Our creative minds need to be harnessed

This article originally appeared on The Guardian

What makes a city buzz? The most dynamic cities have always been immersed in the critical innovations of their time. Today, the world’s great cities compete to lead in innovation in fields such as nanotechnology or genomics, sometimes successfully, sometimes with ineffective copycat strategies. Science and business have been their main focus, along with the arts. Yet many are learning that public sector innovation can be just as critical for growing new sources of revenue.

The result is that the best innovation strategies are no longer just about hardware and technology. So Singapore is focusing its energies on creating hi-tech superschools. Adelaide is becoming a hub for higher education. Bangalore has become a centre for healthcare.

Jaime Lerner, as mayor of Curitiba in Brazil, pioneered integrated public transport and creative social policies. Antanas Mockus, mayor of Bogota, used mime artists to control the traffic and invested heavily in bicycle routes. Some European cities — like Freiburg or Hammarby Sjostad in Sweden — have led the world towards low-carbon living.

London’s congestion charge, and the many innovations introduced in Manchester by Richard Leese, show that British cities can also innovate.

But three barriers usually stand in the way here. One is over-centralisation. Cities simply don’t have the powers they need to radically innovate in cutting obesity or the number of disaffected teenagers. A second is culture — and the fear of taking risks. A third is the lack of institutions, or people, dedicated to public innovation.

So what could cities do to become true living laboratories? Do more to finance, support and celebrate innovations, whether they come from the public, frontline staff or anywhere else. Build up the arms-length bodies that — just as in science — are better placed to innovate than permanent public bureaucracies (as cities like Toronto have done). And become better at networking with other sectors, since this is often the key to sustained innovation.

Britain’s cities aren’t short of creativity and imagination. But too often their public sector strategies and innovation strategies are entirely separate. It’s time for them to come together.

Geoff Mulgan is director of the Young Foundation