Clarifying Complexity, Coordinating Change: The Value of City Indices

Urban indices and frameworks help those seeking to improve the health of cities better navigate complex, interrelated systems—facilitating coherent conversation, action and change.

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Date Posted

29 Jul 2022


Issue 24, 1 Aug 2022

Urban Indices Make Cities Visible

Cities are like herd animals—they watch each other, and they relate to and interact with one other, whether in a regional or even global sense. Cities want to be compared with one another. To do all that, you need common measurements: you want to establish some sense of where you are and how that is changing.

If you don’t have data about your city, you are largely invisible to the rest of the world. Without consistent, reliable data about how a city is performing, investors, whether foreign or domestic, would find it harder to know if their investments in a city are doing anything and so they will be reluctant to pour in resources. Cities also need to demonstrate that they are thinking about their own performance in a disciplined way that is transparent, visible and comparable to others. Indices, such as CitiIQ, do that for cities.1

If you don't have data about your city, you are largely invisible to the rest of the world.

What we have done at CitiIQ is to develop a measurement approach that takes 114 different indicators for each city or community and then puts those into a scoring framework that allows those scores to be measured on a scale from 0 to 100, regardless of what the item is. For instance, if you measure air quality, you might use parts per million—most people won’t know what a good parts per million value is. At CitiIQ, we convert it into a scale where 0 is bad and 100 is great—you don’t have to know what your air quality parts per million is. A higher score indicates a better outcome. This lowers the cognitive load for people who need to use the measurements. Indices translate data into a form simple enough for cities to make comparisons with each other and with themselves over time.

CitiIQ takes those 114 indicators, puts them into 35 sub-themes (Considerations) and then plugs those into five core areas (Dimensions) which becomes a single CitiIQ score at the top of the pyramid. We do this because some people don’t want to know about their specific wastewater score, they just want to know, on a broad level: is my city better this year than it was last year? That is a surprisingly difficult question to answer, because of the complexity of the moving parts: you could be better in one area but worse in another. We developed an algorithm that takes those 114 inputs, normalises them, standardises them so they can be compared city to city, and then weaves them into our scoring system.

CitiIQ also gives more weight to basic needs, such as water supply, food and security, than we do to things like tourism. Tourism might be very important for a city, but if it only focuses on tourism at the expense of clean water for citizens, the city cannot be said to be doing well. With the CitiIQ scoring system, a city can’t just pick and choose its improvements here and there in order to bump its score up.

But the core idea is comparability—a city with itself over time and then with other cities to understand whether it is getting better or not. Someone has to stand outside the city as a third party and take stock in a way that is reliable and useful. For our client cities, we normalise, clean and verify the data, score them, and we update the data every quarter. We try to provide a picture of where they are, an empirical reflection of what is going on in their city, as clearly and consistent as possible. It is then up to cities to determine the priorities for improvement that work in their context.

Understanding Interrelationships in Sustainable Development

In terms of sustainability, we need to constantly ask ourselves: what is it we want to sustain? Do we want to sustain the degradation of the environment? No. What we generally mean by sustainability are practices that, while they may extract or use a resource, also put something back so that the resource will be available again in future. Sustainability is about systems that feed back into themselves in helpful ways. You cannot have these loops by focusing only on a few subthemes or indicators. Sustainability is a valuable concept, but it is not an isolated, discrete entity.

For instance, a city’s drinkable water supply depends significantly on a range of different factors, including the state of the environment; the water supply engineering getting it to people safely; how it is monitored, managed, owned, sold; who pays attention to the upstream flows, and so on. There are no closed systems in a city. They are all open to each other in varying degrees.

There is also the question of scale. A small community of 5,000 people may have various agricultural practices that work on that smaller scale, but which would be destructive to the environment with 500,000 people (or vice versa). There is usually also a cost to any kind of development. You may have to cut down trees to grow food. To turn farmable land into natural wilderness, you may have to give up farmable land that could be used to feed thousands in order to support the natural ecosystem.

Sustainability is about systems that feed back into themselves in helpful ways. You cannot have these loops by focusing only on a few sub-themes or indicators.

Therefore, there is value in having a more comprehensive measure across the whole function of a city that reflects that these are not isolated elements. We might measure and gather particular data but when it comes to evaluation, we have to integrate our approaches and avoid being reductive. The CitiIQ system takes all this into consideration and does the scoring of indicators in an intricate, interconnected way. For CitiIQ’s 114 Indicators and 35 sub-themes, it is not as if a few indicators simply plug into one sub-theme. Instead, a single indicator could plug into 10 or 15 different ones, because a city is functional and complex, not discrete in its parts.

What we do is to take the complexity out of interpreting the data, providing feedback in a dashboard that is useful for navigating a city. This then helps people in policymaking and planning positions make decisions that support human wellbeing.

Avoid the mistake of thinking that any measurement represents the city fully. Such tools can provide an important point of reference, but do not give you definitive direction.

Putting Urban Frameworks to Real World Use

One thing to avoid is the mistake of thinking that any measurement represents the city fully. A measurement may be a useful construct, like how a car dashboard can provide useful information, but it will not tell you where your city should go, what rate of change is useful, or how your city should relate to its environment, or to other cities. Such tools provide an important point of reference, but do not give you definitive direction. You may be gaining in certain aspects of your city, but it could be at the expense of something else that is not measured, or what residents want.

Cities must make compromises, and they do not operate in a linear fashion. Some things may have to get worse for a time for there to be improvement in the long term. Physical infrastructure like public transit is a good example of this, as they cost a lot and are under construction for a long time. You should not look at an index and expect to get better in every area by 1% each year—it does not work like that. This is why it is important to keep the data updated across interrelated dynamics.

Another point to bear in mind is that any overview of a city is going to be an average—like measures of GDP—so a particular neighbourhood or area could be decimated while another thrives, and the overall numbers may not show this. We should not assume that just because we have made some gains on an averaged measurement that everyone in a city has benefited equally. This is where local community representation becomes very important.

Any approach or measurement framework we use must be sensitive to the reality of living in specific communities and cities. And we must be realistic that political sensitivities and priorities are going to play a role in what gets communicated—there may be pressure to accentuate the positive, for instance. Even with something like sustainability, we have to be careful not to politicise it, or carry out only one type of dialogue about it so it becomes a bandwagon everyone jumps on, and nobody digs into the more substantive implications where one sustainable practice is carried out at the expense of another. We do need to figure out how it is going to work practically.

What such frameworks can do, however, is bring coherence to those working at the more granular levels—say, those leading a department or working in a neighbourhood or a district, trying to improve water quality. They need to have an honest picture of what the situation is, so they can see how the improvements they work on—when they clean up their streets or take garbage out of the stream—contributes to the overall improvement of the city. This helps to link the agency of local efforts, of local communities and leaders, to the bigger picture, giving them something to aim for and a common language to build on. While we can think about the city in all sorts of ways, and consider different priorities, frameworks such as CitiIQ can bring coherence to the conversation and allow us to think about and coordinate how we can progress together.

We may measure in the particular, but we must relate that to the comprehensive. If we focus on sustainability, let’s identify the things that are highly relevant for sustainability but also recognise that we must connect that to a more coherent whole picture. Otherwise we will have limited progress, or we may find ourselves falling behind despite our efforts or investments, because of hidden elements or unintended effects impacting what we are doing, and then we stand little chance of making any real and lasting change.

We must also pay attention to the intermediary or secondary cities. Less prominent communities—including the middle-tier urban centres in which most people actually live—will significantly impact our future trajectory. We need to ensure that the urban solutions we develop will work there, and not just in the boutique, superstar cities. This is the real-world test: if our ideas can’t work in these places, they are not going to change the game; we would just be changing an instance. If we want to make a difference globally, we will have to develop sustainable solutions that will work systematically in these places.

Such frameworks can bring coherence to those working at the more granular levels, giving them something to aim for and a common language to build on.


Milton Friesen is Managing Director at CitiIQ, which works to measure the health and wellbeing of cities. A former elected municipal councillor, he is a member of the Program Committee for the Computational Social Sciences Society of the Americas, and has served on the steering committee of the Thriving Cities Project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (University of Virginia). He is completing a PhD at the University of Waterloo School of Planning, focusing on new ways to measure the social fabric of neighbourhoods.



  1. CitiIQ, “A Measurement System for the Health and Wellbeing of A City”, https://www.citiIQ.com.

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