Can Lean thinking transform our cities?

Published on
July 28, 2016
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo is editor at the Lean Global Network and Planet Lean
Share this article:

This month, we talk with an urban strategist to see if and how Lean can help transform our cities.

Interviewee: Boyd Cohen, city and climate strategist

Why is it crucial for the world to recognize that we must change our cities?

Cities may be the "last battleground" for us to right the ship and address the biggest global challenges, including population growth, climate change and inequality. We are witnessing the largest migration in human history: 1.3 million people move to cities every week. But what kind of future awaits them?

You wrote about cities acting like Lean startups - in what way would Lean startup principles apply to running and organizing a city?

I believe Lean approaches to city building and citizen co-creation are crucial to reshaping our cities. Citizens have more and more tools to be part of the solution, from Fab Labs and co-working spaces to communication and organizational tools. I have written extensively about this in my new book, The Emergence of the Urban Entrepreneur. Cities need to embrace new forms of innovation, embrace design thinking and Lean startup ideas to test (and fail) quickly and ultimately succeed. Only then might it make sense to scale a solution citywide or to other cities.

An example of startup-style experimentation is what many cities in the U.S. have done with bike lanes. Instead of investing millions in new infrastructure, they tested it first by simply painting lanes on the asphalt and using cones. Can you give us more examples? Are there any principles of "traditional Lean" that you think are well applicable to cities?

Many urbanists refer to the Lean approach in cities as popups. Popups are short-term experiments in cities designed to test citizens' reaction and behavior to new ideas. There are popup parks, popup transportation options, popup markets and more. While this is very close to Lean , one difference is that many of these projects do not begin with true design thinking in which the city first tries to build empathy for citizens' needs and identify clear problems requiring creative solutions. Often they are creative ideas generated by the city itself. I think in the future we will see more engagement with Lean startup and design thinking in city governments as ways to reinvent city operations and citizen engagement and co-creation, from building empathy to hypothesis testing and solution co-creation. I also think we will see more citizens leading Lean initiatives in their neighborhoods (and not just co-creating with cities).

What is the contribution Lean thinking can make to improving our cities?

Historically, cities changed over very long periods of time (decades). The pace of change is accelerating and cities need to be able to respond much faster. But cities do not have unlimited resources. In fact, they have limited resources (at least financially) while generally facing a growing population and increasing demand for infrastructure. This requires experimentation, innovation and new ways of thinking in cities. And the one thing cities have abundant resources for is the innovativeness of their citizens. The question is how to tap those minds in a way that benefits the common good.

Lean is often applied to city management - the best-known example may be Melbourne, Australia, but there are more. In what other scenarios and environments can Lean be applied? How do we move from Lean in city governance to Lean cities?

As I said, I think Lean, or at least elements of Lean, are already being embraced in cities around the world in the form of pop-up projects. Yet much more can be done. As for government, cities are the best form of organization to embrace Lean thinking because city leaders and elected officials are closest to their constituents, allowing for much more engagement, interaction and empathy. Mayors live in the same city as their citizens and experience the same pains (or at least many of the same) as everyone else.

The interviewee


Boyd Cohen is an urban and climate strategist. He is co-author of Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change and The Emergence of the Urban Entrepreneur: How the Growth of Cities and the Sharing Economy Are Driving a New Breed of Innovators. Boyd is currently associate director of research and professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at EADA Business School in Barcelona and joint professor at Universitat de Vic.

More Lean news

See all blogs

Stay tuned!

Sign up for our newsletter

Thanks for your registration
Something went wrong, please try again.