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Transformation of Public Value: Cities as the playground for the future


Governments and society are going through a fundamental shift: the rise of platform economies, new consumptions patterns and technologies transform both service delivery and people’s lives in general. With these changes, also the compositions of public values – transparency, privacy, accountability etc. – are altering not only connected to individual’s self-interest, but the aspirations of the society as a whole. Public sector is hard-pressed to keep up with the fast-based change and the changing expectations of citizens. This requires governments to think about the future in a different way, because with daily changes long-term planning becomes increasingly difficult. Governments around the world are experimenting with various ways to make future-oriented and value-driven decisions and it is most visible on the city level.

Cities are one of the most dynamic and important administrative units today. They have a significant role to play in most of the complex challenges the world is facing from democratic crisis to climate change, aging, migration, digital transformation and peer-to-peer production. Cities and their surrounding regions are close to the citizen and thus have been the first to realise the fundamental shifts citizens’ needs are going through and they have also been the first to respond. The amount of ‘smart’ and ‘collaborative innovation’ solutions that have spun up from cities is staggering. Cities have excelled in fact-based, tactical and technology-led responses to emerging challenges, but have they made a difference in the long-term understanding of what public values are upheld throughout this transformation?

To answer this question, this report looks into three crucial domains of governance that have so far been either under-examined or not looked at together. These are engaging citizens in decision making (collective understanding of what kind of future citizens aspire to); envisioning and acting on a specific future (making the future actionable); and leading the change process with a public value-based approach (both in directing change, but also analysing the effects of innovative change from a value perspective). Simply put, public value is changing and public organisations need to engage with systemic change in new ways. Talking about what this new future might look like cannot happen without the input of citizens and collective understanding of what is valued. Consequently, civic engagement, future and public value seem to be crucial at this stage of transformation not only in cities, but also other public governance institutions. Faced with high levels of uncertainty around complex problems and city government’s role in solving them, means that cities need to start also thinking and using the future better in collaborative way. This means creating more nuanced ways to frame problems better, develop alternative futures for the former and start discussing the elusive nature of public value and how it is changing. As such, this report tries to push the discussion on public sector transformation from tactical responses towards a more systemic, value-based approach

The report follows the OECD’s prior work on systems thinking and the report “Systems approaches to Public Sector Challenges: Working with Change” launched in 2017 in Slovenia. Where the previous report was about the tactics for systems change, the current work looks at the substantive issues where systems approaches are most needed. How to start analysing the public value (purpose) of systems change and how to do that in the context of deep uncertainty? Thus, through the case studies and the proceeding discussions the report argues that (city) governments are not in the position to define goals from top down anymore. Sometimes the uncertainty of the future allows us to only agree upon the boundaries of public values we are interested in achieving and then adapting with emerging situations. To make these responses coherent in complex situations values connected to change have to be defined collectively and as such, new methods and ways to allow for meaningful citizens participation is key. To discuss public values and connected trade-offs in systems change, governments have to become better at defining problems, so, that the productive capacity of citizens can emerge.

The report is organised as follows. Chapter 1 gives an overview of engaging citizens in this new era. Different key components of the process such as risk and uncertainty, participation, deliberation and sortation are outlined. Chapter 2 discussed how to think about the future in a changing urban context and how the recent fashion around ‘smart cities’ fits the narrative. Chapter 3 moves onto the public value domain outlining the need to frame problems differently and framing problems themselves in the language of value. Chapter 4 presents an analysis of seven in-depth case studies from around the world that exemplify the nexus of civic action-future-public value in an empirical perspective. The cases cover deliberative democracy practises in various local communities and cities such as Toronto and Vancouver in Canada; user-driven tactical strategies to innovation in Boston, the US; co-producing welfare in Namyangju in Korea; collaborative innovation across administrative boundaries in the Region of Gothenburg, Sweden; comprehensive responses to new needs of the aging population in Seoul, Korea; technology-led transformation processes in Antwerp, Belgium on Internet of Things; and circular economy in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

The examined cases exemplify that there are various strategies cities are deploying to deal with the future and to have the connected public value debates with citizens. As such, in some cases, cities have invested in developing processes to examine exceedingly complex problems by deepening the conversations with citizens (citizens’ reference panels and citizens’ assemblies in Canada), created design-driven, fast-based iterative processes to respond to the changing demand from citizens (New Urban Mechanics in Boston) or built coalitions with the private sector to explore transformative change (City of Things project in Antwerp). In some cases cities and regions have started to discuss the right scale and scope of change – the need to go beyond their own administrative boundaries with changing citizen needs (collaborative innovation at the level of the Region of Gothenburg), create new responses to new and contextual needs (Seoul 50+ policy) or change the purpose of public bodies entirely with transformative technological change (Amsterdam’s Waternet’s role in the circular economy).

Furthermore, cities are exploring peer-to-peer production and local resilience to complex issues (Hope Care System in Namyangju) going beyond their traditional remits to solve welfare blind spots and deal with long unresolved complex problems. In all cases, complex public value transformations emerge. The empirical analysis gives an insight into the opportunities and challenges cities and the public sector are faced with when dealing with uncertain futures.

Transformation of Public Value: Cities as the playground for the future

Published on 1 February 2019.