What Chinese cities can teach US about sustainable innovation

Recently I was privileged to join Gov. Edmund "Jerry" Brown Jr.'s historic mission to China. As the only member of the delegation representing hundreds of California and U.S. cities, I was prepared to share some of the successful policies and technologies that local governments are employing to fight climate change while creating more sustainable, resilient cities.

I expected this localized approach would be novel for China's centralized government system. But I was encouraged to find that China is embracing its cities as laboratories of sustainable development by fostering a bottom-up approach to develop and deploy local solutions.

Chinese cities, some of the fastest growing on the planet, are experimenting with ways to maximize electric vehicle development and deployment, green building, an innovative locally tailored carbon market and national low-carbon province and cities program. As Chinese cities become increasingly polluted, they are highly motivated to identify successful pollution reduction strategies.

These efforts are not only having localized successes but just last year China also regained the top spot in clean energy investment in 2012, with a jump of 20 percent. China attracted $65.1 billion in renewable energy investments in 2012, compared to the U.S., which ranked second with $35.6 billion, and Germany with $22.8 billion, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts' report.

Crossing the river by feeling for stones

Using pragmatic pilot projects is nothing new in China. This approach was first promoted by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s. China is taking a very systematic approach to creating wide-scale, system-level market transformation. Unique to China in size and scale, the city-based pilot is designed to develop and refine new business models and markets, in order to introduce new technologies.

The pilots generally go through four stages:

1. Selection by the central government
2. Evaluation and absorption where policies are modified and more advanced practices identified
3. Diffusion, where success at the city pilot level is not replicated by central government order but through popularizing the pilot through media publicity, endorsement by leading politicians and government guides
4. Learning feedback loop, where central government pays close attention to how practices and models are being implemented, repeatedly re-evaluating them, modifying models or adjusting speed and range of diffusion.

This process significantly lowers the costs of pilots and reduces risks of reform as well as the impact should the reform fail.

Guangzhou image by Pavel L Photo and Video via Shutterstock.

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