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7 reasons why cities hold the key to sustainability

City Scape

Chris Guenther, research director at SustainAbility, argues that cities offer the best hope for rapidly developing and replicating sustainability solutions.

A longer version of this article will appear in the spring issue of Green Alliance’s journal Inside Track

1. Connected populations
Cities offer the possibility of both physical and social connections that drive stronger communities, greater trust and more effective collaboration. ‘Connected’ now also refers to the way in which many cities are pushing the boundaries by digitally networking people and urban systems, leveraging enormous amounts of data culled from smart meters and smart sensors, in everything from stop lights to power grids, to drive new levels of efficiency, collaboration and economic development. The rise of the ‘sharing economy’, best exemplified by car and bike share services cropping up in cities around the world, is just one potent example of the power of bringing community and technology together.

2. Decisive  leadership
It is widely agreed that there is an overall lack of political will when it comes to addressing sustainable development. But that’s not the headline in many cities around the world. One reason is that many mayors have direct control or influence over key sustainability levers including waste, water, transit, land use, buildings economic development and more. Furthermore, because many challenges are more immediate and tangible in an urban context, there is greater pressure on and expectation of mayors to act. By leveraging a global network of ‘decisive cities’, we may yet have the chance to circumvent some of the structural roadblocks to action on these and a host of other issues.

3. Innovation
Adaptiveness – or its now popular cousin, resiliency – will be essential to navigating a future defined by growing environmental, social and economic risks. In general, cities possess energy and momentum that lie somewhere beyond our direct control and that has enabled some of them to persist for millennia. By harnessing this capacity for adaptive innovation, we can drive sustainability beyond what deliberate, co-ordinated action alone can accomplish.

4. Collaborative and competitive
There is an intriguing and quite productive tension in cities’ tendency to both compete and collaborate with one another. On the competitive side, cities are engaged in an escalating global war for the talent, tourists and private investment needed to drive prosperity. This is a potent driver of the public innovation and investment that shapes the essential character and productivity of any given city. At the same time, a growing number of cities, both large and small, are finding the cause and capability to collaborate, scaling up and spreading innovation, often across regional and national boundaries. More and more frequently this is in the service of sustainability. United Cities and Local Government (UCLG), C40, Metropolis, Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), Cities Alliance and WeGo (World e-Governments Organization of Cities and Local Governments) are but a few examples that underscore the trend.

5.Visceral problems
Cities inspire more rapid, effective responses to sustainability challenges, in part because the challenges there are, or have the potential to be, so much more vivid. Air and water pollution, social dislocation, congestion and other urban challenges are acute and undeniable to the populations affected by them. And when the challenges are more visible, citizens, businesses and policy makers begin confronting the same reality, and dramatically different and more effective responses are made possible. Furthermore, once a given solution has been demonstrated, and stakeholders experience it directly, there is vastly greater potential for it to be adopted and replicated. By understanding and enhancing cities’ intrinsic advantage of natural feedback loops, we can seed the possibility for far more sustainable policy, strategy and behaviour.

6. Personal
The power of identity as driven by the collision and expression of varied personal and shared values and – just as important – a sense of place, is key to cities’ potential. As seen recently in Cairo’s Tahrir Square or New York’s Zucotti Park, the city can be a touchstone for the power struggles that define our age, and which may determine the long term potential for sustainability. Meanwhile, the rise of mostly young, educated, digitally and culturally aware, and economically influential citizen-consumers is changing the political and economic landscape in many cities, and rapidly pushing sustainability up the agenda. There is tremendous potential if businesses, policy makers and civil society organisations cannot only engage citizen-consumers’ core values, but also push them to take action those values.

7. Experimental
Cities often possess innate advantages for the cycle of experimentation, failure and redesign that leads to true innovation. This may include research and development ecosystems, low barriers to entry, ready markets for radically new products and services, and the ability to rapidly test and improve on new ideas in real life. They also allow for more participatory innovation, where a wider array of stakeholders can help to shape the environment around any given solution, to ensure its sustainability and successful adoption. Building on and leveraging these advantages will drive more rapid prototyping and replication of sustainability solutions across cities.

With these seven characteristics clearly articulated, it can be concluded that cities are a powerful new frontier for the collaboration needed between civil society, business and government to drive sustainability forward. Cities themselves will play a critical role in setting the conditions, while businesses that adequately invest, and are sensitive to the unique opportunities and constraints that cities offer, have the chance to generate enormous social and economic returns for decades to come. There are signs that this phase change is already well underway in many cities, yet we’ve only just begun to understand its broader potential. It is now our collective opportunity to realise it.

This article is based on a SustainAbility report entitled Citystatesby Chris Guenther and Mohammed Al-Shawaf.

Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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