Collaborative design for smart cities is here.

This is one of a series of posts that explore a conceptual framework for understanding how new developments in design and project management can work for cross-sector and smart city initiatives.

By 2050, 6 billion of us will live in cities. We’re in deep trouble if we can’t find a way to make them sustainable. How can we make our cities healthier and more equitable places to live? Collaborative design is the answer.

Multi-sector collaboration is key in this endeavor, but sharing across work cultures is messy. Once we agree on what collaboration means, we can develop a framework for understanding how design and project management across sectors can work for smart city initiatives.

Five years ago I joined WINGS, a global association of 20,000 philanthropic entities based in São Paulo. I designed and launched a communications program for the metanetwork that summer, and by the following spring, as managing editor, I took part in my first high level UN meeting here in New York.

The central theme at my first UN meeting was cross-sector partnerships, where stakeholders solve common problems through a “systems thinking” lens.

The years that followed gave me a firsthand look at the many contributions of global philanthropy infrastructure to social change. I wasn’t new to the sector, but meeting with leaders across continents opened my eyes to new cultures of giving and to the vast ecology of philanthropic actors worldwide—what WINGS CEO Benjamin Bellegy referred to in a recent Alliance interview as “philanthropic plurality.”

We often pair the term “plurality” with civil society, to describe the diverse viewpoints and experiences that imbue large groups of people. Like societies, philanthropy is messy, which, naturally, implies a need for leadership and representation.

In 2009, when Foundation Center’s former senior vice president Barry Gaberman published his now famous op-ed, “Fix the plumbing,” the social sector was reeling from a global recession. [Side note: By the time 9/11 happened, many large funders who had set up their own infrastructure organizations had dropped out of the scene, in effect leaving the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation alone at the helm on a stormy sea. WINGS, a beneficiary of Mott’s support for efforts to increase civic engagement around the world, weathered that storm.] Gaberman’s op-ed was required reading for my first days at WINGS.

I had a chance to talk with Gaberman over lunch in Istanbul in 2014, during a conference on the power of networks, about how in nine short paragraphs, he had effectively contextualized the importance of funding infrastructure organizations. It’s now nearly a decade after he penned the article, and we’re still making the case for funding associations like WINGS.

Every field puts in place an infrastructure that enhances the effectiveness of the building blocks of that field.

The central theme at my first UN meeting was cross-sector partnerships, where stakeholders from private, public and social sectors solve common problems through a “systems thinking” lens. Gaberman began “Plumbing” with the assertion that “every field, as it matures, puts in place an infrastructure that enhances the effectiveness of the building blocks of that field.”

With the advent of big data and the proliferation of social good initiatives worldwide, sustainable urban development needs a new kind of collaboration—one that translates across sectors and work cultures in order to fuel the projects that make our cities cleaner, safer and more equitable.

As Gaberman put it, associations like WINGS “have particular strength when it comes to convening the actors in the field, representing the field, and establishing codes of behaviour and best practices.” I believe he was referring to how a membership-based information broker at the center of the action could provide a leadership model which both encourages egalitarian thinking and design, and facilitates a lateral power shift and transformation.

This more or less sums up the collaborative mindset and experience I bring to the conversation on urban sustainability. The next step is to apply this lesson to a conceptual framework for collaborative design.


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