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What is an urban laboratory? How do cities experiment? Why do they exist? How are they initiated? These are some questions that the IDB Cities Lab will answer through the new podcast series: Urban Intelligence.
With the purpose of inspiring cities to innovate in the search for solutions to complex problems and demonstrating the potential of urban laboratories as catalysts for innovation, the podcast series is dedicated to gathering the main lessons learned from 8 city laboratories or urban innovation offices. This blog post is the first in a series that will present the highlights of the eight episodes, in order to promote experimentation and replicate best practices in Latin America and the Caribbean.
What are the characteristics of an urban laboratory and how to set one in motion?
While each laboratory and each city are different, there are some common characteristics:
- They work with citizens as protagonists, both in identifying the problem and the solution. Laboratories place citizens at the center of decision-making, working together with a common purpose and acting as their representatives in public administration.
- While the goal is to find long-term and far-reaching solutions, the emphasis is on experimentation. Laboratories test small-scale and low-cost pilots to determine what works and incorporate the lessons learned more quickly.
- They promote a cultural shift in how municipalities work, towards a more creative, flexible, collaborative, and failure-tolerant paradigm.
We have identified the following lessons learned and aspects to consider when setting up an urban laboratory:
- Innovation requires trust from citizens, members of the institution, and other relevant city stakeholders. One of the biggest challenges of public innovation is the community’s distrust. Therefore, to build trust, it is necessary to ensure that citizens, the government, and other stakeholders understand the benefits of innovation; establish a relationship with citizens through dialogue and collaborative work; and showcase the results achieved in projects, no matter how small, demonstrating their value.
- When experimenting, it is advisable to limit the scale of pilot projects and diversify them to have a wide margin of success or failure. Additionally, incorporating local knowledge is key to finding innovative solutions.
- Political will is necessary to have a strategic agenda in laboratories. Ensuring the long-term significance of projects in strategic city issues allows laboratory actions to surpass political timelines.
- Training local government officials to instill a culture of innovation within the government.
Three inspiring laboratories:
In September 2021, the IDB Cities Lab organized the webinar Urban Intelligence: Innovation Laboratories and Best Practices. In it, four experts shared their experience in creating and leading three urban laboratories:
- Hub Providencia in Santiago, Chile
- Laboratorio para la Ciudad in Mexico City, Mexico
- Mayor’s Office New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) in Boston, United States
1. Laboratory for the City of Mexico, MX
In Mexico City, there are more than 30,000 informal minibusses that transport over 14 million passengers per day. Despite being the most widely used concessioned transportation network, both users and the government lacked information about the routes and schedules. Faced with this challenge, the Laboratory for the City of Mexico conducted an experiment based on iterative models, through which they designed the solution called Mapatón. Mapatón was a collaborative game where citizens mapped their routes and earned points for doing so through a digital platform. As a result, the laboratory built a map of routes with 4,110 mapped routes (2,746 validated) and received over 10,000 inquiries based on the collected information. Mapatón was the first large-scale data collection exercise and the first initiative of its kind to use gamification strategies in Mexico.
Gabriella Gómez Mont, founder and director of the Laboratory for the City of Mexico, shares more about this laboratory and other projects in the episode “Contagio Creativo.”
Listen to Gabriella Gómez Mont here:
2. New Urban Mechanics, Boston, USA
In 2020, the government of Massachusetts’ most populous city estimated that over 100,000 households would struggle to afford the cost of maintaining their homes. The affected population is significant: nearly 40% of the city’s housing is occupied by renters, and over the past 10 years, rents have increased by 50%.
According to Nigel Jacob, co-director of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, and Wandy Pascoal, Fellow at the Housing Innovation Lab, the Boston 2030 plan estimates that between fifty and sixty thousand housing units would need to be built to address the problem. In the episode “Experimenting to Overcome the Housing Crisis in Boston,” Nigel and Wandy explain how innovation can solve one of the city’s biggest problems.
Listen to them here:
3. HUB Providencia, Chile
What is the best way to identify the problems a city faces? How can we think of innovative solutions? For Patricio Ovalle, Director of Local Development at the Municipality of Providencia, the answer lies in bringing together the forces of the entire city ecosystem: residents, businesses, universities, and, of course, the municipality. Additionally, Patricio highlights the success factors of designing mechanisms to quantify the impact of projects and providing training to government officials to foster a culture of innovation. In the episode “The Era of ‘CO’: Communicate, Comprehend, and Co-Create,” Patricio explains the co-design and co-creation processes used in HUB Providencia.
Listen to Patricio Ovalle Wood here:
Urban laboratories in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Sao Paulo
In the upcoming blog, we will delve into the experiences of the urban laboratories in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Sao Paulo. These labs have developed innovations such as IAtos, an app that allows for the detection of COVID-19 by recording cough sounds, a system to help migrants interpret texts in a language different from their own, and a program to reduce school dropout rates.
In the meantime, we encourage you to register here to receive our monthly newsletter with blogs, courses, and publications from the Housing and Urban Development Division of the IDB.
List of authors organized in alphabetical order.