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Why cities are leading the way in green efforts

Convergence can sometimes be invisible. The technologies of data, communications, buildings and transportation are rapidly merging, steadily enhancing one another in subtle ways. Convergence can also be tangible. For instance, humanity is inexorably concentrating in cities, enabled by many of those invisible technologies.

Discussions of the interplay of these trends -- invisible technology and visible cities -- took center stage Wednesday at GreenBiz's VERGE conference in Washington, D.C. Private and public sector leaders mapped out the scale of these dynamics, offering examples of how technologies are evolving to serve the ongoing conglomeration of we humans.

Starting a few years ago, homo sapiens officially become an urban species. Home to over half the world's population, cities are scaling so fast that by 2050, roughly 70 percent of the global head count will live in urban areas. Compared with the developed West, where most of the population is already urbanized, practically all the growth in the coming decade will happen in the developing world, especially in China and Africa, explained Manish Bapna, Interim President of the World Resources Institute.

Bigger cities are only half the story, though. Urbanization is inextricably linked to income growth, Bapna explained. So while there are roughly 1.8 billion people in the middle class worldwide today, another three billion will join their ranks in the next 20 years. "The pressure this places on resources -- water, electricity, food, fuel, and so on -- will be unprecedented," he said.

The scale of these needs, as well as the size of urban markets, are driving corporate strategy to focus new services and products offerings on cities, explained Daryl Dulaney, President and CEO of Siemens Industry. Last March, to tap this potential, Siemens reorganized key operations, totaling $23 billion in revenues, into a new unit called Infrastructure & Cities.

Cities are dense ecosystems that foster innovation and connectedness, and do so with great efficiency, Dulaney said. Pointing to ambitious urban sustainability programs in Philadelphia, New York and Chicago, he said, "I like working with cities. Mayors are focused on getting things done. Politics comes second."

It's a similar story in China. Despite Beijing's reputation for powerful central leadership, WRI found that city mayors were more responsive to efforts to upgrade energy and environmental practices. "The demographic pressure is front and center. Plus, mayors have a lot of authority in China, and they care about seeing their cities succeed," said Bapna.

By that measure, the mayors of Tsingtao, China, and Philadelphia have much in common. Both see greening their cities as a competitive imperative. Tsingtao's mayor wants the city to be the most economically attractive in China, and he knows that means he has to attract the best. To do so, he wants to be the greenest city possible.

Philadelphia is rebounding from an era when the City of Brotherly Love had a larger population than today. That's left the city with amble infrastructure, but a challenge to maintain and optimize it. Green programs can do so, while also making the city more livable, said Alex Dews, Policy and Program Manager in the Mayor's Office of Sustainability of the City of Philadelphia.

Public-private partnerships are playing a crucial roll in the effort, Dews explained. The city is working with The Dow Chemical Co. on an initiative to test the advantages of installing white roofs on homes.

During hot summer months, bright white roofs are substantially cooler that conventional black tar roofs. The Coolest Block program is re-coating roofs using Dow products and tracking the long-term performance of the converted homes to tally up the benefit. "We look for solutions that are beneficial to government, the public and business," said Dews.

In another example, Philadelphia has seen recycling rates more than triple in neighborhoods where it rolled out Recycling Rewards, a collaboration with RecycleBank. Philadelphia's program tracks household recycling by weight, using a system of barcoded bins.

Households earn rewards based on the overall performance of their neighborhoods -- the more everyone in a neighborhood recycles, the more each house in that area is awarded at an online account. Credits can be redeemed through RecycleBanks's network of affiliated brands, ranging from T-Mobile to Subway.

Getting the messaging right took time, Dews explained. Initially there was an epidemic of bin theft. Residents believed that credit was being awarded house-by-house, rather than as a neighborhood average. The city benefits by lowering the volume of waste it sends to dumps.

Looking ahead, cities will remain hotbeds of sustainability innovation. Rising affluence and growing populations will only boost the need for greener ways to house, feed, and care for urban populations.

For cities that are pioneering green programs, the challenge is maturing green efforts, Dews said. The next priority is to deepen pilot environmental programs so that they are institutionalized in city policy.

While much of Philadelphia's sustainability work has been linked to Mayor Michael Nutter, said Dews, the next step is to make those shifts permanent, so that practices carry over to future administrations, as well as other cities.

Photo by Goodwin Ogbuehi for GreenBiz Group.

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