Making cities sustainability centerpieces

Making cities sustainability centerpieces

At the heart of GreenBiz’s VERGE initiative is the thesis that the coming together of economic and technological factors is driving innovation. During a lunch session as part of the VERGE DC event, we focused on how cities are emerging as hothouses where these dynamics are unfolding most quickly.

Increasingly, the 21st century is likely to be dominated by cities, with dense gatherings of capital, technology and skills where public and private players can collaborate at high speeds. In a physical sense, cities are where technologies—energy, information, building, and transportation—are hybridizing most quickly and most productively, driving economic growth, creating jobs, and spurring competitiveness.

To spark this roundtable discussion, we looked to a recent report exploring these trends. Titled "Citystates: How cities are vital to the future of sustainability," and produced by SustainAbility in partnership with GreenBiz and sponsored by Ford Motor Company, the report lays out seven characteristics, or states, that drive growth-nurturing synergies between cities and business. Click here for a PDF of the report.

As an overview of its analysis, SustainAbility shared a video:

Citystates from SustainAbility on Vimeo.

The Seven States

The report defines seven characteristics that SustainAbility concludes can help cities and business thrive symbiotically. Here’s how co-authors, Chris Guenther and Mohammed Al-Shawaf describe these “citystates” and the opportunities they open to businesses:

1. The Connected City: Growing technological sophistication and traditional social connectivity provide opportunities for greater awareness, trust and collaboration among stakeholders. How can business both bolster and create value from this essential connectivity?

2. The Decisive City: Cities often have the urgency and accountability to act decisively. For example, cities lead state and national efforts in the areas of climate change mitigation and adaptation. How might companies improve their own decisiveness, and/or leverage that of cities, to drive sustainability?

3. The Adaptive City: Cities are among the most adaptable structures in society. How can business grow more adaptive while collaborating with cities on their mutual survival?

4. The Collaborative/Competitive City: The healthy tension between peer-to-peer collaboration and economic and brand competition among cities has potential to drive precompetitive sustainable innovation and rapid diffusion of solutions. How might industries exploit this tension in their own parallel drive for sustainability and competitiveness?

5. The Visceral City: Urban living is shaped by numerous real and potential feedback loops. As urbanization progresses and its impacts become more pressing. How can companies beneficially tap into these feedbacks to drive both value creation and sustainable development?

6. The Personal City. The influence of shared identity and values -- in cities and elsewhere -- is a particularly powerful driver of individual and collective action. How can businesses connect with citizen-consumers’ values to drive demand for more sustainable products and services?

7. The Experimental City: Cities are inherently creative, experimental social systems. This opens up links between R&D and low barriers to entry for nontraditional actors. How can business embrace the growing democratization of innovation and leverage cities as laboratories to test and scale sustainability solutions?

In the discussion that followed this presentation, it became clear that companies and cities face an increasingly co-dependent future. Businesses are agile, quick to innovate and develop sustainability technologies. Cities meanwhile, face pressing needs to improve urban environments, and to boost the efficiency and sophistication of city services.

Given the right mix of markets, public policy, and economic potential, businesses can help cities tackle problems ranging from transportation congestion to water treatment, and from energy efficiency to building and infrastructure upgrades.

Compelling as this vision is, participants shared many examples of the fundamental limitations that slow down city programs, or that stymie public-private interaction—budget, manpower, politics, and the like.

Here are some key ideas that caught my attention. We covered more in the 90-minute session than I’ve captured below, so I hope participants will weigh in below, via comments, to share other ideas and reactions, as well as expand the discussion.

Racing to beat election cycles. The long-term, multidecadal nature of many city sustainability plans can be stymied by the relatively short-term tenures of elected officials. City leaders face pressure to institutionalize programs before elected leaders move on. The private sector can help by helping to cement successful practices into city operations.

Private-sector’s bully pulpit. City leaders emphasized that private-sector leadership on sustainability and climate issues can help sway politicians and bureaucracies who remain shy or averse to tackling these topics. Indeed, where “environmentalism” can be a politically tainted phrase in some circles, “sustainability” has positive connotations that can catalyze change. “I consider urban sustainability the third wave of the environmental movement,” said a city leader, adding: “Our future is one of Manifest Density.”

Open-source efficiency. Nonprivate, noncopyrighted software projects, such as those pioneered by Code for America, can be more cost-effective laboratories to develop, test and trial software services. By sharing code between cities, services can evolve faster and deliver effective solutions for a tiny fraction of the cost of using conventional contracting methods. The lower cost and quicker deployment, in turn, makes it easier to experiment with a greater variety of ideas, and to explore even small-scale initiatives.

Sensing cities. The falling cost of hardware, especially the growing smarts of sensor networks, promise substantial gains. Lost-cost monitoring of public infrastructure such as storm water systems can help identify problems and lower damage, by sending repair crews to the right place, sooner.  

Un-silo information and expertise. It’s a problem within any large organization: siloed expertise and misaligned interests can stymie public-private interactions too. For example, moving a Zip Car a block close to highly-trafficked area might benefit the city, commuters and the company. But getting all the parties involved—company execs, transportation department managers, and property owners—can make otherwise easy fixes hard to execute.

Tour de Sustainability? Just as cities have developed walking tours of historical sites, they should also offer sustainability walks: paths that could take residents, visitors, and students on a journey to see green buildings, storm water features, grid infrastructure, white roofs, and the like. Given that sustainability can be an abstract idea for non-experts, such tours could normalize sustainability, inspire and educate. 

Cultivating failure. The private sector has developed a tolerance for failure, some even appreciate the lessons unsuccessful efforts can teach. Yet in the public sector and especially among elected leaders, failure is deeply feared. This can lead to bad projects being pushed past failure, at great cost. Is it possible to cultivate a more experimental, failure-tolerant culture in the public sector?

Image courtesy of RATOCA via Shutterstock.