We need to bring ‘agility’ to city planning and development

To realize increased efficiency, city leaders, planners and developers should look to the technology sector, where the principles of “agile” software development have transformed project delivery.
A dancer takes part in a 2015 street festival in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. (Louis Vest/Flickr/cc)

With two-thirds of the world’s population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, increasing to 70 percent by 2060, cities are in the global spotlight. They face the challenge of accommodating rapid urbanization while also playing a greater role than ever before in addressing the major issues of our time — helping support global objectives including the Paris climate agreement and the U. N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

This sense of responsibility and opportunity is felt by governments, city leaders and those involved in managing and making cities. These groups need to ensure that major construction and infrastructure projects such as high-speed rail and airport expansions, as well as urban growth and regeneration more broadly, are delivered as efficiently as possible.

To realize increased efficiency, city leaders, planners and developers should look to the technology sector for inspiration. Here, the principles of “agile” software development have transformed project delivery — from the speed of completion to the quality of collaboration, as well as the showcasing of success.

Used frequently by app developers, the agile planning approach effectively breaks down major projects into a series of “sprints” to achieve shorter-term, interim goals while continually evaluating progress and making improvements to realize the bigger vision. Using participatory, non-hierarchical approaches to problem solving and emphasizing frequent communication with stakeholders, agile planning brings the potential to gain greater stakeholder support and create relevant value for the community — and hence reduce delivery risk.

[See: Cities aren’t using their key tool for climate action: Urban planning]

So how can we bring greater agility into the context of modern city planning and development? Here are four ideas.

1. Build trust to collaborate and engage with stakeholders

Building trust is an essential element for successful collaboration in city making. Adopting a collaborative approach that involves citizens, local institutions and experts from the outset results in greater stakeholder engagement and better solutions.

“Adopting an agile approach means you can set short-term goals and assess objectives more frequently. While this may seem like more work at first, it will help distribute the workload, pressure, challenges and successes across a project’s duration.”

I led a project in Chile, for example, where we spent as much or more time building trust and collaboration as we did on the technical design of projects. Some of the most notable initiatives we developed included:

  • A public-private council where all parties could be heard and influence the process of city making
  • A local team of young professionals selected to be part of the delivery team to improve their city
  • Assisting the community to deliver projects they held dear but were unable to deliver for lack of technical skills, funding or both.

[See: Why should companies be interested in sustainable cities? Here are 3.7 trillion reasons.]

In the same initiative, we partnered with the municipality and university in Medellín, Colombia, and introduced a formal diploma course around the idea of “social urbanism”. Twice a year we invited representatives from the Chilean city of Antofagasta’s regional and local government, citizens associations, regional trade and industrial associations, and our team of young professionals to learn about the success story of Medellín.

This diverse group is now made up of around 100 people from different professional and socio-economic backgrounds, and has resulted in a “trust network” that shares a common experience and knowledge base. They have seen first-hand that cities and the quality of life within them can be improved even in adverse contexts such as Medellín.

We took another approach to community engagement for a project in the Danish town of Fredericia. There, early consultation showed that residents would like to use plots of land as a public space to grow food. The project plan identified parts of the site that were due for development at a later stage and offered these for community use, giving locals a direct benefit from the outset of the development process. Residents could witness tangible value from the first day, creating a sense of connection to the broader initiative for this community.

2. Continually meet and exceed expectations

Dividing the project into shorter-term sprints, with regular goal setting and objectives for each, is a great way of showing momentum, improving communication and pre-empting potential concerns.

At each stage, consider and exhibit the different ways in which the project is or will benefit the wider community — for instance, in supporting the city in meeting climate-related targets. Those benefits could be happening now or in the future. This could focus on anything from growing financial returns to positively impacting the environment, to improving community safety and security.

I was involved in a recent project to redevelop a city’s waterfront. One of the project sprints involved an annual water sports competition, run by a local enthusiast. The success of these events showcased the potential tourism and business that could be brought to the town, justifying the funding of the project and encouraging public support.

[See: In India, training the next generation of urbanists]

Another sprint for the same project involved temporarily closing the main thoroughfare adjacent to the waterfront on Sundays, enabling its use by cyclists, skaters, runners and walkers. This initiative proved so popular that the equivalent of 75 percent of the city’s population enjoyed the Sunday promenade over the first year. This has led to long-term funding for designing and building public space, water sports, tourism and leisure infrastructure on four large sections of the waterfront.

Such benefits start at the project and community level before contributing to the overall resilience, security and sustainability of cities, as they look to deliver on and align to global frameworks.

3. Collect and deliver real-time feedback

If you’ve delivered a successful sprint, you must communicate this as compellingly as possible, to ensure that stakeholders know the value that is being delivered.

“Using participatory, non-hierarchical approaches to problem solving and emphasizing frequent communication with stakeholders, agile planning brings the potential to gain greater stakeholder support and create relevant value for the community — and hence reduce delivery risk.”

There is now a wealth of software available to teams to support this, by establishing and reporting on success metrics. Perhaps it’s the use of sensors to track how many people are using a temporary cycle route, or mobile applications. In the U. S. city of Santa Monica, authorities used an app called CitySwipe to gain public feedback on urban planning. Similar to the dating app Tinder, the service enables residents with a smartphone to vote on new public services, art installations and planning initiatives.

[See: Yes, ‘govtech’ can change the way cities function]

This is just one example of how technology is enabling transparency and accountability — helping set expectations among stakeholders for each stage of a project and holding planning teams to account in terms of delivery. Embracing this to collate and promote real-time feedback will help create a stronger relationship between communities, technical experts and government, while assisting in making the case for further investment.

4. Continually apply learnings

Traditional planning processes tend to view changes or updates to plans as disruptive. But agile planning is different.

Each sprint within the project also acts as a checkpoint, bringing the opportunity to discuss learnings and what can be refined going forward, to map and evaluate the project status against the original objectives, and to initiate updates as needed.

Having continuous milestones like this brings significant flexibility to a project, meaning that it’s easier to incorporate these updates and changes — whether these are proactive or reactive in nature — to increase overall efficiency and cost savings.

[See: Urban planning — linchpin for sustainable urban development?]

For instance, for Helsinki’s Low2No project with the Finnish Innovation Fund, Sitra, our strategy to achieve carbon neutrality evolved as we went through the design process. Originally, we had thought of a revolving fund with developers to implement an off-site wind farm. While discussing the project with local authorities, however, we managed to convince the local energy provider to use woodchips in its power plant, and to keep the plant operating for additional time to match the energy consumption of the development. This solution was even more cost effective while achieving carbon neutrality.

Long-term gains

Finally, it’s important to recognize that short, sharp sprints can spark collaborative trust to deliver long-term gains.

Adopting an agile approach means you can set short-term goals and assess objectives more frequently. While this may seem like more work at first, it will help distribute the workload, pressure, challenges and successes across a project’s duration.

Most importantly, an agile approach is underpinned by engaging communities and capitalizing on their invaluable expertise and insights. This can unite communities and bring people together, ensuring they have a voice in shaping the future of their area and helping cities tackle the major issues they are facing.

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Alejandro Gutiérrez

Alejandro Gutiérrez is a director of integrated city planning at Arup.