2nd October 2020

Innovation and Transformation in Smart Cities

In his latest blog, David Beeton explains Urban Foresight’s innovation-transformation framework and asks cities “are you a peacock, ostrich, dove or a swan?”

Innovation and transformation are not the same thing. The differences are subtle, but for smart cities this is more than just semantics.

Innovation can lead to transformation. Transformation can lead to innovation. But neither is a necessary precursor or an automatic guarantee of the other.

This is because a city’s ability to innovate does not necessarily correlate with its ability to transform.

These abilities are distinct and different. They require separate skills and structures. Successful cities excel at both.

Innovation and Transformation

Innovation is the delivery of something new or substantially improved. It includes rethinking ways of working, questioning possibilities, and turning good ideas into action.

Transformation is a journey to a better state. It can be the outcome of an innovation, but is a tangible process that occurs over time.

The ability to innovate can dictate the speed, scope and sustainability of a city’s transformation.

The ability to transform can dictate whether successful innovations become building blocks for future success. When failure occurs, this competence can also allow an innovation to take a new and better shape.

Urban Foresight’s Innovation-Transformation Framework

In developing and delivering smart city projects around the world, it has been helpful to use these two dimensions to decipher the different motivations, competences and ambitions of our clients. This can be be used to characterise four different types of cities.



Avoid stress and problems by hiding their heads. Ostriches are cautious, sceptical and concerned with the here and now.

Ability to innovate (Low)

Ostriches are reliant on institutional knowledge and long-established ways of doing things.

Their systems are often complex, inefficient and held together by duct-tape.

Past failures and the limitations of legacy systems have created a culture of scepticism around innovation and new technology.

Ability to transform (Low)

For an ostrich, change is too complex and costly to be rushed. It requires patience, careful planning and can be postponed to another day.

In extreme cases, these cities fail to acknowledge problems and are resistant to change. More commonly, they are hyper-focused on a single goal and fail to take necessary action to address or solve wider problems.

Resources are dedicated to fighting fires, with problems attributed to external forces beyond their control.


Showy and optimistic. Peacocks are technologically focused and economically driven.

Ability to innovate (High)

These cities are open to new ideas and partnerships, especially where this leads to inward investment and political kudos.

They are focused on high-profile pilots and reputation building. These are often standalone, short-term initiatives that are supplementary to existing core systems.

Peacocks are optimistic about technology and believe that this will automatically lead to transformation.

Ability to transform (Low)

Peacocks are excited by change, but are overly focused on technology, infrastructure and economic development as the way to achieve this.

Their optimistic view of innovation means that business cases are often based on indirect or hypothetical outcomes which are rarely realised.

Activities are often managed by a standalone smart city unit that is tasked to deliver discrete project outputs. Resources are constrained by finite project lifecycles, with limited scale-up or legacy activities.


Purpose-driven and people-centric. Doves prioritise governance over action, but strive for improved outcomes and renewal.

Ability to innovate (Low)

Doves are open to new ideas, but are more comfortable being a follower than a leader.

They are more focused on governance than action. This creates a broad base of support, but limits their speed, agility and responsiveness to new opportunities.

They prefer proven turnkey solutions and minimising upfront costs. This often requires adapting to technology rather than adopting the technology that best meets their goals.

Ability to transform (High)

These cities embrace change as positive and necessary. They have a deep understanding of needs and are committed to improving wellbeing, safety and sustainability.

Transformation is a steady, inclusive and outcome focused process of incremental improvements.

Doves get the job done (eventually). They compensate for limited resources and sub-optimal systems by working extra hard. This often relies on the stamina of a few highly motivated individuals that shoulder additional responsibilities and find entrepreneurial ways to make good things happen.


Perfectly balanced and refined. Swans achieve sustained and controlled progress through high energy and purposeful actions below the surface.

Ability to innovate (High)

Innovation is business as usual. It is widespread, embedded and a core part of how the city works.

This is enabled by collaborative end-to-end processes that turn good ideas into transformational outcomes.

Swans don’t do standalone pilots. All innovation activity is geared towards systematically building the future of the city.

Ability to transform (High)

Success breeds success. A focus on making practical changes to things that matter produces measurable progress. This builds momentum, new capabilities and sustains transformation activities.

Swans are resilient and responsive to change. Iterative and agile processes reduce risks and facilitate proactive problem solving.

Internal resources are enhanced by innovation partnerships and a networked ecosystem of talented suppliers.

Final Thoughts

In my experience, no city is a Swan. Some cities have managed swan-like achievements, but never across the board. Recognising that innovation is iterative and transformation is a journey, the Swan is perhaps an ideal to strive for and to guide actions along the way.

In terms of the transition to becoming a Swan, it’s questionable whether this is easier for a Peacock or a Dove.

The smart city industry is largely geared to Peacocks. These cities have the resources that enable them to invest in kit and platforms. They have the profile and personnel to succesfully compete for government funding. Their ability to promote themselves also makes them an ideal shop window to secure supplier discounts and favours.

However, the Doves’ focus on achieving transformational outcomes means that incremental improvements can create disproportionately high returns. A shared motivation to capitalise on defined opportunities for change is invariably more powerful than simply having access to the resources that make innovation possible.

The Ostrich is probably the natural state for most cities. Transformation is hard and innovation is understandably deprioritised. The resources and energies of these cities are consumed by shoring up front line services, conserving cash, minimising risk, executing existing change programmes, and waiting for more clarity before acting.

Despite the differences, I have yet to encounter a city that isn’t motivated to work towards a better future. Understanding these various motivations, competences and outlooks is often central to helping them achieve this.

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