How do cities learn?

A look at one of the case studies from the book Beyond Smart Cities: How Cities Network, Learn and Innovate.

Feb 5, 2013 | BLOG POST

I recently completed Tim Cambell ’s book Beyond Smart Cities: How Cities Network, Learn and Innovate.

I got interested in reading it when I saw Tim present at a seminar and heard that he had mentioned ICMA’s CityLinks program in his book. 

Tim introduces the idea of “clouds of trust,” which he describes as ties of trusted links between and among key actors in the community—civic, business, youth.  These “clouds” provide linkages in the community, especially with the turnover of elected politicians, and help sustain the continuity of learning in the community.

He looks at city exchange programs-–like CityLinks—in the context of how cities learn and concludes that innovation in a city comes from these clouds of trust, within which people exchange knowledge and convert that learning into innovation.  This innovation spreads when cities learn from each other – whether they are located in Europe, Africa, or the U.S.

I can’t do the whole book justice here, as it describes many case studies—from Seattle to Charlotte to Amman to Bilbao—and analyzes how and why they learn and innovate – and when they don’t.

However, I was most intrigued by the city of Curitiba, Brazil.  Curitiba is known for its innovation in Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and sustainability, among other things.  But what might not be well known is that Curitiba formed a type of city “think tank” (IPPUC – its Portuguese acronym) during the military dictatorship in Brazil. Under military rule, cities relied financially on the state and national governments and were expected to follow all the mandates, rules, and proclamations coming from the centralized government—no matter how local government felt about them. IPPUC was essentially born in 1964 (but officially launched in 1965) when Curitiba organized a competition to create a master plan for the city. IPPUC’s mandate was to implement the master plan.

Why has Curitiba been an innovator for more than five decades—even during a military dictatorship?  My takeaways include:

  • Independence of IPPUC.  It had some administrative and functional separation from the municipality, allowing it the freedom to innovate.
  • Technical expertise. IPPUC staff had the expertise and they also could access in-house research staff. They were architects, engineers, lawyers, sociologists, and educators from all over the country and around the world.
  • Diverse board. Key political and civic leaders served on the board, helping it to gain approval for projects from the city.
  • Motivation. Some key staff were committed and motivated early on and provided the initial impetus and continuity to create success.
  • Pilot testing and engagement. Curitiba tested out a pedestrian-only mall in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although businesses initially opposed the idea of a pedestrian-only zone, IPPUC it engaged businesses and involved in the process so they could understand on technical grounds about the environmental and commercial benefits launching this effort.
  • Learning from others. Staff was not only diverse and from different countries – they scoured the world to learn from other cities of ideas they could adopt and adapt.

These are just a few of the highlights of how cities learn and innovate. But what was left with me after reading this is that cities learn best from other cities – peers from cities can get together, share challenges, test ideas for solutions with their counterparts, and then take the best ideas back to their own cities to implement.

If you want to learn more about this book – check out

If you want to learn more about ICMA's CityLInks program - visit

How do you think cities learn?





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