By Beth Noveck and Bradley Busetto - By 2050, two out of every three people are likely to be living in cities. But we are already seeing how rapid urbanisation strains city infrastructure; highlights the need for more efficient and effective public services; and creates demand for natural resources, including food, water and energy. It also gives rise to complex challenges surrounding governance: how to manage diverse populations living in close proximity, and at the same time, how to reduce climate impact, improve transportation and promote well-being.

One way of tackling these pressing urban challenges is by leveraging our cities’ greatest asset: the collective intelligence of city residents. City dwellers possess first-hand knowledge of what works and what does not in their specific context. Collective intelligence is a crucial tool for designing and building more inclusive and liveable cities – and will be key to advancing Sustainable Development Goal 11 to create more sustainable cities and communities.

It is for this reason that five cities in Africa are collaborating with the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development and the Governance Lab (The GovLab) at New York University to launch the Multi City Challenge Africa. It is an open innovation challenge to tap on the collective knowledge and insights of their residents. The following weeks, Accra (Ghana), Bahir Dar (Ethiopia), Kampala (Uganda), Kano (Nigeria), and Mutare (Zimbabwe) are asking their residents for innovative solutions to three shared problems: integrating the informal economybuilding urban resilience in slums and informal settlements, and reducing waste generation and improving waste management at africa.multicitychallenge.org. From Wednesday 4th November until Wednesday 2nd December 2020, people are encouraged to submit innovative, low-cost solutions that can be implemented by the cities in the short term. Such solutions can include products, services, software, methods, models, public programme designs, and more.

While open innovation challenges are not new, the Multi City Challenge uniquely combines two factors: the public-facing challenge, with problem definition training for city officials. This way, we can develop solutions that are impactful, practical and implementable. 25 city officials from the departments of housing, community services, waste management, gender, energy, and more, participated in a recently concluded intensive training program over two months.

The Multi-City Challenge Africa: Structure of the Training Program for City Officials

 

This training included workshops and one-on-one meetings where public officials worked with The GovLab to learn how to define a public problem with data, following a human-centered design, and how to design an open innovation challenge to find innovative solutions. The final objective of this training was to give them methods and tools to become catalysts for change by working with communities, not just for them.

About the challenge

The three shared problems mentioned earlier – integrating the informal economybuilding urban resilience, and improving waste management  – were devised by collaborating teams across the five cities that worked together to define key problems and their root causes. Solutions to these problems do not need to be novel ideas. In fact, something that is already in use elsewhere and demonstrably successful, will be of great interest – but must be supported by evidence that the proposed solution will work in one of the participating cities.

Beginning December 3rd through December 13, the public will then be invited to evaluate submissions using two criteria: impact and practicality. The top twenty finalists for each challenge will be evaluated by a team of expert judges. Participants need to submit:

  • Title of your idea (60 characters)
  • Description of your idea (2000 characters)
  • What problem does it solve?  (2000 characters)
  • What is the anticipated impact? (2000 characters)

The GovLab has previously run citizen engagement projects across multiple cities in Latin America and in Europe; this is the first time that this programme will be run in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Multi-City Challenge method supports cities in defining challenges and solving them in collaboration with their residents. It offers the community a space to participate in the design and formulation of public policies and programmes at the local level, allowing them to provide their innovative ideas to overcome these challenges.

For cities to thrive, we need to be listening to, and learning from, those who know these urban spaces the best: our communities and citizens. Collective intelligence can be the source of many innovative, entrepreneurial, and sustainable ideas to improve the world we live in.

To learn more about the challenge, please visit africa.multicitychallenge.org.

Bradley Busetto leads the newly-established UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation and Sustainable Development in Singapore. Bradley is regarded as a pioneer in creating and scaling innovative financing and business models for sustainable development. Bradley set up the UN’s first social venture incubator and impact investment fund, as well the world’s first national SDG Innovation Lab, during his tenure as UN RC/UNDP RR in Armenia (2013 - 2018). This work was recognized by the Future of Innovation Summit (co-hosted by Stanford University/Rockefeller Foundation). On the behalf of the international community in Armenia, Bradley also led a sensitive electoral assistance program that helped pave the way for the first free, and fair elections in the country’s history. He was awarded the Medal of Honour from the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia.

Previously with the UN, Bradley served in humanitarian missions in Indonesia, Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. In addition to his United Nations service, Bradley led the expansion of international operations for the Wellcome Trust, the leading global health foundation. He also worked in leadership roles in banking and management consulting and co-founded a start-up. The California native holds a BA and a master’s degree in philosophy from Stanford University, where he graduated with honours.

Beth Simone Noveck directs the Governance Lab (The GovLab) and its MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance. She is a Professor in Technology, Culture, and Society and affiliated faculty at the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering and a Fellow at NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge.  Previously, Beth served in the White House as the first United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer and director of the White House Open Government Initiative under President Obama. UK Prime Minister David Cameron appointed her senior advisor for Open Government. At the GovLab, she directs better governance programs, including work with public institutions on public engagement in lawmaking (CrowdLaw), expert-sourcing innovative solutions to hard problems (Smarter Crowdsourcing), co-creation between cities and citizens (City Challenges). 

Beth is the author of Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing (Harvard Univ Press 2015) and Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger and Citizens More Powerful (Brookings 2009) and co-editor of The State of Play: Law, Games and Virtual Worlds (NYU Press, 2005). Her next book, Solving Public Problems: How to Fix Our Government and Change Our World will appear with Yale Press in 2021. Her TED talk is here.

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