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Report: How businesses can save our cities in 15 years

Addressing the complex problems of the 21st century requires a new solutions toolbox. Innovation will be absolutely essential and business will lead the way — not just in technology, but also in building new models of collaboration that harness leadership and collective problem-solving to drive effective action.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development Urban Infrastructure Initiative, a groundbreaking program to promote strategic collaboration between cities and business to drive sustainable development, is a great example of this type of innovation. The release of the UII final report, which captures the lessons from three years of work in 10 cities around the world, presents a great opportunity to highlight how leading businesses can drive new collaboration models forward.

With 7 billion city dwellers likely by 2050, creating sustainable cities will be essential if humanity is to address climate change and move toward a sustainable future. It is, of course, thrilling that mayors around the world are showing real leadership and vision on climate change and sustainable development, but even the most advanced cities will say that they cannot do it alone.

In this regard, many cities are missing out on crucial and valuable input because they are not engaging with business early in the planning process to help turn vision into an actionable and cost-effective plan.

Why is business involvement important?

Early engagement leverages the capability of business to identify innovative and cost-effective solutions to complex, cross-cutting urban sustainability challenges. The key infrastructure, technology, services and financing solutions that will enable the sustainable visions of cities are predominantly developed, designed and implemented by the private sector.

I am talking about solutions such as energy efficient buildings, low-carbon mobility, smart infrastructure systems, renewable energy and inclusive business models for universal access to energy and water, to name just a few.

Why is this form of engagement not happening now? While it is true businesses already design, construct and operate infrastructure for (or in) cities, this traditional involvement is actually late in the planning life cycle — after major choices already are locked in. Furthermore, talking about moving engagement earlier in the process brings out a number of perceptional, procedural and institutional barriers that make this nominally difficult.

We explored these barriers in a recent survey of city leaders conducted with ICLEI, the world's leading association of cities and local governments dedicated to sustainable development.

The survey — the results of which will be published later this month — showed that 76 percent of respondents see private sector solutions providers playing an important role in providing input to a city's sustainability plan.

However, the survey also highlighted a number of barriers to city-business engagement, with a lack of a formal process and restrictive regulations (particularly procurement rules) emerging as the most important.

This is where the Urban Infrastructure Initiative comes in.

The WBCSD and 14 leading member companies have developed a new model that provides an effective process for early strategic engagement between cities and business for sustainable development.

It mobilizes a multidisciplinary team of private sector experts who work directly with city officials to identify solutions to overcome key challenges a city faces in realizing its sustainability vision. The process is conducted at a pre-commercial stage and is kept technology and vendor neutral, maintaining a clear separation from procurement processes.

Testing the new model for efficacy

Don't take my word for it. Check out the videos from partner cities — cities as diverse as Philadelphia and Yixing, China, talking about the benefits from working with UII.

(Credit: Angelo via Flickr)And while it is still early days, cities are already taking forward the solutions and ideas from these innovative collaborations. Yixing, for example, is fast tracking the development of a green transport network for the city, absolutely critical for several cities in China that are experiencing double-digit population growth.

Promoting this type of collaboration, which harnesses city leadership, business innovation and solution delivery, can unlock an enormous win-win opportunity to drive transformational global action on climate change — right in line IPCC's just-released report on climate change mitigation.

Cities win by getting practical, cost-effective solutions to realize their ambitious sustainability visions. Leading businesses will win through growing the markets for innovative new solutions that will be essential for delivering rapid change.

But our role in catalyzing partnership innovation is not stopping here. The WBCSD is holding discussions with the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and others about taking forward the intriguing idea of a "C20-C30-C40" collaboration as a platform for transformational action on climate change.

This is a major recommendation of the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations to bring together 20 countries, 30 leading businesses and 40 cities to overcome traditional barriers to action through action-focused collaboration.

Watch this space.

Top image of city sunrise by Felix Chia via Flickr.

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