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Vibrancy, Engineered: The City as a System

Everything is connected to everything else in a system, yet many communities were built silo-by silo

It is a curious thing to write about cities, as permanent settlements predate the dawn of writing itself. Nearly all of the words that relate to government — politics, policy, citizenship and so on — trace their origin to one or another ancient words for city. It was the city that Plato saw as the laboratory of representative government. The city is the focus of government itself; the teacher of government administrators; and a perfect metaphor for everything that government hopes to accomplish, become or achieve. The city should be well understood by now. But is it?

The most exciting discoveries are not those from the great beyond, but the insights that change the way we see the most familiar artifacts of our lives. Just such a realization has arisen regarding the notion of the city. A city is not merely a gathering of people who have chosen to settle in a semi-permanent way in a single specific geographic location. It is not a collection of buildings and supporting infrastructure such as roads, bridges, schools and stoplights. It is not a commercial marketplace or source of jobs. 

It is all of those things, yet still more. A city is a living thing that incorporates and organizes non-living components in service of its ends. The city integrates soft assets like education, people and skills with hard assets like water treatment plants and roads with intellectual know-how in the form of technology to improve the wellbeing of its inhabitants. It is more than the sum of its parts.

A city is a system. Dean Kubani, director of the Santa Monica Offi ce of Sustainability and the Environment, sees the promise and opportunity in treating his city as a system.“Back in the early ‘90s, Santa Monica adopted a sustainable city program that was very purposefully developed in a way that went beyond just environmental sustainability and addressed economic and social issues,” says Kubani. “We have expanded that, and we are really trying to address all aspects of the community’s quality of life, the local economy and the environment.” 

“We’ve recently been awarded $1 million from the Bloomberg Philanthropies for our well-being index,” says Kubani. Santa Monica’s well-being program is taking a comprehensive and data-based approach to improving the city. What started as a 

youth well-being report card has become a community-wide well-being index that provides a decision-making tool for the strategic choices that the city makes. “We’re gathering subjective data through interviews with people in the community and then looking at objective data about various things like crime rates, employment and health,” says Kubani. “It’s about looking at that holistic picture.”

 Leaders in North Carolina’s Queen City, Charlotte, have a systemic vision similar to Santa Monica for how their city will progress into its next century. Like Santa Monica, this city that was famously called “a hornet’s nest of rebellion” by General Cornwallis during the American Revolution seems to retain its penchant for challenging the status quo. The conventional wisdom in parts of the environmental community is to see businesses, especially energy firms, simply as irresponsible polluters. They push unilaterally for laws that will limit production, and businesses fight back. Likewise, many in the business community see environmentalists jobs and the bottom line. Could it be that they are both wrong, and that there is a “third way” to real sustainability?

“Envision Charlotte was launched at the Clinton Global Initiative by President Clinton, John Chambers of Cisco, Jim Rogers of Duke Energy, Michael Smith of Charlotte Center City Partners and our mayor, Anthony Fox,” says Envision Charlotte Board Chair Tom Shircliff . “This is sustainability for economic growth and never the two shall part. We didn’t eliminate a third or half of our audience immediately by making this all about making money or all about the environment.”The partnership is taking off . Real 

estate owners representing 98 percent of the eligible 22 million square feet of uptown Charlotte have contractually agreed to participate in the program that will reduce energy use at the same time that it cuts operating costs. The partnership brought together the soft and hard aspects of city infrastructure with new intelligent building technologies to create a unifi ed program. The result is a comprehensive energy use dashboard that displays citywide progress wirelessly on a specially designed kiosk installed in each participating building’s lobby. 

“You can almost think of it like the ‘national debt clock.’ … You can see it ticking and it’s a real number. It creates a reaction,” says Shircliff . The kiosk shows an aggregated “super meter” for all downtown energy use, rather than singling out specific companies. This live information is also available on the Web, smartphones and tablets at “We were really careful to make sure that everybody knew that the individual building data was not what was going to be shown. If we had, we would have lost half the participants right there because it’s such a competitive issue.” The goal of Envision Charlotte is to reduce energy consumption in the downtown core by 20 percent over 5 years. The live dashboard provides a common scoreboard that is accompanied by various voluntary behavior programs and social networking such as “Energy Champions” and “Adopt-a-Light.” Additionally specialized facility manager training has helped provide new energy saving techniques and is spurring awareness of what new intelligent building upgrades could further reduce energy usage. By partnering environmentalists with real estate owners, Charlotte is able to cut carbon emissions while making companies more profi table.

“In our case, it’s working together in much more of a ‘carrot approach’ than a ‘stick approach,’” says Shircliff . He sees government’s role as a facilitator for systemic change that encourages positive and independent actions from a wide range of participants. “I think, maybe, it’s an instinct for government to say, ‘What regulation would make this happen?’ or ‘What law would make this happen?’ And if we waited on that, how many years would we spend waiting for it to happen?” These examples are powerful, to be sure. But if we are to start managing our cities as systems, then planners will need a new set of planning techniques to actually effect the change. This is not to say that tried-and-true tools like the strategic plan, the project plan, community involvement plans and the like are no longer needed. On the contrary, these tools are more important than ever. But we cannot merely execute projects in isolation; we need an approach that integrates our vision to chooswhich projects should be greenlighted in the first place.

One such technique that is gaining prominence is simulation modeling. Models can take a variety of forms and can be applied to a wide range of problems. Each model is a set of sophisticated mathematical equations that operates on data to predict future outcomes. Done well, system modeling can help government assess a wide range of strategic scenarios for the future — and choose the one that provides the best possible outcome for its citizens. The concept of system modeling had its foundations in the groundbreaking work in “Urban Dynamics” done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1960s. Pioneers like Jay Forrester and Alan Graham started to develop mathematical models of cities that leveraged real data and relationships to deal quantitatively with problems like housing and urban development. Controversial at the time, the notion of applying system modeling to real-world government problems has been proven over the years.

Many of those early MIT pioneers now take a more hands-on role in implementing these ideas at Ventana Systems, a government consultancy. Ventana recently demonstrated an example of a mathematical simulation based on real data from the city of Chicago. The model allows planners to move slider bars on a number of systemic inputs, including tax rates, level of infrastructure spending, debt ratios, percentage of land allocated for business, investment in smart infrastructure and so on. As each potential change is evaluated, the impact of the change is displayed on a dashboard. The interesting thing about the Chicago simulation model was that it showed that individual projects didn’t transform the city or even make it more sustainable. 

Increasing the percentage of land for business helped in some areas, but it increased energy use to unacceptable levels. Investing in additional roads improved commute times, but it raised the debt load and didn’t create jobs. As one moves each individual lever, a sense of frustration starts to turn to panic. Are any of these changes going to make a difference? Once all of the individual project ideas were exhausted, the demonstration turned to the city-as-a-system approach. The model operator made a strategic set of investments across multiple different dimensions, tuning each one until just the right balance was achieved. The result was as surprising as seeing something spontaneously emerge out of nothing. Even though no individual project could turn the city around, the right combination of projects led to dramatic, vibrant growth for the city.Sure, that was a hypothetical example. But what is possible in real life for our cities? And even better — what if we made those tools available to the public as a new and more engaging way to get their input on choosing our priorities? 

John Miri is Editor-in-Chief at the Center for Digital Government. After a successful career as a private sector software executive, Miri was appointed by the Texas Governor to the top regulatory board overseeing statewide electronic government. He went on to lead transformational projects for two successive Texas State Chief Technology Officers and has become an advisor and close confidant to leading state and local government CIOs around the nation.