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.

The key:

  • Set compelling goals—not just energy efficient buildings, but net zero buildings. Not just an iconic project or two, but requiring all new buildings to be net zero, all renovations, or, over time, the entire city?
  • Streamline policies, programs and practices. The biggest problem with regulation isn’t that it demands better—or safer— performance; it’s that too often its burdensome or unpredictable. But it doesn’t have to be; design thinking can make it better/faster/cheaper—and more effective.
  • Integrate. Commit to systems-based, multi-stakeholder and trans-disciplinary approaches. Traffic isn’t just a transportation problem; it’s a planning and design problem. Land use isn’t just a planning problem; its a water and hence energy problem. Addressing these issues systemically can challenge existing habits and turf but drive leapfrog innovation and orders of magnitude greater financial benefits.
  • Encourage engagement and open feedback. Giving people a clear line of sight that connects their needs, actions and impacts—and that lets them see how theirs connect with those of others—is one of the most effective drivers of innovation and improvement we’ve seen.

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.


Comments to "Smart Cities & Sustainable Development—Masdar Engage"

  1. Steve Dunn

    January 4, 2014

    Interesting thought-piece. I would also argue that cities provide the essence of our life in a sense. I have lived in places that I truly disliked, and it influenced my daily attitude. On the other hand, I have lived in truly progressive cities that encouraged my to get engaged and be a part of the “community”.

  2. Rahul Bahadur

    January 5, 2014

    I agree that cities can both set guidelines for investments and also provide critical data (as mentioned in your example of Palo Alto) to help monitor and enhance solutions. However, I do believe that significant opportunities exist in intra-city cooperation (via a formal body or via a private consultancy) to identify solutions that have already been deployed and tested by other cities. A creative revenue sharing model for a non-local solution could still protect mandate to support local resources (e.g. requiring maintenance jobs to be located with the city) while obtaining the best available system. For example, every city library system in the San Francisco Bay area has a different type of electronic book return sysem, and, none of them is as quick and convenient as that deployed by Singapore!

Would you like to share your thoughts?