June 2, 2017

How Data Is Driving Smart Decisions in Global Cities (and Their Aspiring Followers)

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By Scott King

How can a city make better decisions that will consolidate a city’s character and, at the same time, address top concerns? Los Angeles, San Francisco and London are among the global cities that have answered this question by embracing data-driven decision-making for urban planning. They are considered to be innovators today. But smaller cities, such as Omaha, are following in their footsteps. Global cities and their smaller counterparts alike are finding unique ways to use data for better planning and economic development.

All cities, no matter their size, are collecting and analyzing data — whether it comes from cameras, sensors, satellites, wireless networks, utility services, or other sources. Yet, once they have this data, how can they use it in a meaningful way? The key to making informed decisions is to have access to a simple way of visualizing and consuming available data in order to identify what insights they can reveal about key priorities.

Along these lines, data can help decision-makers shift their mindset. The key question that cities need to ask is: “Are we a planned city, or a city that plans?” A planned city is the old-school model where data is used to determine the types of businesses that are located next to one another, or the kind of services cities need to deliver. A city that plans is one that takes a strategic long-term view of the character it wants to be known for, as well as how that character supports its priorities — both in terms of revenue and operational efficiency.

Big cities have been using data for a long time to perform strategic planning. Consider San Francisco, which crunched its demographic data and discovered that it had the lowest percentage of children among America’s top 100 cities. This fact would have been easy to miss, given that the tech economy of San Francisco is booming and real estate is at an all-time high. But city leaders understood that the future of a city is in trouble without young people. So, San Francisco became the first city in the United States to require employers to offer six weeks of fully paid leave for new parents. The city also invested heavily to upgrade its parks and expand summer programs.

Los Angeles also took action after data showed that the region’s homeless population was increasing at a startling rate. The city recently adopted a coordinated set of strategies to combat homelessness, involving city leaders, businesses and community members. These strategies include creating more jobs, adding more subsidized and affordable housing, and increasing services.

Internationally, London is an example to follow in the use of data for city planning. It is the epicenter for data analytics, where researchers analyze everything — from the success/failure rate of entrepreneurs; to how the health of a population is strongly linked to the circumstances in which they live; to the need for a local, place-based approach to tackling health outcomes. A recently launched initiative, Data for London, plans to approach city data as if it were city infrastructure — a commodity to be shared, exploited, and potentially monetized.

Even smaller cities, such as Omaha, have successfully used data. Omaha realized that it was losing its young people to other cities. The challenge was to figure out how to attract new residents to its demographic mix when 20- to 40-year-olds are less likely than earlier generations to choose a city based upon a job but instead based on where they want to live and then seek employment. Using the slogan “We Don’t Coast,” Omaha embarked on a $23 million marketing campaign to position itself as a great place to live and work — a low-cost, high-tech city filled with arts and entertainment venues, restaurants and recreation. Big businesses took notice. IBM gave the city a $400,000 grant to help it become a “smart” city. Facebook recently announced it was considering the area to build a data center.

The overwhelming conclusion is that smart cities — large and small — realize that there is value in using data to attract new residents and businesses, and stay ahead of the technology wave. By being aggressive in their long-term strategic planning and forward-thinking, cities can remain competitive and avoid disruption that means loss of control and possible revenue. Cities must adopt a "lead or be led" mentality to stay ahead of a rapidly changing economy and ensure thoughtful planning and economic development for the future.

Scott King is the managing principal of Grant Thornton’s public sector state and local practice. Grant Thornton is a supporting sponsor of the 2017 Chicago Forum on Global Cities, hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Financial Times, June 7-9, 2017.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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