What Can Urban Sustainability Experiments Do?

Rob Cowley & Jon Phillips


This report builds on a side event that aimed to stimulate discussion around the potential for ‘urban experiments’, contributing to the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, at the Ninth Session of the UN-Habitat World Urban Forum (WUF9). Around 50 WUF9 participants from cities around the world took part in the event and this report summarises some of the  key learnings from the audience discussion and feedback forms.


The audience discussion responded to a series of short vignettes of urban experimentation which have been profiled in international research projects on Smart Eco-Cities and Urban Energy Transformations. These were presented by David Hees (on the iShack solar energy project in Cape Town, South Africa), Melissa Kerim-Dikeni (on the Nelson Mandela Bay Regional Innovation Forum, also in Cape Town), Rob Cowley (on the ongoing process of experimentation in Corridor Manchester, UK), and May Tan-Mullins & Ali Cheshmehzangi (on experimental ’smart city’ governance in the city of Ningbo, China).

Watch the discussion in full here.


This event drew on recent academic work identifying a global trend towards urban ‘governance by experiment’. Rather than relying on traditional policy-led solutions to unsustainable development, local authorities are often acting more at arms’ length, enabling local communities, the private sector, NGOs, universities, and other stakeholders to work in partnership. The local experiments that take place are often small-scale, low-risk ‘pilot’ activities.

Urban experimentation, then, is neither fully ‘top down’ nor ‘bottom up’, but varies between the two. From a global perspective, this is a process of experimentation in new forms of governance, as much as in new sustainable technologies.


Many of our audience members were optimistic about the potential benefits of urban experimentation. A successful experiment opens up the possibility of replication elsewhere, and actively demonstrates the value of ‘breaking down silos’ and fostering dialogue between different stakeholder groups.

But even a ‘failed’ experiment means lessons can be learnt, social learning has been enabled, and relatively little has been spent upfront. This is clearly appealing for cities lacking the resources or political will to commit to large-scale structural changes, and be- cause it allows risk to be shared.

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IShack experimental solar power in Enkanini, South Africa Photograph: David Hees (2016)

Small local trials of new innovations may avoid the problems that occur when ‘best practice’ from elsewhere is insensitively imposed onto urban space. They build under- standing of how new ideas should be ‘translated’ into local contexts. Equally, though, experiments may work to define best practice, and what is learnt can be shared more widely.

These potential benefits are well aligned with the New Urban Agenda’s (UN, 2017) emphasis on collaborative governance processes, capacity building, and knowledge sharing. Among other things, it actively promotes “the systematic use of multi-stakeholder partnerships in urban development processes” (153), “co-production networks” (154) and cross-sectoral efforts to “develop and manage basic services and infrastructure” (91), with businesses called upon to “apply their creativity and innovation to solving sustainable development challenges in urban areas” (133). It urges better “access to science, technology and innovation and enhanced knowledge-sharing on mutually agreed terms” (126), and inclusive collaboration in shaping the “organizational and institutional governance processes” though which decisions are made (148).


“One government responsibility is to spread awareness of successful experiments among the public. This can create a new wider mindset of hope for the future”


Can processes of local experimentation be intentionally stimulated? The hope of doing so may be misplaced if, as one audience member suggested, it is necessity rather than policy-making that is the mother of invention. However, in the absence of external encouragement and information, it should be supposed that many new ideas will go untested. Other clever local innovations, furthermore, will go unnoticed, and wheels will endlessly be reinvented.

Local authorities may play a useful catalytic role by supporting ‘niches’ where innovations can be trialed, and activating processes of broader uptake in cases where individual experiments produce beneficial results. In our audience’s view, a minimal level of ‘steering’ would involve:

  • Giving official but selective recognition to experimental activities
  • Facilitating dialogue between different groups of innovators on the ground
  • Actively forging links between local communities and the private sector
  • Helping communicate successful outcomes more widely.

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    New transport infrastructure accompanying wider pro- cesses of experimentation in Manchester (UK) (Photograph: Armita Afsahi, 2016)

But, as some observed, local authorities themselves may need convincing. There may be little political will to support experimentation. Local authorities may see their own developmental roles in more cautious, reactive, and prescriptive terms. Some hesitate due to expectations of high costs, and because relevant management processes are not in place.

Encouraging a more joined-up, ongoing culture of multiple experimentation may there- fore require making the case actively that:

  • Experimentation can take place at relatively little cost to a local authority
  • It appeals elsewhere precisely because it is low-risk and does not imply long-term commitment
  • It can usefully be woven into a broader communications strategy to encourage inward investment.

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    New technology and governance approaches on dis- play at the Ningbo Smart City Science & Technology Museum (China) (Photograph: Jin Sheng, 2016)

The case of Manchester’s ’Corridor’, which has supported multiple urban sustainability experiments over the last decade, highlights the potential for success to breed success. Local groups gaining confidence in their own abilities will be more willing to collaborate on further projects; and having a history of experimental activity may give potential investors confidence to support new activity.

“Convincing bureaucrats and administrators means showing them good examples again and again and again” (Audience member)


Some audience members urged caution, pointing to the potential dangers of urban experimentation. It was suggested that experiments can be uncomfortably aligned with cost-cutting, and deemed ‘successful’ when they lead to potential profits or electoral support, regardless of their social or environmental impact. We were reminded that ‘partnerships’ are not always formed on equal terms and through free choice, and that civil society does not always pursue progressive goals. Equally, we should think care- fully before assuming that local communities will be happy to be ‘experimented on’.

There is no guarantee, then, that outcomes of an unregulated process of experimentation will be aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals. Building a local culture of experimental innovation should also involve paying close attention to power imbalances within governance arrangements, and active attempts to channel individual interests into collective gain. Official support should be based on clear criteria in line with the New Urban Agenda, and enable inclusive process- es through which concrete goals relevant to the local context can be collectively agreed.


Nevertheless, experiments do not always sit well with regulation: their intentional role is often to challenge accepted ways of doing things.

Our audience was therefore divided over the usefulness of detailed prescriptive ‘standards’ to shape or evaluate individual experiments. Applying these may miss the point that innovation takes place at the edge of the status quo, and the most welcome out- comes of experiments are often unexpected.

But even if innovation will tend to be one step ahead of regulation, our audience were insistent that experiments cannot be allowed to contravene the law. More broadly, we should be suspicious of experimental governance which actively seeks to bypass incumbent institutional processes. Crucially, conducting or enabling urban experiments should also entail accountability and responsibility for what results.


Research informing this report was supported by funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) through research grants ES/L015978/1 and ES/N014138/1, and from the National Science Foundation of China (NSFC), project number 71461137005. We are grateful to May Tan- Mullins and Ali Cheshmehzangi (University of Nottingham Ningbo), Melissa Kerim-Dikeni (Sciences Po Paris and University of Cape Town), and David Hees (iShack) for taking part in the event, as well as the organisers of WUF9 for hosting it. Finally, we would like to thank all our au- dience members for contributing so generously to the discussion.

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