It is time for local governments the world over to recognize the internationalization of city leadership and the intrinsic value of finding partners or stealing good ideas.
This ethos has been embraced recently by Chinese digital giant Tencent with the launch of a dedicated exploration team, led by a chief eXploration officer tasked with seeking out disruptive innovations that are global in scale but personal in nature and that push beyond the frontier of challenges to global sustainability or human health.
In the same vein, I would suggest it is fundamental for cities to take exploration seriously and scientifically as a fundamental new frontier for city management. This means institutionalizing the figure of the CXO as a core component of municipal government.
The idea of chief eXploration officers is no novelty; the figure of the CXO is well established in the corporate behemoths of the resource economy, including BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Italy’s Eni, all of which task their versions of CXOs not just with drilling but also with diving into future trends and tackling, in the words of Eni, the “unconventional” as a field of exploration.
Whilst it might be controversial to take inspiration from such much-criticized global corporate actors, and the business sector in general, they have some lessons to offer on international engagement and evidence-based exploration. After all, cities are already doing this with each other. Rio de Janiero, for example, keeping a close eye on the innovations of its neighbor, São Paulo, has adapted aspects of Johannesburg’s and Jakarta’s management of waste cooperatives to implement new recycling schemes. Ho Chi Minh City collaborated with Rotterdam for the design of its flood control measures. And these are but two of many similar stories.
The role of CXOs is engagement and networking—testing trends, markets and disruptive opportunities on the basis of solid evidence about their own city and the world around it. We need more Londons and Johannesburgs stealing from Rios and Singapores, and we need the variety of places that borrow from each other in collaboration to grow to an even wider landscape of cities big and small.
Appointing CXOs is not necessarily about spending more in already tight municipal budgets: it is about educating chief innovation and chief technology officers (CIOs and CTOs) that already exist, along with deputy mayors for partnerships and international affairs, in recognizing the value of external engagement—helping them understand that valuable urban solutions might already exist in the practices of local governments and start-ups in places their mayors might have never heard about.
Similarly, exploration teams can be created as C-Suites of explorers from the various critical areas of municipal management, exposing existing staff and advisors in international engagement, evidence-based policy, entrepreneurship and socially-responsible innovation. This needs to be more than a symbolic role: backing a CXO with a sound exploration team is paramount to prevent of innovation-seeking from being a one-off, tokenistic or political move by city leaders preoccupied with electoral cycles. CXOs in the resource, tech and innovation sectors offer excellent examples; they’ve generally been driven by a tight relationship with evidence-based action, in which stratigraphy, climate models, paleogeography and even geopolitical foresight have all featured prominently as sound scientific bases where to build new fields of exploration.
Bridging the divide between town and gown is also key here; on average, the distance between city hall and the closest university in the world’s 200 largest cities is but 4 kilometers—and yet in many places, that near-walkable distance is hardly crossed. In Melbourne, we have been experimenting with institutional commitments between local government and university with the joint appointment of a City of Melbourne Chair of Resilient Cities, along with doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers, who regularly exchange information about resilience and innovation.
Leveraging university networks is key here to equipping CXOs with sound evidence bases, as these links offer an often-untapped mobility of urban ideas, talent and overseas intelligence rarely integrated in municipal strategies. CXOs and their exploration teams need to operate within a broader ecosystem of science-policy collaboration that is rarely exploited by cities.
Appointing CXOs means opening up the horizon of our mayors’ urban imagination; linking local needs to alternative solutions; and offering tangible responses to one’s own citizens. This reform could be a unique opportunity for city leaders the world over to forge, and bet on, a new generation of local government officers who have a truly global gaze. It is time for city leadership to embrace the frontier of unconventional “borrowing” and making new friends in a world of shared urban challenges.