A dilemma-driven approach to urban innovation

What is meant by a dilemma-driven approach?
Everyone who is somehow involved in city development knows about the wicked issues that emerge from strategic decision making in this context. In a changing, interconnected and hyper-complex environment urban practitioners and strategists often encounter dilemmas (or even tri-lemmas). In its simple definition, a dilemma means having to decide between two or more alternatives that seem equally desirable or undesirable. However, dilemmas may also mean difficult situations where the path taken is not clearly beneficent and the need to compromise continuously appears. In other words, typical implementation, transition, and innovation situations.

Dilemmas occur where the level of uncertainty is too high to rely on a pre-calculated action plan

A challenge on the other hand, can be handled by following an action plan, it might be hard and rough as indicated by “challenge”, but you base the action plan on what you know, and you start ticking the boxes until the challenge has been handled. In that way, it reinforces how things already work. Dilemmas are more difficult. Rather, they require that you do less of the same. It means you can’t really rely on your routine or kneejerk response. Dilemmas occur where the level of uncertainty is too high to rely on a pre-calculated action plan. You know that you have most likely run up against a dilemma when the situation is highly unpredictable.

A does not lead to B – as is the case in urban environments. Cities are, in a similar way, more than the sum of its parts- more than physical attributes and the humans occupying them. The city is continuously being created by the people who occupy them: you cannot build a city, only the prerequisites for a city. These are the kinds of dilemmas that urban planners and local policy makers engage with regularly.

In this type of setting, dilemmas also represent an issue-oriented rather than sectoral or silo-oriented approach: our dilemmas shape a kind of conceptual platform where the very different kinds of stakeholders – policy-makers, entrepreneurs, city authorities, civil society, public administrations, business, industry, and research – can meet and mobilise around a common concern.

Making the transportation system work in technical terms can be a challenge, but aligning it with liveability poses a dilemma.

Give me an example?
Dilemmas emerge all over the urban environment: in its many types of layered infrastructures, in its robustness to deconstructive shocks, in and around its public spaces, in housing policies and their implementation, in our strive to increase its liveability, functionality, and so on. For instance technological solutions to sustainability efforts, and the standardisation attempts that follow,  sometimes answer to issues of environmental impact, infrastructure development, housing needs and more. However, large technology-oriented solutions to urban functions alone, does not necessarily increase the liveability of a city. The aspect of technological solutions sometimes end up neglecting the specific other needs of a city and its inhabitants, such as liveability and values related to this (affordability, accessibility, aesthetics, place-making values). How do you as a city manager navigate between on the one hand guaranteeing technical functionality of the city, and on the other hand develop the liveability. In technical terms the transport system might be functional, but does the system reflect liveability, if for example women and children do not use it? And what is the value of a functional transport system if it is not being used? A synergistic integration of functionality and liveability creates the possibility of providing better access to people and communities that are now excluded. Making the transportation system work in technical terms can be a challenge, but aligning it with liveability  poses a dilemma.

Why is a dilemma-driven approach important?
JPI Urban Europe is to tackle the societal challenge of urban transformations to sustainable and liveable urban futures. In this sense, JPI Urban Europe is challenge driven, which means that public actors take a lead to support co-creation among a diverse set of actors, as well as transnational collaboration. Together we tackle and shape innovative ways to deal with the complex and wicked issues in today’s societies. In order for these issues to be categorized as a ‘challenge’, they would exemplify a critical need or problem in society at large, and they would be defined by the problem-owners themselves drawing on their everyday practices and experiences. New business opportunities and markets is expected in the wake of these clusters of resources and innovativeness.[1] In other words, the ‘tradition’ of the challenge-driven approach underpins what in Horizon Europe emerges as ‘missions’.[2]

However, simply identifying these challenges is not enough, because urban transitions and sustainable urban development usually involve many different (sub)targets, which often result in a set of strategies or actions pursued in parallel or disconnected from each other. While some targets support each other, others conflict across administrative departments, sectors, or societal groups. To achieve successful change, urban transition pathways need to anticipate such conflicting targets and wicked issues.

Dilemmas provide strong cases for research and innovation to develop new insights and help answer to how change can be more effectively realised

Most of us who are somehow involved in city development know about the wicked issues that emerge from strategic decision making and actions pursued in this context. In an interconnected and hyper-complex urban environment in constant motion- practitioners and strategists oftentimes encounter dilemmas rather than simple problems with an easy fix readily available off the shelves. Seeing it this way, urban challenges and issues rather make up dilemmas, wicked issues, and trade-offs between sometimes two good decisions and sometimes two bad ones- and sometimes between one of each.

At the UTPS 2018 in Prague, participants used Parkour as a useful metaphor for how to view obstacles, both in the physical space but also in urban innovation and strategy development. When you watch a video clip of people performing Parkour, you are struck by their creative, brave and energizing way of navigating and using the obstacles around them to get to where they want to be. Removing the obstacles or simply walk around them, is not an option. City makers are aware that obstacles do not go away, rather, they transform into something else. In a sense, they are to us what the law of energy* is to physicists- it can never disappear- but always re-appear- somewhere else or in a different form. The only thing we know for sure, is to expect the unexpected.

JPI Urban Europe wants to support research and innovation that help answer to the actual challenges faced by cities. As these challenges often occur in the shape of a dilemma, oftentimes evolving around issues of public space, infrastructure, robustness and digital transitions, this is where innovation is needed. Dilemmas provide strong cases for research and innovation to develop new insights and help answer to how change can be more effectively realised. This led up to the realisation that thematic priorities in the SRIA 2.0 will be updated by way of a dilemma-driven approach.

> Intrigued? Keep your eyes, and mind, open for JPI Urban Europe’s upcoming interactive webinars “Urban Lunch Talks”, that will feature this dilemma-driven approach to urban innovation.
> The SRIA 2.0 will launch in Brussels 12-15 February 2019, find it here.


Contact person for the dilemma-driven-approach and the SRIA 2.0:

Contact person for the webinars:


[1] Cf. https://www.vinnova.se/en/m/challenge-driven-innovation/this-is-cdi/

[2] Cf. Mazzucato, 2018





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