Future-ready cities: a roadmap for urban leaders

As cities face a more challenging future, city leaders need to know the best practices that will allow them to face new threats, tap funding, increase the level of trust among their citizens, and make the best investment decisions. ThoughtLab’s fourth urban research program, Building a Future-Ready City, will provide urban leaders with an action plan for meeting the challenges ahead. ThoughtLab asked sponsors and advisors of our program to share their views on how leaders can face some of the problems ahead. Here is how some of them responded.  


1.The recent heat wave throughout Europe and America is a serious reminder of the disruptive effects of climate change. Clearly, a future-ready city will need to be a zero-carbon city. What steps do cities need to take to achieve their longer-term decarbonization goals? 

Bill Cashmore, Deputy Mayor, Auckland Council: Transport must be a primary target for decarbonization; vehicle kilometers traveled must be substantially reduced. Road congestion pricing could be a key incentive for people to move to public transport. Building heat and cooling needs to be powered by renewable energy sources. Manufacturing also needs to transition to renewable energy. 

Kari Aina Eik, Executive Director, United Cities: First, we need to equip leaders with more information and resources to meet these challenging goals. If we are ever going to meet the goals of net-zero cities, we need to build up trust, then develop new processes, and use tools and measures that everyone understands and accepts. Second, we need to build these processes and tools based on available data and technology. If your facts are known and accepted, you can make better decisions. Third, all cities (and all countries) need a digital twin and to start developing model scenarios of cause, effect, and possible solutions. These scenarios and solutions need to be shared and discussed with stakeholders across the board.  

Jayant Kohale, Analytics, Smart Cities, Digital, AI: The impact of global warming has been felt by countries across the globe. The recent high peak temperatures in Europe have resulted in droughts with major water sources drying up. For cities to better prepare for these scenarios, they need to have a declaration and charter which defines and articulates a city’s vision and aspirations to reduce the carbon footprint and to increase the renewable index. In addition, they need investment and development to bring sustainability into the city’s roadmap. 

Bayan Konirbayev, Chief Digital Officer, Almaty City: The problem related to carbon emission basically comes from heating systems and gasoline vehicles. By 2025, the heating system in Almaty should use only gas energy. The problem related to vehicles should be resolved before 2030 by different means,  such as the development of alternative transport, the development of public transport, and the construction of new charging systems for e-cars.  

Andrea Sorri, Segment Business Development, Cities, EMEA, Axis Communications: Cities are becoming increasingly focused on improving mobility, and reducing congestion and pollution, so it’s more important than ever to base decisions on accurate and reliable data. This can be achieved by getting to know the actual traffic flow through clear and analyzable data and the monitoring of individual and group patterns. It’s important when planning and coordinating transport around cities to ensure that any changes and initiatives fit with the way people use services and roadways.  

Weather and air quality sensors can now be co-located with streaming images. This combined video surveillance and weather/air-quality monitoring can give street-by-street observations of actual weather, pollution, and traffic levels. Understanding the link between weather and traffic allows targeted interventions to be deployed to improve air quality. 

Peter Nõu, IT strategist, Uppsala Municipality: Cities need to set stretch goals towards becoming carbon neutral in the near to mid-term. Goals need to be objectively measurable, and the city needs to commit to sharing KPIs. Progress towards the set goals will be measured yearly. Transparency is a given. System boundaries need to be carefully considered. Will the municipality be responsible for the carbon load realized outside its borders through import of goods and services, from the emissions caused by travel by its citizens etc.? Cities ought to collaborate with other cities in developing these KPIs so that the holistic accumulative burden can be assessed as best possible. Sweden is progressive with regards to setting national level climate goals. Uppsala City is among the most progressive climate cities in Sweden having won certain awards three years in a row.

Ramya Ravichandar, Vice President of Product Management, Sustainability & IoT, JLL Technologies: Given that more than 60% of carbon emissions within our cities typically come from buildings, a growing number of city governments now recognize the urgency to decarbonize their commercial and residential buildings.  Technology is likely to be the biggest catalyst of green progress in the built environment as requirements grow for the mandatory reporting, benchmarking, and auditing of buildings’ energy efficiencies and emissions standards. 

2. In today’s era of high social change and low government confidence, what can city leaders do to build the level of citizen trust and engagement they need to drive future change? What do you see as examples of best practice? 

Kari Aina Eik, Executive Director, United Cities: To gain trust, city leaders need to step up in terms of knowledge, understanding, and communication. Cities don’t need super-heroes, but leaders who are open about the challenges now and involve city stakeholders in meeting these challenges. 

Jayant Kohale, Analytics, Smart Cities, Digital, AI: The biggest challenge for city leaders is trust. There is a huge trust deficit with governments across the globe. In these turbulent times, it’s not easy for city leaders to meaningfully engage stakeholders. The initiatives I have seen having an impact are citizen charters, where a group of citizens interacts with a wider city population, shares pros and cons of new initiatives, and discusses their impact and outcomes. 

Bayan Konirbayev, Chief Digital Officer, Almaty City Government: The main problem in emerging countries is the lack of trust in the government. To address the lack of real information, we launched open data access for depersonalized data sets related to city activities, like economic, social, and land use data. Citizens can use this data to better understand the reasons behind each decision being made by the local government. Another instrument is the budget participatory program, under which citizens prepare proposals for city development and vote for certain projects that the city government will finance.  

Mary Nicol, Director of Policy, Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT): One way to build trust is to bring community and advocate organizations into the policy-making process. CDOT partnered with the Energy Foundation to provide funding for the Transportation Equity Network (TEN), a coalition of community groups, transportation advocates, and other stakeholders that advocate for racial equity and mobility justice. Through the funding provided, TEN was able to consult and help develop CDOT’s three-year strategic plan. 

Peter Nõu, IT strategist, Uppsala Municipality: This question might not be quite as applicable in Sweden where trust in government is still very high (80+%) albeit falling slowly. We consider transparency to be the most trust building that city government and processes need to accommodate, to further this goal. Adhering to shared standards with regards to KPIs in different sectors will allow for comparisons and help citizens and companies in evaluating our progress. There are many already regulated processes for sharing and potentially amending Plans with citizenry. Development is however needed along the outcome/evaluation dimension, after the city is built, and continues to live and develop with its inhabitants and businesses, neighbors near and far.

Liz Van Dyke, Head of Public Sector, North America, JLL Technologies: Our clients want to create spaces that engage citizens and provide healthier, more collaborative environments. Many have some or all of the IT building blocks in place to facilitate this, such as IWMS systems, reservations systems, and IoT sensors, but often these data points are not well integrated or optimized to produce these outcomes. We’ve found that digitizing the entire real estate portfolio management process, including space management, is foundational to designing compelling, inclusive public spaces.

3. To help cities prepare for a more challenging future, multilateral, national, and regional government bodies are offering funding and grants to local governments. How are cities tapping such funding programs, such as the Biden infrastructure plan in the US or grants for environmental initiatives in Europe? What can cities do to stake their claim?  

Bill Cashmore, Deputy Mayor, Auckland Council: Cluster with other cities and share goals, concepts, and ideas. Be flexible. Source government, federal funding to deliver in the short, medium, and long term. Funding needs to be locked in and not vulnerable to political change. 

Kari Aina Eik, Executive Director, United Cities: There is a gap in knowledge in cities both about how to access these grants and funding and about how to deploy this funding in the context of other initiatives and programs. So much funding is available, but not accessed and much is being deployed without effect. To achieve net-zero cities by the needed deadlines, there is no time for overlap and waste of resources. Holistic cross-sector cooperation is the only way forward. 

Jian Liu, Professor, School of Architecture Tsinghua University: The funding and grants offered by multilateral, national, and regional government bodies should be seen as a kind of development guidance for localities which can be well integrated with local development demands.  

Mary Nicol, Director of Policy, Chicago Department of Transportation: It is critical for city leaders to have a clear vision of the city they are trying to build with and for residents. Chicago has a citywide vision of trails and open spaces that will contribute to a network of community-led green infrastructure projects to promote the health and well-being of residents and visitors. The city is working closely with community stakeholders to plan each project and identify funding for engineering and construction, including funds recently passed through Biden’s infrastructure plan.  

Peter Nõu, IT strategist, Uppsala Municipality: Our city is increasingly aware of national and international funding opportunities. There are signs that Sweden as a whole, wants to and will commit to a more decentralized model with regards to robustness and resilience at all levels of society in terms of crisis. How (if) responsibilities for decision making and action will be redistributed is currently an active area of research inside larger national funding schemes, and cities with foresight are encouraged to take initiatives. Our city of Uppsala has such ambitions and one context where we work is the Viable Cities framework program [https://en.viablecities.se/].

4. Even with greater access to public funding, resource-strapped cities may not have the wherewithal to invest in the smart innovation they need to become future ready. How are cities leveraging corporate, professional, and academic partnerships, as well as working with regional neighbors and local communities, to achieve their goals in these tougher economic times?  

Bill Cashmore, Deputy Mayor, Auckland Council: Cities should Invest in private-sector relationships. Incentivize innovation, promote success, and illustrate positive change. Use real people as examples, average people who have changed their habits and their lives for better results as individuals, families, and communities. 

Kari Aina Eik, Executive Director, United Cities: New structures and processes are established in cities around the globe and there is a lot of information exchange during conferences and in meetings. But what is really missing is real cooperation among cities at concrete levels, and practical sharing of experience. What is needed is joint net-zero projects that are scalable and then shared with cities and regions globally. 

Jayant Kohale, Analytics, Smart Cities, Digital, AI: The best way to deal with this would be to leverage the ecosystem. Learn from each other. Share best practices amongst peers. Some city initiatives could have global impact while some could be local. 

Bayan Konirbayev, Chief Digital Officer, Almaty City Government: The budget for digital development will require a lot of resources, which the city by itself will never be able to cover. Our digital public-private partnership model allows private investors interested in the development of the new forms of business, like marketplaces, new digital services etc., to directly apply for financing from the city government, which will cover 20-30% of expenses, while the rest can come from consumer payments. 

Jian Liu, Professor, School of Architecture Tsinghua University: Becoming future ready or implementing smart innovation may not necessarily imply high tech that relies on funding. It can also be achieved through the application of appropriate technology that is not costly. Finding common values can serve as a solid foundation for cities to work together with corporate, professional, and academic partners, as well as regional neighbors and local communities. 

Mary Nicol, Director of Policy, Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT): Chicago’s climate action plan calls for 2,500 new public passenger electric vehicle charging stations by 2035. To reach that goal, the city will partner with communities to identify ideal locations for charging stations, with the private sector to make investments in the stations, with the utility company to ensure the grid is ready for the additional electricity demand, and with state and federal governments to ensure there is the financial backing for these large-scale infrastructure investments. 

Clay Pearson, City Manager, City of Pearland, Texas: At the City of Pearland, we are partnering with private investment to get the mobility that is underappreciated, but mandatory. We do that wisely with well-researched strategies on economic development, retail trends and gaps, and workforce needs, in partnership with outside experts that care about giving us executable strategies. We think about where and what we can leverage and where we can partner with public schools, business associations, and not-for-profit organizations to achieve success. We bring a light touch to regulation and tend not to impose top-down aesthetic requirements which can stifle, rather than enhance. 

Peter Nõu, IT strategist, Uppsala Municipality: These collaborative dimensions are very important for the Uppsala Municipality. The organization STUNS (“Sustainable growth in Uppsala; at https://stuns.se/en/) is an almost 40 year old collaboration between public organizations, academia and local corporations. Uppsala also collaborates with other Swedish cities in different areas, and with the Swedish capital of Stockholm with regards to developing the corridor north south between our cities. We will build two new parallel train tracks to a total of four, in the coming decade. Very large residential and commercial developments are being planned as a new part of Uppsala, with yet to be decided super ambitious climate and sustainability goals. Breaking of ground is planned to happen in 2023.

Jeremy Kelly, Global Research Director, City Futures, JLL: The magnitude of the climate change challenge and the urgency with which we need to create a significantly decarbonized economy requires the mobilization of resources across multiple stakeholder groups. Ecosystems of partnerships will be crucial in driving progress, pooling resources and knowledge, sharing or copying best practices, and educating and helping scale technology. There is strong potential to leverage the real estate sector’s intelligence, skills, innovations, and financial acumen to help deliver sustainability goals.

5. City leaders need to make hard decisions on where to invest across urban domains to become future ready. Which urban domains are cities prioritizing for investment over the shorter and longer term? What are they doing to ensure a holistic approach to urban development?  

Kari Aina Eik, Executive Director, United Cities: Top priorities are roads, mobility solutions, health, and energy. For net-zero cities, the focus needs to be turned more to renewables, waste management, water, and food security. In terms of real challenges facing this earth and our cities today, I have not heard of a city that is able to implement a holistic approach and is able to do a radical shift to really meet these challenges. If there is one, please let us know so we can learn and share this with 10,000 other cities in need. 

Jayant Kohale, Analytics, Smart Cities, Digital, AI: Sustainable development is the need of the hour. Cities need to focus on their carbon footprints to be future ready. Sustainable development must be all encompassing and benefitting all stakeholders equally. The priorities are building sustainable transit models, more cycle paths, and public transport. Also, smaller airports, community centers, and hospitals or health care facilities. Technology can play a vital role in helping the city leadership in decision-making. Technology can provide historical data pointers, do prognosis, and provide what-if scenario analysis to help city leaders define the road ahead. 

Bayan Konirbayev, Chief Digital Officer, Almaty City Government: Population growth, especially in the big cities, and the lack of infrastructure funding brings new challenges. Our priorities are first, construction and renovation of infrastructure related to the water and energy supply systems. Our second priority is construction and renovation of social infrastructure (school, kindergartens, hospitals). Our third priority is development of digital infrastructure (telecom infrastructure, data centers, new software solutions with data sources flow). Finally, to create an attractive environment for talent, we are focusing on development of creative industries with funding programs together with methodological support and grants for creative entrepreneurs.  

Jian Liu, Professor, School of Architecture Tsinghua University: As a key component of a city’s support systems, investments in social, civil, and green infrastructure should be a long-term consideration. For the short-term goal of decarbonization, investments in energy infrastructure and green infrastructure should be considered.  

Mary Nicol, Director of Policy, Chicago Department of Transportation: Chicago is currently prioritizing investments in historically under-resourced neighborhoods to create jobs, better housing, and more amenities to foster long-term economic development and neighborhood vitality. The initiative is providing support for small businesses, creating public realm improvements, restoring historic buildings, and fostering equity and resilience where it’s needed most. Through a collaboration among multiple city departments, community organizations, and corporate and philanthropic partners, the city has aligned more than $1.4 billion in public and private investment.  

 Clay Pearson, City Manager, City of Pearland, Texas: At the City of Pearland, we have been combining advanced practical technologies along with the hard traditional infrastructure of roads and trails, water and wastewater plants and pipes, as well as facilities necessary to serve our dynamic and diverse community. A key component is both basic and essential – a fiber communications ring. Atop that is a reliable communications and data system upon which the sensing for everything from rainfall to city vehicle location to traffic volumes can be reported and compiled. Our approach is to have smart people inside and partners outside with a clear IT strategy. That gives us the makings of practical success in improving service delivery, economic opportunities, and trust. 

Andrea Sorri, Segment Business Development, Cities. EMEA, Axis Communications: We have identified three core areas that shape smart, more livable cities and keep citizens positive about the urban experience. The first area is urban mobility solutions to help ensure that city residents and visitors can move freely within the city. The second is environmental monitoring solutions using technology to help cities reach sustainability goals. The third is public safety solutions to support a city’s security and emergency response networks. To achieve these goals, the first step is understanding what your city needs, and how small changes within these areas can help achieve bigger goals. Then, map out how city departments can work together to achieve a common goal. Finally, scale up as needed within the same system. The important part is finding a path that is right for the specific priority. 

Peter Nõu, IT strategist, Uppsala Municipality: Our city has outsourced establishing and running some infrastructure to private sector actors, over the last 20 years. Discussions are emerging on whether it would make sense for us to re-enter, inside the framework allowed by Swedish regulations. The aim would be to become more robust in terms of crisis response, to better control climate impact of establishing and running said infrastructures etc. These are very complex issues with large financial stakes, and will be researched thoroughly. Uppsala is Sweden’s largest (in terms of population) rural municipality as well as being the fourth largest city. To us, planning for all of us at the same time, is the way to balance and make sure that we grow responsibly & sustainably. We live in trying times. A potential global recession might hinder some of our ambitious plans, but we are committed to being transparent with regards to goal setting and transparent in reporting.

Jeremy Kelly, Global Research Director, City Futures, JLL: Decarbonization is increasingly playing a core role in city policy and cities’ operations. However, governments must look beyond carbon and balance decarbonization goals with social equity, affordability, biodiversity, and climate adaptation. The best sustainability strategies embrace real estate and adopt a holistic approach in which the drive towards decarbonization is considered alongside positive social outcomes.