Humans have a tremendous capacity for inertia.  Take my [broad] field, urbanism, in which there are certain concepts, of which we speak frequently, but rarely achieve.

Humans have a tremendous capacity for inertia.  Take my [broad] field, urbanism, in which there are certain concepts, of which we speak frequently, but rarely achieve.  The “sustainable city” – this is certainly nowhere near as pervasive in discourse as it was in the late nineties / early noughties – but this isn’t because we’ve achieved it and moved on.  Rather, we continue to evolve this shimmering future ideal, which remains just over the ever-advancing horizon, and have re-badged it.  The “smart city” was born to replace it, a few years ago – a new city, as rich in sustainability as we wanted, but bristling with technology.

I perceive “integrated working”, “cross-sectoral thinking” or “breaking down silos” as another collection of these eternally-just-out-of-reach, but well-intended terms – and one which appears in the discourse of the “Smart City” quite frequently.  Many of the protagonists in the urban development ecosystem assert they work in this integrated way – however ill-defined it may be.   I remain unconvinced that much of this kind of joined up behaviour is really happening around the world, having seen many attempts at it,  around the world, from the inside.

The issues we face in society are systemic in nature, and cross sectors, business models and spatial-political boundaries as and when they please.  Our organisations and our thinking, however, deployed in an attempt to address these issues, have their mandates divided up, categorised and labelled, in order to ease the burden on our puny minds!  There is a fundamental mismatch between the problems at hand, and the tools we deploy.

Many a time in my career in urban consulting, the production of a solution which solved problems across organisational boundaries, or a technological innovation which harvested insights from other sectors to produce a novel solution, only came after fighting perceived sectoral boundaries within myself, my education, or my company and partners.  Even more often, having gotten that far, I’d that my poor end user, who sought to take the solution forward, was hampered by dint of his or her position in the organisational structure, or the siloed nature of their department.

Sometimes there just isn’t a champion, or a budget, for something that doesn’t fit neatly in one sectoral box.  As Aldous Huxley said, in The Human Situation, “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, but a little bit of highly specialised knowledge is even more dangerous” (The Human Situation, 1957).

As I see it, you can lead a horse to the smart city, but you can’t always expect it to understand how to turn on the smart drinking fountain.  This is a systemic issue, and not the fault of the horse.  We can innovate on the solution side as much as we want – but if we are not working to ensure our organisations are ready, willing, capable, and excited about using these integrated solutions – we are wasting everyone’s time, money and energy.