Systems lens into the cities: can we be “on time”?

Posted April 21, 2022

Authors: NELLY MINASYAN and MARIA MARTIROSYAN 

In nowadays world immersed in multiple crises and in growing uncertainty, where the situation and dynamics change even on hourly basis, we should all embrace a new mindset, and approach that is agile, quick, adaptive, and systemic to increase our impact and relevance

Under this notion, the cities, forward looking actors of international community that include more than 55% of the world population, have a say, or in fact, can be the pioneers of change, leading the transformation and scaling it to the national level.

Cities are very complex systems with interwoven sectors, interrelated initiatives, stakeholders and relationships. So, how in this fast-paced world, planning can be done with such complex entities as cities? The answer is simple: they need to be “Smart”, not in the sense of only technological advancement, but as new UNDP handbook puts it “have bold vision, be engaging, transparent and stable, build on existing capabilities, learning continuously, be collaborative, inclusive and accessible”.

Well, how can these complex systems achieve the above-mentioned “Smartness”? One of the ways is the portfolio approach; when urban environments are approached through systems lens, thoroughly observed, listened to continuously before & after any intervention in the system. Meanwhile, the approach allows the systems, “to fail fast” and learn from “failure” early in the development where innovation and its impact is less costly but with bigger prospects”.

UNDP Armenia Kolba lab in cooperation with UNDP regional hub and with strong support from Agirre Lehendakaria Center and Chora Foundation embarked on this unknown yet exciting journey of urban transformation by applying the portfolio approach in small city of Stepanavan in the North of Armenia.

The project has identified Stepanavan, a small resort town in Armenia, for its diversity of offerings and potential attraction for talent. A model green city of 2015, an active tourism and recreation spot, the city has recently started looking for more opportunities for development.

All the voices should be heard

First, with the support from regional & Agiree teams, UNDP Armenia team started “listening” to the city dynamics to understand what’s happening and where the citizens of Stepanavan aspire to go. For this purpose, the team used different tools, including urban foresight to ensure that all the voices in the city are heard.

The listening helped us “understand, comprehend” the city; what are city dynamics, barriers, and enablers, divers of change, who are the key stakeholders, actors, and initiatives, what are the relationships between different groups in the system etc. In fact, it turned out that it is largely the relationships, networks and partnerships that make things moving.

Designing the intent for Stepanavan transformation

The listening process was followed by portfolio design process that included sensemaking sessions with the aim to reveal the hidden narratives and metanarratives existing in the city, validate the learnings and find the entry points.

As a result, the initial goal of the project was shifted from initial “talent attraction” to a broader intent for Stepanavan transformation – “bringing back vibrancy” to Stepanavan by

-          leveraging currently existing but under-used resources of the city, its "ripe fruits"

-          enabling an image of the city that evolves from only being "a place to rest" to being "a place to live" (and contribute)

-          learning how to continuously attract and retain talent (within and outside of the city)

The intent was backed by its eight strongly interrelated positions and several interrelated options; the portfolio team started probing with different but connected interventions at diverse sectors of the city.

Major challenges in Stepanavan and how we are trying to solve them

Two major problems identified in Stepanavan were the youth emigration and unemployment; the problems the portfolio is trying to address systemically.

First, as the youth and talent are the future of any working system, be it a city, a country, or an organization, our aim was to retain local talent and attract the external talent into Stepanavan by various interrelated probes;

-          Enhancing access of local youth to alternative learning and job opportunities. Based on the post COVID-19 trend of increasing “remote operations”, opportunities of remote learning & working were introduced to the local youth, so as they can study in the top universities of the world and work for global markets, without leaving Stepanavan.

-          However, the young people do not only need the jobs, but they also need some fun to have after the working day. In the framework of the portfolio several interventions were carried out to bring entertainment into the city: open-air movie & discussion club, revival of city traditional festivals, promotion of sports etc.

-          To attract people to Stepanavan, first it was decided to tell the people about Stepanavan, to present Stepanavan with renewed identity, not only a green and cozy place to rest but an ideal place to live and work for remote workers. Stepanavan was put on the digital map through different interventions.

-          An experimental internship program was conducted to bring to Stepanavan medical professionals that the city needs so much.

-          Finally, for transformative development, an interesting and strategic option was designed and piloted - the citizens of Stepanavan aimed to revive an old, declined industry of aviation through creation of aviation cluster (education, business, infrastructure) in the city. To support the city with the initiative, UNDP together with partners established the Aviation and IT Learning Center in the city, where the young people of Stepanavan will learn design & operations of UAVs to use them in agriculture, forest protection and disaster risk reduction. The Center will serve as a venue for organization of professional development courses as well as social platform for aviation education enthusiasts. A partnership agreement was facilitated by UNDP between Stepanavan municipality, local and external NGOs and academia for sustainable operations of the center.

-          Network of change-makers, innovators is formed in the city who already started carrying out dynamic management of the portfolio already without UNDP’s involvement.

All the above-mentioned interventions, probes serve the same purpose of bringing vibrancy to Stepanavan; we cannot speak about vibrant city without working youth; talent wouldn’t like to remain or come to the city if living in the city is not fun, without development of a major industry the city risks losing its vibrancy during any crises such as COVID-19. Besides, what the probes will bring to the system is largely unknown as they already started having multiplier effects, effects that come on their own based on the initial intervention but going beyond intended output/outcome. The below table shows several of them.

What’s next…

While the portfolio is currently at the stage of learning from the probes, not all the interventions will necessarily be successful. Now the city is in the 2nd iteration of observation, where portfolio team has been engaged in sensemaking sessions to see what went as expected what not, what needs to be changed, what improved etc. This is how iterative development works: continuous learning & continuous improvement.

Currently, UNDP is supporting Stepanavan Municipality to write its 5-year strategic development plan using the designed portfolio as a guide. The process will follow with other iterations of listening, sensemaking & learning & improving…

Let’s follow this challenging but exciting journey of transformation of a small green city of Stepanavan in the north of Armenia, a city with a myriad of challenges but forward looking with determination to achieve sustainable development.