Cities and Urbanization

The City Adaptability Index: a new method for stress-testing your city

Dubai has impressed with its adaptability.

Dubai has impressed with its adaptability. Image: Getty Images

Nicholas D. Evans
Chief Innovation Officer, WGI Inc.
Ibrahim S. Odeh
Founding director, Global Leaders in Construction Management, Columbia University
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Cities and Urbanization

  • In a world of continuous disruption, cities need to be dynamic and adaptive.
  • By implementing digital and physical enablers of adaptability, the Adaptive City is able to meet more of its goals, for more of its stakeholders, for more of the time.
  • The City Adaptability Index helps cities self-assess their current level of adaptability and benchmark against their peers.

In an earlier article, 3 steps to build smart adaptive cities of the future, we discussed the concept of “The Adaptive City” and how this new strategic management approach to dealing with change and disruption can help cities around the world continuously maximize their performance across all strategic goals. With disruption moving from the exception to the norm, it’s now more important than ever for cities to not just be resilient and sustainable, but to become adaptive to meet ever-increasing challenges and opportunities in the years ahead.

Rather than reacting to change and disruption after the fact, it’s important for cities to build intrinsic agility into their everyday operating models and processes so they can sense and respond to continuous disruption in real-time. An Adaptive City is one that is able to respond to evolving or changing needs of the future with intrinsic agility across both physical and digital aspects of its operating model. An Adaptive City is not a consequence, but a choice.

By implementing digital and physical enablers of adaptability, to rapidly respond to change and disruption, or to seize new opportunities, the Adaptive City is able to continuously optimize the key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics associated with each of its city strategic goals. It can therefore meet more of its goals, for more of its stakeholders, for more of the time.

Have you read?

To help cities self-assess their current level of adaptability and benchmark against their peers, WGI Inc., in conjunction with Columbia Universities’ Global Leaders in Construction Management (GLCM), has developed the City Adaptability Index.

The index is a maturity assessment tool designed to help cities assess and benchmark their intrinsic ability (i.e. their “built in” ability) to navigate continuous change and disruption, regardless of their size.

Comprised of eight pillars that correspond to universal city strategic goals of economic growth, sustainability and environment, health and wellness, diversity and inclusion, mobility, safety and security, quality of life, and efficiency and resilience, the self-assessment poses 24 questions (three per pillar) and rates cities around the world on a scale of 1 through 4 in terms of their adaptability maturity (see figure below).

Pillars and indicators of the City Adaptability Index.
Pillars and indicators of the City Adaptability Index. Image: WGI Inc

Benefits of adaptability

Incorporating adaptability, or an intrinsic ability to change, can benefit cities as well as government and private sector organizations in terms of improved mission effectiveness, improved citizen service, increased operational efficiency, faster response times, the ability to do more with less and reduced costs.

Adaptable cities reap the benefits.
Adaptable cities reap the benefits. Image: Nicholas D. Evans

It is also important to note that with the index, we are not measuring absolute progress in terms of sustainability or resilience, but more the ability to dynamically respond to changing conditions in order to maximize the key performance indicators (KPIs) – and often the “uptime” – associated with these city strategic goals.

As an example with the Health and Wellness pillar, we’re not measuring the number of hospitals within the city limits, or the quality of healthcare provided, but more the city’s ability to respond to change such as when New York City took advantage of the Javits Center and brought in the US Navy hospital ships for medical surge capacity during COVID-19.

Early results

Today, the City Adaptability Index has been taken by over 580 city officials and citizens to self-assess their cities. We have received self-assessments from over 53 counties and 155 cities.

As we might expect in these early days of incorporating adaptability into city operating models and processes, the global average for all pillars is between 2.0 and 2.5 (on a 1 to 4 scale) in terms of the current maturity level.

The highest rated pillars to date are health and wellness, and diversity and inclusion. We attribute this to the fact that the recent global pandemic was a forcing function that prompted cities to respond to this shock to the system and enhance their adaptability and responsiveness. Diversity and inclusion has also benefitted from global attention and the ability to be implemented quickly via policy change.

The lowest rated pillar, at present, is sustainability and environment. This clearly is a long-term strategic goal that is taking many years to implement due to the reliance on not just policy change, but physical and digital enablers, such as renewable energy infrastructure, circular economy infrastructure, AI, and internet of things, which need to be implemented and effectively engineered into the process.


How is the World Economic Forum supporting the development of cities and communities globally?

Dubai in the United Arab Emirates was among the top 10 cities to date due to various city initiatives such as its smart police stations offering 27 services in six languages and other innovations that enable it to dynamically adapt and support the multi-faceted needs of its citizens. In the United States, Miami and San Diego were among the cities with the highest average ratings to date across all eight pillars.

Whether you’re a city official or a citizen, we welcome you to take the self-assessment for your city.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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