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Two Steps Forward

Why business needs cities

<p>Can you have a healthy company in an unhealthy city? Arguably, no. And vice versa.</p>

From a business perspective, the question related to cities and sustainability is clear and compelling: Can you have a healthy company in an unhealthy city? Arguably, no. And vice versa.

Companies need healthy cities to provide reliable infrastructure, an educated and vital workforce, a vibrant economy, and a safe and secure environment to survive and thrive. Cities, of course, need business as an economic driver. As such, the sustainability of cities and business are inextricably linked.

That linkage is at the center of a new report just released by SustainAbility, the global sustainability consultancy, in partnership with GreenBiz, on the eve of the opening of our VERGE DC conference, which begins today. The free report (download - PDF) outlines seven characteristics, or “states,” that are seen as key to advancing sustainability both within and beyond the city. It asks what business particularly can learn and/or contribute to improve their potential.

Sustainability needs cities as much as cities need sustainability.

The report puts forth dual hypotheses: that sustainability needs cities as much as cities need sustainability, and that business and others should view cities as an increasingly crucial and constructive frame through which to understand and pursue sustainability. The contrast -- between the overwhelming and dispiriting state of the broader world and the more concentrated, dynamic energy of cities -- "led us to begin exploring the current and potential nexus between cities and sustainability, and particularly what risks and opportunities it might hold for global companies as they face ever-rising pressure to deliver social as well as financial value around the world," Chris Guenther and Mohammed Al-Shawaf, the report's principal authors, wrote recently.

“In the 21st century, cities will increasingly be the frame through which we understand and shape our shared economic, political and cultural circumstances,” it begins.

They will also be ground zero for the collision of economic, environmental and social imperatives that define sustainability. Together, these facts suggest that in proactively addressing the challenge of urban sustainability, business and others may have an opportunity to harness the power and positive characteristics of cities to drive sustainability more widely.

The symbiotic relationship between companies and cities can have a highly salutary effect. Business, as engines of innovation and ingenuity, can play critical roles in engendering sustainability at the local level. Given the right system conditions, a thriving business community can offer a wealth of solutions to provide clean air and water, a robust transportation network, food and energy security, adequate and ample housing, and the environmental, social, and economic success that is at the heart of sustainability.

This is at the heart of our VERGE initiative, which looks at the convergence of energy, information, building, and transportation technologies, and how they combine to accelerate radical efficiency and enhance lives. But VERGE is about more than technology. It is also about the convergence of players — companies with their customers, suppliers, and competitors; with civic leaders and community groups; and with social entrepreneurs, academics, and others. VERGE is about harnessing technology to bust silos and foster dialogue and collaboration to address our most pressing social and environmental challenges.

And, without doubt, the center of VERGE is in cities, with all of their problems and potential. That is why we were pleased to collaborate with SustainAbility in exploring the notion of Citystates. As the report makes clear, there are enormous opportunities to align the interests of business and cities in pursuing innovative solutions that lead to healthy companies and healthy communities, in every sense of the word. 

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