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Our Insights 20 Mar 2012

Sustainability Needs Cities

By Chris Guenther

Uncertainty and anxiety are ubiquitous nowadays. The global economy remains fragile, and even where it does show some life, the continued volatility (and upward trajectory) of energy and other commodity prices is there to beat back any real sense of momentum.

Meanwhile, progress on grand challenges like climate change, food and water security, and sustainable consumption is either halting or nonexistent, and there is declining confidence that large institutions, including governments, multilateral organizations, companies and even large NGOs, will lead the way in addressing them.

That’s the general feeling at the global level, and across many countries. But look through the prism of cities and you get the feeling of a different world, one that is every bit as challenging and complex, but also potentially more vibrant, innovative and collaborative; a place where there is a greater sense of what’s possible rather than inevitable.

Cities are where we build our most ambitious and symbolic structures, where we come together to share experiences and exchange capital, goods and ideas, and where we go in search of a better life. At the city level, more so than at the regional or global level, citizens are more likely to share and shape one another’s values and aspirations, and to be able to act together in response to both challenges and opportunities.

That contrast – between the overwhelming and dispiriting state of the broader world and the more concentrated, dynamic energy of cities – led us to begin exploring the current and potential nexus between cities and sustainability, and particularly what risks and opportunities it might hold for global companies as they face ever-rising pressure to deliver social as well as financial value around the world.

This in turn became the subject of a new paper sponsored by Ford Motor Company and produced in partnership with GreenBiz. Titled Citystates: How Cities Are Vital to the Future of Sustainability, the report published last week. In it, we posit that sustainability needs cities as much as cities need sustainability – not only because they are a linchpin for the survival of our people and planet, but also a lever for shared progress and prosperity – and thus that a greater share of sustainability effort should be expended within them.

At its core, the paper identifies seven characteristics, or states, that we see as key to advancing sustainability both within and beyond the city, and asks what business particularly can learn and/or contribute to improve their potential:

  1. The Connected City: Both growing technological enablement 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, remit and accountability to act decisively — for example, on mitigation and adaptation efforts related to climate change. 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 both incorporate these adaptive characteristics 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 and its impacts rise and become more visible, awareness and urgency become more acute. How can companies leverage greater engagement 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 effectively engage citizen-consumers’ core values in order to change behavior and drive demand for more sustainable products & services?
  7. The Experimental City: Cities have inherent advantages to experimentation, like complimentary ecosystems for 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 end, we do not suggest that either the sustainability of cities or cities’ positive influence on sustainability will be easy or certain. Rather, we suggest the possibility of a mutually beneficial relationship, and that, through focus and effort, we may begin to take advantage of it. The purpose of “Citystates” is to seed a dialogue, the central question of which is: How might business and others come together to strengthen and leverage the unique characteristics and advantages of cities to accelerate progress on sustainability?

We will take this up in part at the series of VERGE conferences that GreenBiz will hold throughout the year, beginning with last week’s event in Washington, D.C. In so many ways, VERGE and “Citystates” are perfect complements to one another. While VERGE explores the convergence of major industries and technologies — specifically energy, information, buildings and transportation – that underpin the functioning and potential sustainability of the city, “Citystates” explores a similar convergence of the social and other unseen dynamics that are also vital to cities’ success. We look forward to continuing the conversation there, and hope you will join us.

This article originally appeared as part of SustainAbility’s Changing Tack column on Download the full Citystates paper from our Library.



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