In Summary

  • Professor Niki Frantzeskaki is Director of the Centre for Urban Transitions, and Program Leader for Urban Futures Governance at the Smart Cities Research Institute, Swinburne University of Technology


Cities are the fertile grounds where challenges, solutions and agents of change meet and co-produce innovations to progress urban transitions to liveable, just, sustainable and resilient futures. We are observing three related drivers for urban cities futures.

Firstly, pressing urban challenges like climate change, social injustice and sustainability have motivated a plethora of urban actors, activating bottom-up action and the rethinking of current practices and routines. Actors like city governments are broadening their roles from regulatory and planning and becoming knowledge actors. The third sector, civil society at large, has illustrated the ability to be a co-producer of systemic solutions and urban innovation in the face of a retreating (welfare) state. Knowledge actors like universities have also reshaped their role in being co-producers of knowledge with business, policy and society while also posing as an intermediary in policy-science interfaces. The changing roles of urban actors brings new opportunities in the ways urban futures and solution pathways are shaped and contested. Such drivers are broadly considered by the new forms of innovation movements and networks that are institutionalising across the globe.

Secondly, information technology and globalisation have made knowledge about emerging innovations, and solution concepts to respond to these challenges and renew urban infrastructures, more accessible. Information technology and digitalisation of governance allows for solutions to travel that can accelerate scaling while at the same time bringing the risk of approaches that are apolitical and/or culturally naive. With cities being the places for debate and political mobilisation for pressing urban challenges, the fast-paced diffusion of innovation requires new approaches to seize its potential without dismissing socio-political drivers. Such drivers are broadly considered in the solution-driven agendas of networks of cities that are proliferating across the globe.  This includes the C40 network of 94 global cities committed to addressing climate change and the 100 Resilient Cities that provided policy and strategy learning tools for cities to become more physically, socially and economically resilient.

Thirdly, the institutional strength of cities has proven catalytic in leapfrogging institutional barriers at state level and progressing agendas for climate change and urban resilience over the past decade. It is not the political will of exemplar mayors and their iconic projects that attracts attention, but rather the way they positioned cities as new agents of change in reshaping global agendas. This gave rise to a new narrative on the science of cities as a new science paradigm that requires research to be co-produced and to have impact, both socially and on policy.

In this landscape, understanding how to bridge challenges to solutions and opportunities for scaling innovations is paramount. The catalyst to these bridging processes is the way urban actors are connected, interact and organised in mediating and accelerating these processes. Moving ahead from historical explanations of entrenched routines and practices, reinforced by path-dependent rule systems, the science of cities requires a forward-looking agenda for addressing these issues and for progressing solutions-oriented knowledge for cities.

Research Focus

Stemming from this debate on the science of cities, the Future Cities Governance program at Swinburne’s Smart Cities Research Institute aims to co-produce new knowledge about the ways to achieve sustainable, livable, just, resilient and thriving cities in the future that balance people, planet, economy and technology. There are three defining characteristics of future cities’ governance:

  1. Governance of future cities is multi-actor, meaning that activation, participation and engagement of actors from civil society (including communities, individuals and third sector), market/business, government (including but not limited to politicians, policy-makers and planners) and the knowledge sector (including universities, knowledge institutes and centres) is central to the governance processes of future cities.
  2. Governance of future cities is solutions-oriented, meaning that we focus our research on understanding and support with scientific evidence ways of searching, adapting, co-designing and co-managing systemic urban solutions that address urban challenges or urban opportunities.
  3. Governance of future cities is future-oriented and knowledge-based, meaning that solutions and processes need to address future needs, targets and visions while establishing a knowledge and scientific-evidence base for systemic urban solutions.

Pathways of Urban Governance

Governance of future cities is realized through experimentation, innovation and scaling of systemic urban solutions. We posit that it is through these interrelated processes that governance of future cities is delivered and mediated.

Firstly, experimentation is a process of collaborative sense-making, solution-searching and co-designing, trialing and adopting to place, space and time of systemic urban solutions to achieve a desirable urban future. Innovation and systemic solutions can be co-produced, trialed, stimulated and contextualized through experimentation. Experimentation as a governance process can mediate and connect different urban agents of change and allow for openness and democratization of the innovation journeys of cities.

Secondly, innovation is a process of bringing novel solutions to evidence and to replace existing ones while adapting, transforming and/or dismantling planning and policy processes. Innovation can be mediated and accelerated through experimentation. Scaling can also create salience to innovation through connecting it across places (geography), across themes or agendas (institutions) and across markets (economy).

Thirdly, scaling is a confluent process of transferring, upscaling, embedding and/or contextualizing systemic urban solutions to contribute to commonly recognizable urban challenges for achieving desirable urban future outcomes. Scaling can be mediated through experimentation and/or change the pace of urban transitions in cities.

At Swinburne, our Future Cities Governance program is about bridging different expertise and science disciplines into examining, discovering and designing urban experimentation, transformative urban innovation and scaling of systemic solutions to address the challenges cities face as well as prepare the cities to seize opportunities in progressing urban agendas.

The Future Cities Governance program is at Swinburne’s Smart Cities Research Institute