modest) to address a challenge is so important, because this becomes a foundation for learning, for making progress, for declaring publicly that the targeted issue will receive attention, and that concrete action will move beyond a new webpage or full page advertisement in the local newspaper. The city is saying that it will be engaging with experts and solutions providers to learn more, and there is a budget to further define the challenge and explore solutions. Again, an important point here is that the city is still NOT starting with the solution already in mind. The city is ready to hear more from the public, learn more about the challenge, including competing view points, and is rather leading a process that engages the public marketplace to bring forward the best solutions. As part of this process, the city can sponsor dialogues with start up companies, universities, hackathons, prizes, competitions, and other methods to be pitched on ideas. What is very interesting is that powerful solutions can often deploy novel and unexpected approaches. Science and technology can often surprise us in how a powerful solution may be hiding in plain site, and the true power may be in coordinating societal actors to work together at scale to achieve the best result. In short, be ready to embrace an unexpected solution. Stimulate and foster new processes that will help you discover them.

  4. Develop a fast track tendering process—I.e., a new “strategic approach” for accelerating the review, piloting and small scale implementation of discovered solutions.

    Ask any entrepreneur who has built a solution for city deployment, and they will likely say that one of the most difficult challenges was to interact with the city to try to figure out if there was any budget for their solution in the first place? Who is responsible for deciding? Where will the budget come from? That leader? “Oh, she has a new role.” “Ok, maybe there is some budget, but it will have to go through the usual tendering process” (by which time the start up will have surely run out of cash).

    The area of actually spending budget, and using a tendering process that can actually be helpful to start ups, is a key area where the relationship between cities and the private sector often break down. The “leviathan” of the bureaucracy becomes too difficult to navigate, and the city effectively positions itself as an unattractive customer. For start up companies, this can further damage a company’s prospects to raise more capital, or even just survive, as your city discussions drag on for months, no contract signed, no track record established, no cash flow to show that can help pay your operating expenses. In fact, for this very reason of not having a more market driven process for engaging the services of the private sector, many talented individuals will not select to provide solutions for the administrators of 55% of the human population (i.e., city governments) in the first place: because of that long difficult engagement road ahead.

    But this challenge area can be transformed to one of opportunity with a fast track tendering process in place. For your priority areas, you can establish clearly defined procurement practices that move at the speed of the market and innovators. You can begin with smaller pilots and modest amounts of capital, to demonstrate that a potential solution can execute as promised. With initial success, the solution can be scaled up further from there. As a solution continues to demonstrate its value with scale, you may have indeed just found a critical solution to your targeted challenge!

    What is particularly magical about fast track tendering from the perspective of the innovation economy is that even an active contract of a few 100,000 USD can go a long way towards helping a start up scale up and raise more venture capital. This is true from experience—we have seen it time and time again—but just consider the dynamics. A start up with an active paying pilot contract can demonstrate:

    • A real world usage case
    • A large scale prestigious customer
    • The potential for expanded business with good performance
    • An important reference case for new customers and also for investors conducting due diligence
    • Operating cash flows. In some cases, a small contract, (when actually paid on time!), can actually even result in a cash-flow positive month for a start up, which can be a very positive sign to investors when evaluating an opportunity.
    • This positive cash flow may help a start up hire more staff, and further strengthen their offering.
    • Since cities usually do not compete directly, they can share more information on promising solutions with other cities in a collaborative way. This may result in additional promotion of the start-up’s solution, to very relevant customers.

    For those cities looking to stimulate the success of local start ups, a recognition of these positive dynamics can not only help you solve your local challenges but also help with parallel initiatives to stimulate your innovation economy and build your reputation.

    Fast track tendering processes may further yield insights for your traditional tendering processes, and your exploration of the opportunities can begin in a safe “sand-boxed” way by first introducing them for your key targeted challenge areas.

  5. Finally, ensure that a mandated team for identifying challenges can be contactable.

    How will you be able to learn more from experts, scientists, innovators, solutions providers and so forth if there is no clear point to engage with the city? It has been quite surprising over the years to discover that in many cases, it is not clear who an outsider would contact to have any kind of discussion of any kind with a city. Then when you do try to engage, it can often feel like a “wall of bureaucracy.” The infrastructure and city positioning often do not match the need to address the critical challenges that are on the horizon. Is anyone in the city mandated to tackle a particular challenge? Which department and how to reach them? Make it clear to the world how that team can be engaged.

    There are many ways to allow for dialogue with the public, while still respecting the privacy of the leaders tasked with tackling critical challenges. Some simple examples include: having a website, perhaps with a simple contact form, an email address, a Twitter account, maybe a phone number, and more. The key thing is to be ready to respond to any inquiries rapidly, to let the public know that there is engagement occurring, that a team is working on these matters and paying attention. Responses can involve pointing individuals to more resources, letting them know the next step for engagement, requesting materials, and in many cases, just plainly letting them know that they may not be the right fit at this time. A swift negative response that is specific and substantial can drive market efficiency. Innovators now have the market feedback they need to move on to greener pastures. Dealing with the marketplace of ideas can be messy, but there simply needs to be a way for solution providers from both within the city, and possibly around the world, to engage. When exploring critical challenges, the city needs to be open to interacting with experts and solution providers who likely do not have existing relationships. To goal is to accelerate both learning and the introduction of viable solutions.


By embracing the 5 principles above, engagement with the global community of experts, scientists, and innovators can be accelerated, which is highly valuable in your pursuit to tackle your most critical challenge areas.

Cities can also continuously share best practices, and further accelerate progress by sharing what new initiatives worked well, and which did not achieve the desired results.

A time of increasing challenges facing our global cities calls for innovation in our status quo administrative practices. We can accelerate solutions by embracing a spirit of innovation and exploratory problem solving. Citizens will surely reap the benefits as they join you on your journey of tackling challenges and introducing solutions more rapidly. Over time, you will develop processes and practices that will serve you increasingly well into the future, as cities continue to become more prominent administrators of human populations on an ever changing planet.