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System Dynamics: Planning for Smarter Cities

Smart cities don't happen by accident.  To help planners and policy makers better understand and manage the dynamic behavior of cities, IBM Global Business Services is introducing new analytics software and services based on their "smarter cities" strategy.  System Dynamics for Smarter Cities is an interactive model that allows leaders to observe how the core systems of a city -- such as the economy, housing, education, public safety, transportation, health care, government services and utilities -- work together and affect one another. 

The City of Portland has collaborated with IBM as the first client to implement the new service.  Using the model to support the development of metrics for the 25-year Portland Plan, planners in Portland were able to experiment with computer-simulated cause-and-effect situations to see how their decisions might play out across various city systems.

The use of this technology allows municipal leaders to gain an integrated view of how their cities' systems are inextricably linked, to avoid policies that may have unintended negative effects, and to increase efforts on policies that are projected to have positive ancillary results.  In many ways, the system dynamics approach is focused on the same principles as many public engagement strategies: taking deliberate steps to increase knowledge and predict outcomes, in order to build a smarter city.

Intentional learning.

A major theme behind the System Dynamics for Smarter Cities is that municipal planning and policy-making is often done very inefficiently.  Discovering the relationships between apparently unrelated systems is a process that takes much longer than it should, as city departments have little communication between themselves.  Usually, a policy that turns out to be harmful is overthrown only after much damage has already been done.

A spokesman for IBM referred to this as "accidental learning," and noted that planners should become much more intentional in their methods for charting the interrelationship of city systems.  IBM's new software helps make this possible, but smart leaders have embraced intentional learning as an important element of urban planning for a long time -- in the form of public engagement.  Involving citizens in the planning process is a deliberate step towards proactive policies that take possible outcomes into account.  Opinion polls or public meetings may not be as sophisticated as IBM's analytics app, but the underlying principle of intentional learning is the same.

Thinking outside the silo.

"Municipal government is still very much a world of silos," said Michael Littlejohn, Vice President of Strategy for Smarter Cities at IBM, in a recent release.  "The various departments -- transportation, education, public works, and so forth -- often have very little interaction with each other, dramatically increasing the possibility that an action in one area of government will have an unexpected affect on another area."

In other words, you can't manage what you can't measure -- and it turns out that the dynamic nature of cities makes it impossible to gain a comprehensive knowledge of the interrelated systems if you are just operating out of your own "thought silo."  IBM's system dynamics model allows for interpretation of information across departments and analyzing of relationships between seemingly unrelated policies.  Would you expect transit fares to have any bearing on high school graduation rates?

In a way, the solution to the "silo" problem is all about gaining a new perspective -- a recurring theme behind many public engagement strategies.  When policy makers apply to the citizens in creative ways, inviting feedback and ideas about current or impending developments, they are seeking to broaden their understanding of how policies are affecting everyday life in a particular area.  Smart planners realize they don't know everything and can't take every citizen's opinion into account -- unless they implement methods that allow for greater perspective.  "Engaging planning," then, is just the human side of thinking outside the silo.  IBM's service app provides algorithms to enhance the knowledge gained from public engagement, painting an even bigger picture about how systems and policies affect each other within cities.

Exploring outcomes.

Planners and policy makers can't always be sure how a proposed action will affect the city as a whole.  IBM's system dynamics service begins by developing a deeply detailed information storehouse about the client city, built by consultations with experts and professionals within the city.  Next, the input from city subject matter experts and data is analyzed with software that determines how systems evolve over time.  The result is a tool that allows planners to "play" with different ideas to see how proposed actions might affect different systems within the city.

In much the same way, public engagement efforts allow planners to keep a finger on the "pulse" of different neighborhoods and districts, listening to the voices of citizens and businesses to determine unforseen needs or developments.  Inviting feedback and ideas from residents can help municipal leaders to pinpoint unexpected or unintended effects of new policies, sometimes even before they are implemented.

IBM's System Dynamics for Smarter Cities offers a very robust model for exploring outcomes and planning beyond immediate and obvious results.  It is the perfect complement to a strong engagement strategy, offering the force of analytic technology to fill the knowledge gaps that may be left by typical info-gathering.  Without neglecting the "human touch" of public engagement and feedback, policy makers can embrace System Dynamics as a way to complete their understanding of what makes their cities "tick".  Undoubtedly, the model will have a formidable impact on the development of smarter cities -- cities that have a deeper realization of how their systems and policies are interrelated, and how to make those systems work together in better ways than ever before.