Sustainable Development: How Cities Can Test 5,000 Potential Solutions in 5 Years

Cities are uniquely positioned to discover the best ways to do more with less, if they can work together to evaluate potential solutions.

Start with 90% Failure

Lets assume 1 in 10 ideas that are tested turn out to be good ones. And by good, we mean we could take that idea and scale it across 50+ cities in five years. Each of these ideas might have a 20% improvement over existing solutions in terms of resources used. Good ideas.

Why 1 in 10 success rate? This is a little lower than the outcomes provided for the last 5 years of US venture capital investments in the United States where good means either an IPO or acquisition. And we’re assuming that most of these ideas would happen via private funding from early stage investors, corporate funds, venture funds or foundations.

20% improvements are not uncommon either when one looks at some recent successes around home energy management like Nest, but might be conservative when looking at the impact of efforts such as car sharing. And 50 cities seems like a good floor since even with large, complex, variations in city policies and laws, firms like Uber are on track for this kind of growth, but looks conservative when looking at the rate of deployment of Waze.

Focus on Finding and Funding Follow

Many cities already have processes to find and test ideas. Programs like New Urban Mechanics in Boston or Fast Forward in Philadelphia or BCN Open Challenge or Next Step City in Denmark. These approaches draw on successful models already being used by corporations and venture firms – open innovation and accelerators. And cities need not pay for the development of ideas.

Cities will increasingly find willing private partners who understand the potential financial and social returns from testing high potential ideas. A recent Knight Foundation study has found more than 20% compound annual growth in investments in civic tech firms over the last 12 years. Investors ranging from traditional angels to corporations like Google are funding small startup teams to develop and test solutions.

Cities Must Share the Load

To test 5,000 ideas in five years, we’d need to divide up the load. We can begin with 20 cities, each testing 5 ideas in the first year. And each new city could train 2 new cities. So within 5 years, we’d have 620 participating cities and we’d have tested over 5,000 ideas. As McKinsey Urban Analysis reveals, the top 600 cities in the world account for 60% of global GDP, so if we could focus on these larger cities, all the better.

If cities work together to test different potential solutions, we can test 5,000 high potential ideas in 5 years. And from this we can generate 500 replicable solutions for sustainable development.

This post was submitted to the Masdar 2014 Engage Blogging Contest.