Cities as Innovation Platforms

Cities as Innovation Platforms:
Real world experiences from UTA members

UTA’s Smart City Trends conference


As part of the Urban Technology Alliance (UTA) outreach program, we recently ran a Smart City Trends virtual conference that gathered a number of global thought leaders to discuss trends in Smart Cities. Since UTA is particularly focused on developing and deploying Smart City services with our member cities, we had several cities talking about their recent activities and the trends and technologies that are shaping their planning. You can see all presentations here.

A number of key trends were discussed over three days of presentations and round table discussions, they included:

  • General lessons
    • Cities as innovation platforms: A number of our city members discussed how they were positioning their cities as innovation platforms – what was particularly interesting was the variety of approaches taken.
    • End user and stakeholder driven services and apps survive, others struggle: A number of cities discussed their journey transitioning from a technology/infrastructure driven top-down approach to a citizen and grass roots demand driven model.
    • Mature city innovation systems are transitioning to private financing (or a stronger private component in PPI). Successful, long term economic and sustainable smart city services thrive on private funding not city.
  • Technology focused
    • Digital twins are flavour of the month – but also surprisingly useful. A number of our city members report on the use or incorporation of digital twin technology into their core platforms offering a framework for new smart city services and applications.
    • Open APIs offer cities more flexibility. As cities foster and deploy new technologies, several report on the power of ensuring that internal APIs are well defined and open – offering a framework for ecosystems of suppliers to leverage.
    • Platform of platforms – the new black. In phase 1 of the Smart City growth (opening up), focus was on developing platforms to expose and manage city resources. As we move into Phase 2 (consolidation), the focus is on linking those islands and exploiting the data from city verticals.

Cities as Innovation Platforms

Charles Anderson - need for Ecosystem Hubs

The role of `hubs’ in the smart city ecosystem (Charles Anderson)

Charles Anderson, in his keynote highlighted the role of cities as innovation hubs and their part in driving ecosystem development. He highlighted cities such as Taipei and Singapore which have focused on setting up an infrastructure to allow the city to act as a driver of innovation – often via partnerships and stressed the need for more Ecosystem Hubs – such as UTA, as a way to build smart city innovation ecosystems.

The theme of the city as a facilitator and driver of innovation surfaced in several talks during our 3 day event with examples of three classes of innovative city:

The innovation catalyst approach: While all cities play a role in catalysing innovation, some, such as Taipei, have focused on the role of catalyst and structured their activities around it. Chen-Yu (Leo) LEE, project manager of the Taipei Smart City office gave a good overview of the journey that Taipei has been on over the last 10 years and in particular its success at generating over 175 POCs and its evolution into a facilitator for PPI activities that are taking PoCs to the next, commercial stage. He highlights the role of the Taipai Project Management Office (PMO), which was deliberately taken out of the existing city management structures and designed to drive innovation.

Taipei’s PMO has driven significant innovation (Chen-Yu Lee)

During their 10 year journey they have evolved from instigators of projects through to facilitators, soliciting demand from both city departments and citizens and grass root organizations, facilitating policy and process that enables change, and ensuring that projects can secure finance from private sources. Hayato Shimazu, mayor of Saitama City in Japan highlighted a similar approach, with the city taking on a key role in catalysing innovation. A number of activities, driven out of lessons from the 2011 Earthquake focus on city resilience and in particular, city transportation infrastructure. While it is fair to say that Saitama are at an earlier stage of the journey in comparison to Taipei, it is clear they are moving rapidly along a similar trajectory.



6 core Innovation clusters in Glasgow (Ann-Marie Campbell)

The ‘Bricks and Mortar’ approach: Glasgow city has taken an alternative approach which is more of a ‘bricks and mortar’ innovation hub that partners with the city to identify and facilitate innovative projects. Ann-Marie Campbell presented their activities highlighting their model which relies on physical innovation spaces, often developed as part of an urban renewal program, that brings together academia, the city and companies to foster innovation. Somewhat akin to bricks and mortar incubators, this approach fosters physical innovation hubs in the city which act as ecosystem builders. Building on a basic incubation model, Glasgow goes much further by focusing on districts, and pulling together a variety of different actors to develop a full-blown innovation ecosystem, for example they host 4 of the UK advanced technology ‘catapults’ as well as a variety innovation labs and grouping activities to benefit from the ‘cluster effect’.

Santander’s journey from PoCs to open innovation (Verónica Gutierrez )

The city platform approach: A more literal interpretation of the ‘City as an innovation platform’ mantra is to physically develop a city ITC platform, combining elements of IoT and data management, and offering open APIs that allow innovative new services to be rapidly prototyped and delivered. Busan in Korea is a leading proponent of this approach. Jongsung Hwang, master planner at Busan EDC smart City discussed their activities and focused on the Korean experiences with Smart Cities. He describes an early phase of Korean Smart City activities where technology driven projects were designed and delivered into new build – as a ‘Smart City Winter’. In essence, lack of focus on citizen needs led to multiple failures and public disenchantment with the Smart City concept. More recent activities leverage these lessons and are building an ITC platform that enables rapid development of new services that are driven by citizen needs – an innovation platform. Santander city in Spain has long been a proponent of the open technology platform as an enabler of city innovation. Verónica Gutierrez presented Santander’s experiences discussing their evolution from point solutions, through to a connected platform and now focussing on combining the platform, with a PMO to offer a growth engine for innovation in the city.


In all three cases, although the approach differs, the goals are similar – to facilitate innovation by exploiting the resources of the city – essentially making the city an innovation platform.

Rodger Lea, Technical Director, UTA @rodgerlea