Over the course of my more than 40 years of work on sustainability issues in business, government, and the civic sector, one challenge has remained central, reappearing again and again as a make-or-break element of all we are trying to accomplish. I’m encouraged to see that it is now moving to center stage.
It’s the challenge of getting the prices right—of ensuring that the workings of the market reflect the physical reality of, well, physics, and the living systems that sustain the human economy. Meeting this challenge is critical to the health of economies, enterprises, and ecosystems.
Some businesses are beginning to expand their focus beyond the surprisingly recent, single-minded obsession with maximizing shareholder value. Yet we haven’t solved the core problem, because the game is fundamentally defined by its rules. And markets, for all their agility and elegance, are massively distorted in several critical ways:
What is to be done?
This is challenging territory. It will require new tools, new mindsets, and new alignments of very significant financial interests. But conquering this territory is indispensable to meeting the challenge of reinventing the economy of an entire planet. This planet. In one generation.
Originally published on the EcoInnovator blog at Corporate EcoForum.
Cities are uniquely positioned to drive the sustainability revolution—whether in concert with national governments (as is possible in some countries) or on their own (which is necessary in some countries).
Cities lead the way in greening transportation, the built environment, food production, procurement, economic development and more, with impacts far beyond their borders. What can cities—and regional clusters of cities—do to create a living model of the green economy?
What do cities do?
Cities perform four key roles, each of which can have significant impact on quality of life, economic prosperity, and environmental sustainability, and provide powerful leverage for change.
Cities express and leverage the public will.
Government, though out of fashion in some US circles these days, is simply “what we do together”—a collaboration to create viable communities and the systems that sustain them. Through general planning processes, zoning and building standards, and economic development policies, cities define the landscape of the rest of our lives—for example by building distributed generation into it.
Cities collect and spend money.
By operating eco-efficiently, in facilities and fleets, cities act as skillful fiduciaries of the public trust and set examples for other developers and operators. By establishing green procurement standards—perhaps in collaboration with local universities, hospitals and businesses to provide economies of scale—cities provide consistent market demand for the businesses of the new economy. By using their bonding authority, cities can guide capital formation and investment to accelerate the new economy.
Cities gather and dispense information.
Cities collect lots of data—their spending, building permits, infrastructure, and more—and can provide open access to most of it, as Palo Alto is doing, both to support transparency and democracy and to fuel the innovation with open APIs. Cities—and regions—can track the resource “metabolism” of energy and materials, and make those and other community sustainability indicators available in interactive scoreboards that let people see progress and compete to do better—in real time.
Cities provide shared services.
In addition to formal educational services, cities can provide technical assistance to support entrepreneurship and the green evolution. In addition to the operating infrastructure of urban life, cities can convene conversations about what we want that future infrastructure to be.
Cities face the challenges we all face: Do we try to slow the damage? or build the regenerative capacity of the living systems that sustain the human experiment. Do we apply band-aids? or build lasting solutions? Do we leave money on the table? or define the markets of the future? In each of these challenges, cities will be pivotal players.
—Gil Friend, Chief Sustainability Officer, City of Palo Alto
This post is a submission to Masdar Engage.
When I learned of Nelson Mandela’s passing earlier this month, I spent the afternoon in tears.
Not tears of grief alone, but of love, admiration, awe, inspiration at the contribution this one man has made—both to the people of South Africa on their long path to freedom, and to the people of the entire world in our daily challenge to understand what it means to be a human being.
There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.
― Nelson Mandela
Thank you, Madiba.
This month I began serving as the Chief Sustainability Officer of the City of Palo Alto.
As many of you know, I’ve been dedicated for the last 41 years, since cutting my teeth with Bucky Fuller’s World Game in 1972, to connect the human economy with the laws of nature—the time-tested, open-source principles that govern the living systems that underlie the human enterprise and all we hold dear.
After more than 20 years advising corporations and governments, I’ve found myself hungry to shift from an external advisory role to bringing all my experience to bear in one place—as a responsible executive with his ass on the line. This is a great opportunity to do that—in a remarkable community with a passionate citizenry, a tradition of innovation, a geyser of entrepreneurship and, I’m told, a pretty decent university.
Their question to me:
How can we make Palo Alto the greenest city in the country?
My question to them:
What can one small, innovative city contribute to the sustainability revolution?
It’s a thrilling opportunity—one that opens many new possibilities on innovation and influence, and that hearkens me back to my earliest labors in the sustainability vineyards, back at the Institute for Local Self Reliance in the early 1970s. But that’s a story for another time.Natural Logic will continue operating under the leadership of my remarkable colleagues, notably Natural Logic principal (and long time friend and colleague) Michael Kleeman, senior associate Shripal Shah and others. My own role in client engagements will be much more limited and leveraged, after fulfilling current commitments. I’ll of course continue to speak, blog, tweet, podcast, etc., actively, as well as support a very small portfolio of individual coaching and thought partner clients.
There’ll be more details to come over the coming weeks—and hopefully a chance to speak directly, if that makes sense! Meanwhile, you’ll be able to follow my exploits on my CSO twitter site and a blogging venue TBA, as well as my usual social media coordinates.
My new contact information for City of Palo Alto business and “sustainable city” matters: gil dot friend; the domain is cityofpaloalto dot org; 1-650.329.2447. For all other matters, please continue to use my Natural Logic coordinates.
My friend Jonathan Koomey‘s invited perspective article, “Moving beyond benefit-cost analysis of climate change”, was just posted by the open access on-line journal Environmental Research Letters. Here’s the abstract and the introduction.
The conventional benefit–cost approach to understanding the climate problem has serious limitations. Fortunately, an alternative way of thinking about the problem has arisen in recent decades, based on analyzing the cost effectiveness of achieving a normatively defined warming target. This approach yields important insights, showing that delaying action is costly, required emissions reductions are rapid, and most proved reserves of fossil fuels will need to stay in the ground if we’re to stabilize the climate. I call this method ‘working forward toward a goal’, and it is one that will see wide application in the years ahead.
Michael Totten‘s comment:
Outstanding article, Jonathan Koomey. I particularly liked this passage, “Delaying action eats up the emissions budget, locks in emissions-intensive infrastructure, and makes the required reductions much more costly and difficult later. The IEA, using the ‘working forward toward a goal’ approach, estimated the costs of delay at about $0.5 trillion US for every year we put off serious climate action .
Conversely, early action through technology deployment brings the costs of technologies down through learning-by-doing, which is one manifestation of increasing returns to scale . Because of these and other factors, our choices now affect our options later, which is known in the technical literature as path dependence [19, 20]. Luderer et al highlight the importance of such effects to the economic outcome on climate mitigation, but most conventional models of the economy ignore them [19, 21], with the likely effect of overestimating the costs of reducing emissions.”
It’s so clear. Who wants to waste half trillion a year?
Which means the only obstacles are (1) those that profit from the delay, and (2) those that are disinformed by those that profit from the delay.