4 VIP lessons from the VERGE City Summit

4 VIP lessons from the VERGE City Summit

Chicago skyline
Chicago skyline

In the fight against global warming, cities pose both the greatest challenge and opportunity — they produce 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and more than half of the world population lives in them. By 2030, global urbanization is expected to hit 60 percent.

Cities face plenty of environmental and social sustainability challenges — including energy, water and air quality concerns, as well as municipal waste and social equity problems — which city governments are hard-pressed to tackle alone. To successfully meet ambitious sustainability and resiliency goals, cities and companies will need to form strategic public-private partnerships, backed by citizen support.

The VERGE City Summit brought together top sustainability leaders from the private, public and nonprofit sectors to address the need to work together to bring carbon-reduction solutions to cities. The day-long event’s discourse doused any fire-and-brimstone climate fears with the realization that public-private partnerships could improve city resiliency and reduce climate impacts while generating business opportunities. Here are four of the biggest ideas the event generated.

Idea #1: Successful public-private partnerships are grounded in collaboration and place-based opportunities

One of the greatest barriers to forming effective public-private partnerships are the disparate temporal natures of government and business — the former tend to have longer time horizons for projects, while the latter want to be able to move quickly. Likewise, cities often get bogged down dealing with day-to-day problems at the expense of addressing the “big picture”, which can be frustrating to private sector minds. Attendees agreed that successful partnerships are cemented in place-based opportunities and cross-pollinating best practices.

To businesses, cities are “hot and interesting” because they provide new markets for urban consumers and opportunities for assisting with city services. Partnering with the private sector can benefit cities from an operational standpoint — protecting continuity of operations, safeguarding against expected change, attracting and retaining talent and improving quality of life. However, off-the-shelf solutions won’t cut it—only partnerships grounded in collaboration can generate the innovations needed to address sustainability and resiliency challenges.

Speakers from the public and private sectors gave successful real-world examples of public-private partnerships. One organization uses new technology platforms to help cities overcome barriers, such as a lack of process and consistency with collaboration. Another said cities must go beyond mere operations thinking and consider the entire carbon footprint embedded within buildings and roads. A public sector professional discussed the success of a “walkability initiative” that became the talk of the town.

Cities are also scaling up solutions to create meaningful improvements in energy efficiency and water infrastructure. One city showcased a well-received project that sends technicians into homes and businesses to conduct free energy audits. Another leveraged public-private partnerships to launch a water infrastructure project that met federal mandates while considering the needs of its poorest citizens. A private sector professional said her organization is rethinking the concept of smart cities by focusing on outcomes, not technology.

Idea #2: Big data can generate new opportunities for public-private collaboration

The next stage in smart city development, Smart Cities 2.0, leverages big data to bridge the digital divide and create information-rich environments for all citizens. Cities are moving from ad hoc to optimizing effective sustainability initiatives, just as the private sector has been doing over several decades.

Although many sustainable technologies exist, political will is needed, and can be furthered through cross-sector collaboration and busting information silos to bring in multiple and diverse perspectives. To encourage public-private innovation, cities must enable the free flow of information. Creating wider access to data by reforming restrictive policies can make it easier for stakeholders such as building owners to learn how to better optimize building efficiency.

High levels of data are also important for public and private sector leaders to make a good strategy, adapt and measure success at the back end. Information technologies can power continuous feedback loops between cities and citizens that leads to optimized performance. This means gathering data at the point of behavior and delivering it at point of decision.

Idea #3: Cities should view sustainability as an investment rather than a cost

Many cities are motivated to form public-private partnerships to improve climate resilience but feel they lack the finances to move forward with them. This is grounded in the fallacious assumption that sustainability is a cost—not an investment. Cities should begin accounting for all externalities and societal benefits associated with sustainability. For example, city infrastructure projects can save money in long run.

Just as the private sector has begun to view sustainability projects like installing renewable energy and improving energy efficiency as long-term investments, so should municipalities during budgeting. Another lesson cities can learn from businesses is shifting from commissioning to paying for performance when forming contracts. This helps create the incentive and accountability structures needed to spur innovation and ensure efficiency. Often, public projects fail because of the winner-take-all mentality of government contracting — there are fewer incentives to complete a project in a timely manner and with the highest standards when payment is independent of performance. Other important factors include pricing, insurance, capital, outsourcing and insourcing.

Idea #4: Public engagement ought to focus more on people than policies.

The long-term success of public-private partnerships is often determined by public buy-in and support — cities should hire marketers and strategic communicators capable of telling compelling stories. Climate change discourse often alienates the public with abstract facts and figures, which is why communicators should strive to make sustainability stories more about people and how a particular project will directly improve lives. Recognizing city dynamism and diversity, public and private sector leaders should speak about sustainability through language that different groups will understand to make it more relevant to customers and constituents.

San Francisco is is training its communicators to engage groups that have existing relationships within communities—such as community and church groups. They have been successful using organic, natural conversation and consistency of messaging to build public support for city projects.