How Cities Make Software Together

An exploration of how orchestrated development is improving municipal digital infrastructure

Municipal governments are riding a volatile wave of economic, ecological, and social change. But one thing is constant—the accelerating spread of digital technologies. More specifically, municipal governments are learning how to use software to measure, analyze, and optimize service delivery. But even as cities rely more on software to function, they struggle to obtain and maintain software. Traditionally, code is procured from the private sector, or—less often—produced in-house by cities. But both of these approaches are slow, costly, and often fail to deliver innovation. Software vendors often fill in these gaps, locking in costly dependencies on inflexible products.

Open Source Software (OSS) presents a possibility for cities to fulfill their software needs. It also offers the potential for greater autonomy and lower cost. However,OSS requires enormous effort to create, and even more to deploy and maintain. These processes are just as important as the final product. The growing base of code and processes are the basis of a specialized class of digital infrastructure, known as municipal digital infrastructure.

What is municipal digital infrastructure?

Municipal digital infrastructure is a specialized class of digital infrastructure, the “software, standards, and protocols that form our digital infrastructure [and] are critical to a free and open internet.” Municipal digital infrastructure, by definition, involves multiple local governments working together. But that collaboration needs lots of support, and at the hub of each of the projects we studied, there was an independent, non-governmental organization (NGO) that played a pivotal coordinating role. We call these organizations intermediaries.

Case Studies

What are the best practices across the globe?

Intermediaries are the glue that connects municipalities and external funders (e.g. philanthropies and other levels of government) into cooperative networks that can design, make, use and maintain open source software. Our research examines six success stories of inter-city cooperation on open source software over the last decade, all of which are led by intermediaries.

Orchestrated Development

How is municipal digital infrastructure made?

We have identified four common processes that intermediaries direct to help municipalities avoid the pitfalls of traditional open source development: Governance, Production, Implementation, and Learning.

These processes link up to create a continuous, sustainable pattern by which multiple municipalities advance open source software together. We call this model orchestrated development. Orchestrated development builds on traditional crowdsourced models of open source software development, while establishing more robust systems of stakeholders and leveraging their distinct roles.


Creating a representative structure for setting priorities, making decisions, and working with municipal stakeholders to enact rules that put municipal digital infrastructure in place.

Strong governance strengthens municipal digital infrastructure in the following ways:

  • Shared purpose and context for continuity
  • Representative leadership and realistic priorities for functional decision-making
  • Policy advocacy and regulatory support to move projects forward
  • Continuity over time to sustain efforts across changes in administrations and personnel


Cultivating shared codebases by defining outcomes and standards, and encouraging and incentivizing contributions.

Production of code is vital foundation for municipal digital infrastructure if the following steps are met:

  • Defining outcomes for users to provide clarity on desired outcomes
  • Incentivizing and facilitating contributions to mobilize and maximize the value of code contributions


Curating a community of value-aligned vendors who can build, deploy, and maintain open source software and systems over long periods of time.

Since innovation has little value if it isn’t put to use, implementation is crucial component of success for municipal digital infrastructure. The critical strategies for implementation include:

  • Curated vendor ecosystems to help cities secure the technical capabilities to product and implement municipal digital infrastructure
  • Commitment to maintain for sustainability and longevity


Developing and disseminating documentation and training materials, and cultivating developer and user communities.

Learning is a critical part of sustainability and amplying investments in the other orchestrated development processes. The kinds of impactful types of learning include:

  • Nurturing support communities to source new ideas and best practices
  • Capturing tacit knowledge through “process code”, which is the formalization and standardization of complex design and process patterns into documentation

Although intermediaries play a pivotal and indispensable role in orchestrated development, they cannot do it alone.

Municipal governments and Funders are also critical stakeholders in developing robust municipal digital infrastructure.


Leadership Roles

What aspect of orchestrated development can each stakeholder lead?

In our analysis, we observed that each stakeholder has their own unique strengths, challenges, and contributions to the orchestrated development process.

Sparking deals with establishing guiding principles and setting goals.

Governments Spark

Sparking deals with establishing guiding principles and setting goals for each step in the orchestrated development cycle—governance, production, implementation, and learning. Municipal leaders must lead here, and we believe that three strategies hold the greatest potential for impactful and meaningful progress:

  • Empower “boundary spanners”, individuals within your organization who can champion and connect with external municipal digital infrastructure and orchestrated development knowledge/resources
  • Be a user advocate by demanding robust user research and driving interest and traffic to services delivered by municipal digital infrastructure
  • Be strategic about procurement by improving the rigor in quantifying the contributions of vendors, and sharing code produced through procurement be released as open source

Questions for the Future

Starting points for future research and strategy formation

At the end of this investigation, we find ourselves with more open questions than answers. We have identified nearly a dozen strategies by which municipalities, intermediaries, and funders can concentrate efforts that will bolster the capacity and effectiveness of the networks intermediaries have already established. To move forward with these efforts, we share these to provide starting points for future research and strategy formation:

  • What other stakeholders remain unaware or excluded from current practices of orchestrated development? How could they be identified and engaged?

  • Where are intermediaries most effective and where are they least effective? What other functions should intermediaries take on? Which functions could they delegate more effectively to others?

  • How big is the learning gap between what should be captured and shared in orchestrated development processes, and what actually is? What are the most effective ways to fill this gap?

  • What changes do municipalities need to make—to policy, regulation, infrastructure, and talent—to make better use of intermediaries? More fundamentally, are intermediaries always the right tool, or does their existence reflect structural shortcomings in government capacity? How does the answer to that change in different local and national contexts?

We would like to hear your reflections on how your organization approaches orchestrated development. What kind of role does your organization play in the process and how have you navigated these open questions? Please contact the Jacobs Urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech to share your insights!

This research was funded by a grant from the Digital Infrastructure Fund, a program of Ford Foundation, Sloan Foundation, Mozilla, Omidyar Network, and Open Society Foundations.

An additional thank you to Hanna Niemi-Hugaerts, Job Spiering, Ben Cerveny, Will Callaghan, Kevin Webb, Rasmus Frey, Ville Sirviö, and Petteri Kivimäki for sharing their time and insights and leading the way in unlocking public technology potential through the power of open-source development.