What Would Dave Do? An Olympic Approach to Urban System Change (pt1)

How do you change a city to become zero carbon? How do you win a bike race?

These two questions on the face of it have little in common. In early February I attended a talk in Cambridge by Dave Brailsford about how the cycling teams he has run have become among the most successful ever. He has led British Cycling to an absurd number of Olympic medals and on the road has led the Sky Cycling team to unprecedented (for a British team) success, notably in the Tour De France. I’ve spent most of my time recently thinking about how Cambridge as a city can become a world leading city for action on climate change. So without really meaning to I found myself bringing Dave Brailsford’s ideas together with the idea of urban system change. Dave (I hope he won’t mind me using his first name) described three things they focus on within his teams:

A Performance Strategy

He described how his teams define their goals well in advance and work back from these. They use all their knowledge and data feedback to understand the gap between where they are now and where they think they need to be to win and they work out how to close that gap. This works well for cycling as performance in a bike race depends heavily on the sciences of physics and physiology .

The Human Mind and Culture

He described how important individual psychology is and how with psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters they have developed a simple model of the brain. In short this is that we all have a ‘Chimp’ which is our emotional self, a ‘Human’ which is our thinking self and a ‘Computer’ which is our automatic self which controls our movement among other things. This simplified model of the brain allows them to work with their athletes as they attempt to make the sporting activity as ‘Computer’ based as possible so that neither their emotional Chimp or their over thoughtful Human can throw a spanner in the works of their performance in races or training.

It was also interesting to here how they approached team culture. They collectively have identified ‘winning behaviours’ which contribute to overall team performance e.g. smiling at each other, and ‘losing behaviours’ which could harm the chances of winning such as ‘moaning’. They monitor these and where negative behaviours are identified those involved are supported to change but if this doesn’t happen they are asked to leave the team.

Marginal Gains

This is perhaps what British Cycling and Dave Brailsford are best known for. It means that they identify and make improvements across a wide range of factors which affect performance. Individually these may seem too small to bother with but collectively they can result in large improvements. The commonly cited example of an area where they have done this is the riders’ sleep. Team Sky take the approach of removing hotel beds, hoovering hotel rooms and replacing the beds with their own beds and bedding in order that the riders get a consistent good quality level of sleep.

Applying this thinking to urban system change (pt 1)

In this blog I consider what a more ‘performance’ focussed approach might mean for those working on climate change and urban system change. I plan to come back to consider the psychological and cultural question as well as marginal gains in a later blog.

The striking thing about the approach of British Cycling and Team Sky’s approach is the focus on end goal, the use of data feedback loops and the thoroughness every step along the way as they close the gap between current and desired state. Although changing a city is far more complex than changing the performance of limited number of individuals in a bike race, the approach taken by these cycling teams is both complicated and complex. It is complicated because of the volume of factors involved ranging from those such as the riders’ physiology, the evolving physics of the equipment, and the many factors which change race from race such as terrain, weather, and what the other teams are doing. Similarly it is complex because of the uncertainty in some of these, notably the psychological and cultural sides of the sport. But the thoroughness and focus have been applied to all the areas which affect performance not just the simpler ones. So with the caveat that social system and cities in particular are bigger and more complex how might we apply this thinking to influencing change in a city.

A good start might be to be much more explicit about our aims. So for a city like Cambridge this might be 1) To reduce Cambridge’s greenhouse gas footprint to zero as fast as possible and 2) To ensure Cambridge is ready for climate change and 3) To maximise our influence on the rest of the world to do the same. Although the second and third of these need better definition the first one, getting to zero carbon, is quite well defined. We can try to work out the process by which we can shift from our current high carbon state to a desired zero carbon state. Some more work is needed to better understand all the parts of the carbon footprint and ensure we have quantified these. I suspect this would tell us that Cambridge has large portions of its carbon footprint in 1) its energy use in buildings 2) in transport 3) in the goods and services we buy 4) in the food we eat. For each of these we can sketch out a desired state e.g. an energy system based on minimal need, due to efficiency measures, met by renewable energy supplies, or a transport system based on active travel, electrified public transport and (electric) car use for those who have specific need for this. The really challenging step is to work back further and work out the interventions which could change these. Additional issues exist at the city level such as how to develop system change which is both democratic and of sufficient scale and pace to achieve the best outcomes. Personally I am particularly interested in understanding the city as a complex system and finding interventions, which I suspect will be cultural, which can motivate change across many of these domains at once. I am not sure how Dave would work out these complex interventions. But mapping out the changes they need to affect would surely be a good start.

‘Olympic’ approaches to urban system changes may not be a perfect fit but considering them does challenge us to be much more ambitious in the thoroughness of our thinking and approach. Somewhere in the past, I can’t recall where, I heard someone say that complexity is not an excuse for blurriness of thinking. I agree with this and I suspect if Dave decided urban system change and climate action were his new passion then our thinking would be sharpened up pretty quick.

It is a big challenge to understand our societies in all their glorious complexity but the potential rewards from this understanding and consequent change are huge. To realise these we must learn about system improvement from wherever we can. It’s hard to think of a system which has changed as dramatically and successfully as British Cycling.

Now it’s up to us to apply these lessons to the most important system improvement we have ever had to make. 

I would value constructive comments to help develop these ideas further.

[I will consider the importance of psychology, culture and marginal gains in a future blog.]


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