Glenn Woodcock is the CEO and Founder of Exeter City Futures. He has 25 years of experience in senior management positions across venture capital, software product development, credit risk and regulatory reporting. He’s also led and completed more than 10 major venture investments and holds a number of directorships at investee companies.

In this series of blogs he will look at why Exeter City Futures is building an Analytical City to achieve its goals of Energy Independence and Zero Congestion. ‘How Data Can Solve the Problems of Urbanisation’ looks at how data can be used to solve the wicked problems of cities – the subject of the previous Founder’s Blog.

In my last blog I looked at the “wicked” problems of cities, problems caused by rapid urbanisation, and why Exeter is well-placed to find solutions. But in order to find these solutions data is needed – quality data and the technology and skills required to analyse it.

Within the city’s data lies the key to unlocking all the answers needed for developing long-term solutions to tackle the issues related to urbanisation, and to avoid short-term thinking that will have negative consequences for the city and its population.

But most cities are not accessing the data needed to optimise decisions about urbanisation, maximise productivity and achieve their greatest potential. A lack of policies that drive authorities to analyse data mean that cities do not identify and procure the capabilities which address the real needs of their citizens.

Coupled with this are challenges surrounding communication about data and helping people to understand the need for data collection. This limited awareness about data and analytics can mean that citizens are limited in their ability to make choices that maximise the opportunities that are available to them.

It is essential that cities raise awareness to help citizens understand data, and challenge the view that it’s a force for evil. Raising awareness of data will lead to a greater understanding about how it can be used to liberate personal freedoms and help people to thrive, rather than suppress them.

Data-driven Interventions

Many place-making initiatives and industrial strategies have been established with the general goal of making cities more sustainable. I founded Exeter City Futures to deliver a more focused series of data-driven interventions that tackle two key issues which are responsible for many of the problems of urbanisation – failing transport infrastructure and a rise in demand for energy. In Exeter these issues manifest themselves in congested roads, with our historic city offering little space to build new ones, and an increasing dependence on energy resources that have a negative impact on our environment and our economy.  

Traditional solutions to the urbanisation problem of congestion have been park and ride buses, cycle lanes, and congestion charges. These are classic examples of simple solutions that are no longer viable in a city where there is no more room for more bus lanes or cycle lanes, and customers demand more personalised and effective transport services. The limited finance and capacity for infrastructure changes that local authorities face also pose challenges that are currently preventing the development and deployment of innovative solutions.

The old solutions have all shared the same problem – and a lack of data to help us understand what the real problem is. The availability of data and analytics now in existence means that people have the opportunity to frame the problem and the understand the real issues before jumping for one of the old solutions. The evidence produced from this analytical approach is particularly effective in cities where everyone has the courage to ask big questions about how the city around them works.

Data is essential for analysing the effects new solutions will have on the city as a whole. Making an improvement to one service, may have a negative impact on another. The only way of avoiding this potential conflict is to use data to make the right choices, data that can be used to accurately assess impact and which point to where the optimal solutions are. It’s important to us that we don’t improve one area at the expense of another.

Data can identify patterns in traffic, the long-term effects new infrastructure will have, and tell us where people are really going and with what frequency. More accurate data surrounding energy use can inform us of exactly where efficiency needs to be increased and what the biggest wins will be. This is the kind of evidence needed by those asking the big questions, so they can develop the solutions that will define a new generation of town planning.

Building an Analytical City

Exeter City Futures has set itself the bold goal of making Exeter, and the Greater Exeter Area, Energy Independent and Congestion Free by 2025. This means finding solutions that limit our increasing reliance on non-renewable energy sources and reduce congestion in the city. By using data to understand and solve these major problems of urbanisation, we can stimulate innovation in the area, build a stable foundation on which the economy can thrive, and deliver a wide range of benefits that are sustainable environmentally and financially.

Currently many citizens already have the ability to make a difference in the city, whether they know it or not. They have the drive and the capacity to learn but they may not have the analytical skills to provide them with the essential insights – they lack access to data and tools needed to increase their capability for making change.

Exeter City Futures plans to increase the capability of Exeter by transforming it into an Analytical City, and in doing so giving its citizens the power to control their environment in positive ways. An Analytical City is a place where everyone has courage to ask big questions, challenge long-held assumptions, and work collaboratively to make big change happen.  

By making our Analytical City vision a reality Exeter City Futures will ensure that the city’s data is effectively used and its potential for creating positive impact is maximised – not just for today, and tomorrow, but for the foreseeable future as well.

The next Founder’s Blog will explore why place-making initiatives are essential for creating a more sustainable city. Future blogs will explore how we’re innovating procurement to acquire capability rather than things, and how cities everywhere, not just Exeter, can become a collaborative innovation platform which helps them to prosper and their citizens to lead better lives.