For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand and respond to shifts in the business landscape. In 2013, SustainAbility re-launched a dedicated function to regularly track and interpret “what’s next”—our Ten Trends of 2013 series is the distillation and public output of our thinking over the year.
This year, the Brookings Institution, Benjamin Barber, Thomas Friedman and Paul Hawken, among others, have argued that city governments are now setting the standard for effective policymaking, referring specifically to prominent US examples, but articulating a trend that can also be seen in large cities from Europe to Latin America. We have written about cities as influential levers to sustainable development before, but are now aware of burgeoning interest from companies, more frequently asking how to work with cities, not why. That is in part because the why has become readily apparent, whether via decisive regulation (e.g. Beijing tightening car ownership quotas further to combat air pollution and congestion or Dallas, Texas effectively banning natural gas fracking) or expanding influence of trans-border urban partnerships on sustainability (e.g. C40, Urban Sustainability Directors Network, or Rockefeller Foundation’s upstart global network of Resilient Cities). The latter example, which will spur the creation of 33 ‘Chief Resilience Officers,’ a position that has no equivalent in national/local government or the private sector, is exemplary of the experimentation and capacity for disruption that is attracting the private sector to work with urban actors. Walmart, for instance, wants to dramatically increase waste diversion rates across the U.S. to help achieve its own sustainability goals and is working with city governments and across its value chain to do so. Meanwhile, Shell is using cities as a lens to explore ways to address the food-water-energy nexus globally. And automotive, energy and technology companies are coming together as part of WBCSD’s Mobility 2.0 initiative and will pilot sustainable mobility interventions across cities and companies.
For all the disruptive potential of city-led sustainability, there are still obvious caveats, namely that many of tomorrow’s leading cities—in terms of population, economic output and concentration of headquartered large companies most vulnerable to disruption. The resilience conversation and its evolution into a catch-all, from disaster response to ecosystem protection to the social fabric of communities, resonates in part because of the systemic threats colliding on cities’ doorsteps. Four of the five cities (all in Asia) categorized as facing extreme risk from climate change impacts, according to a recent Maplecroft study, are also centers of high economic growth.
So are we truly seeing the beginning of the end of nation-states & as cities and city-led coalitions prove more adept navigators of environmental/social threats? Or, will cities’ ultimate contributions be beacons for other—businesses, nation-states, re-emerging regional blocs—that pick up the mantle and scale successful urban experiments happening around the world?