Breakthrough Cities

We work with cities and innovative SMEs to find breakthrough solutions to complex urban challenges.

The fate of humanity will depend on our ability to transform our cities. Half the world’s population currently resides in cities, and over the next 30 years an average of 1.5 million people per week will be joining them. Increasingly, and at an accelerating rate, cities will be where our needs are met, economic value is created and where we churn through the planet’s resources.

Luckily, as cities try to cope with these demands, they are also our greatest engines of innovation. Unlike companies, which typically begin to favour efficiency over innovation as they scale, cities remain dynamic networks of action and agents of change.

Inspired by our work on breakthrough business models, Innovate UK (the UK government’s innovation agency) asked Volans to work with startups and city authorities on finding solutions to urban challenges facing UK cities.

Collaborative Business Models

For all the innovation in cities, effective collaboration between city authorities and business remains an exception rather than the norm. Public procurement processes are complex to navigate and can constrain the ability for both parties to really collaborate. Similarly, market-based solutions introduced at the exclusion of local government rarely meet the full needs of the city effectively.

When it comes to solving complex urban challenges, where multiple stakeholders have unique roles to play, business models that bring together public and private sector actors in new and different configurations are critical.

Over the last two years, Volans and Innovate UK have convened city authorities across the UK and over 200 startups in a series of Breakthrough Cities workshops to catalyse innovation. The workshops explored the business and collaboration models needed to implement and scale effective solutions to our most complex urban challenges; whilst also providing a space for SMEs and city authorities to make connections.

7 business model principles for solving urban challenges

Based on the insights that came out of these workshops, Volans developed an Action Guide for City Authorities and SMEs, which identifies 7 business model principles for solving urban challenges. They are:

• Define a Massive Transformative Purpose

• Align incentives with outcomes

• Make your innovation process as open as possible, as early as possible

• Leverage under-utilised assets

• Co-opt service users as solution co-creators

• Aggregate demand to share costs

• Design solutions that can scale exponentially

Download the full report here

Read about our 7 principles of transformative urban innovation in this article for Fast Company. 



The realities of climate change, ageing populations, obesity, air pollution, long-term unemployment and more won’t yield to linear solutions which emerge solely from either government, business, academia or civil society. I was impressed with Volans work on Project Breakthrough, so last summer I challenged them to apply their breakthrough thinking at city scale.

Niraj Saraf, former Urban Innovation Lead, Innovate UK.