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Founder’s Blog – Exeter and the “Wicked” Problems of Cities

Blog : 24 May 2017

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. ‘Exeter and the “Wicked” Problems of Cities’ looks at the specific issues of congestion and energy in modern cities like Exeter, and why Exeter is well-placed to find solutions.

 

Cities are growing too fast. By 2050 80% of the world’s population will be living in them, the result of a trend of populations gravitating towards city centres. Exeter is no different. As the fastest growing city in the UK its current population of 124,000 is expected to increase by 40,000 within a decade.

Exeter also has a travel to work area population of 280,000, and a shopping catchment of over 500,000. A total of 37,168 inward commuters are attracted by over 89,000 jobs in the city. These numbers are swollen at peak times by shoppers and school runs.

All these people and cars mean that as a region Greater Exeter uses a lot of energy. Energy Independence 2025 identifies that as a region we use 10TWh at a cost of £914 million per annum on energy, half of which is spent on fuel. We’re literally burning away money on unclean energy as only 2.1% is generated through renewable resources.

This rapid growth in commuters and increase in energy demand from non-renewable sources can’t be slowed under a business-as-usual scenario, and it’s negatively impacting the well-being and economy of populations everywhere. This not just a problem Greater Exeter is facing, it’s problem on a global scale – but how do we solve it?

I founded Exeter City Futures to develop solutions to the “wicked” problems of increasing congestion and unsustainable energy, problems that when solved will have wide-reaching economic and environmental benefits for the region, and potentially the world.

In order to develop the right solutions it’s important that everyone understands that these problems are not impossible to tackle, and that the right solutions can have a positive impact beyond the focussed scope of our goal to become Energy Independent and Congestion Free by 2025.

Defining “Wicked” Problems

When we refer to “wicked” problems we refer to problems that are challenging to solve because the knowledge required for the solutions is incomplete or contradictory, too many people and opinions are involved in the decision making process, the problems are interconnected with other problems, and economically they don’t seem feasible.

The most obvious form of wicked problem we face is the car. Cars are the most common mode of transportation accounting for most of our trips – 75% of UK homes own at least one. We take them for granted, and the fact the cost should be borne by us, but we don’t take into account the negative impact that they’re having on the world and people around us.

In Exeter alone we spend almost £500m on fuel annually. Every year 25,000 deaths are attributed to air pollution, with road traffic the cause of over 64% of air pollution in urban areas. Air pollution and its health impacts are costing the UK as much as £18.6bn a year.

 

 

There’s no question that the cost here is not just a financial one, but the difficulty of solving the problem means we just accept it as a part of the world we live in. The existence of cars has allowed us to use land in different ways, to develop houses where it’s convenient rather than where it’s right, and build workplaces that cannot be easily accessed by public transportation. All these decisions that have arisen as a result of the convenience of the car have led to poor planning decisions, because we haven’t had the tools at our disposal to make smarter ones.

While we can’t simply tell people to stop driving, we can now offer them viable alternatives that make economic sense and people’s lives easier and healthier. For example if we could build cities where cars aren’t needed to get around then housing could be made affordable, especially in places like the US where a parking space can add up to $60,000 to the cost of a house.

Congestion caused by cars is a problem that suffers from all the qualities of being wicked. Outdated transport models mean we have incomplete information about the long-term effects of new infrastructure changes, information silos within local authorities hinder the decision-making process, budget constraints prevent the best solutions being invested in, and there’s also the fact that transport is an issue which affects every aspect of our lives.

In Exeter and its Travel to Work Area the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan offers a framework for developing the region over the next 20 years, and is filled with wicked problems just like cars. In addition to transport, areas identified by the plan that require strategic planning include housing, economy, environment, healthy communities, and infrastructure. All these areas will be positively affected not only by reducing the number of cars on our roads, but achieving energy independence as well.

How can Exeter help find solutions?

Exeter is the perfect location to develop the tools needed to solve problems such as congestion, and make smarter planning decisions. Not only is its transport infrastructure under an increasing strain and the region dependant on energy from non-renewable resources, but it is geographically and politically well-situated to validate solutions. It is small but it has all the features of much larger urban centres, a centralised population, and an engaged local authority aligned with the goals of Exeter City Futures, features which make it easy to validate solutions before deploying them at scale.

I believe that Exeter City Futures can develop solutions to the wicked problems of urbanisation in Greater Exeter. Dealing with congestion and energy consumption is one of the greatest challenges cities around the world face, though these can only be solved through effective data analytics.

Data is the greatest underused resource at our disposal, but at the moment there’s a lack of it. In my next blog I will discuss how data can be used to optimise decisions about urbanisation, maximise productivity and achieve their greatest potential.

 

This blog is the first in a series in which we look at how Exeter City Futures is building analytical capacity within the city to achieve our goals. The next will delve deeper into how data and data analytics can be used to create an analytical city.

Future Founder’s Blogs will explore how we’re innovating procurement to acquire capability rather than things, creating a pipeline of new business models within our programme and working to define new services that allow existing infrastructure to be used more efficiently. This blog series will show how cities everywhere, not just Exeter, can become a collaborative innovation platform which helps them to prosper and their citizens to lead better lives.