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Our Insights 23 Jan 2013

The Urgent Need to ‘Future Proof’ the World’s Cities: Implications for the Private Sector?

By Nick Godfrey

People worldwide are starting to connect the dots. Hurricane Sandy costing New York over 60 billion dollars with one of the largest insurance pay-outs in history. 85% of Dhaka submerged by recent flooding. 44 million people – many located in our cities – pushed into food poverty by food price spikes in 2010. And the costs of congestion bringing many urban centres to grid lock. In summary – cities worldwide need to take steps now to ‘future proof’ themselves if they are to avoid irreversible and costly damage to their environmental, social, and economic futures.

We already live in an urban world. But more than 75% of people will live in cities by 2050, or over 6.1 billion people. 95% of this urban expansion will happen in fast growing developing countries. In a new report – Future Proofing Cities – recently launched by Atkins in partnership with the UK Department for International Development and University College London, we show in further detail why cities need to take urgent steps to future proof themselves.

The report essentially makes three points. First, cities need to take proactive steps now to future proof themselves due to a perfect storm of risks from climate hazards such as flooding to risks to water, food, and energy systems, as well as from growing carbon emissions and damage to vital ecosystems.

Based on an integrated assessment of 129 cities across 20 countries we show that cities can be divided into five urban types based on the most significant environmental risks they face. This analysis shows that the most common group of cities are cities such as Bangkok, Delhi, and Jakarta which face risks across multiple fronts, underscoring the need for action now.

Second, that cities can act to future proof themselves, and that acting can generate economic and social benefits as well as environmental ones. The report outlines over 100 polices for future proofing from integrated urban planning to sustainable transport, management water and waste, and new sources of energy.

The good news is that, at the level of the city, many policies can respond to multiple environmental risks. For example, buildings – and indeed whole neighbourhoods – can be designed to reduce carbon emissions and energy use, and to be resilient to climate hazards such as temperature extremes. Many options for future proofing can also generate wider benefits. Recent work Atkins has been undertaking in Madurai (India) has showed the wider economic and social benefits of a low carbon trajectory due to opportunities for green jobs, improved health outcomes, and enhanced efficiency of energy use.

Third, that responding to these complex challenges requires an integrated, multi-disciplinary, multi-skilled approach. We can’t continue to think about long term environmental challenges in silos. For example, looking at climate change mitigation in complete isolation from climate change adaptation doesn’t make sense in cities given the range of solutions which can respond to both challenges.

So we need to break out of our silos and create integrated solutions and packages of measures for future proofing. This will require pooling skills across professions from engineers, planners, and architects to sustainability experts, economists, climate scientists, transport specialists, ecologists. This won’t be easy, but by working together this can support the creation of cities of the future which are more environmentally, socially, and economically prosperous.

The role for municipal authorities, national and regional government, engineering and design companies, and development agencies in responding to this agenda is perhaps obvious. But what about the private sector?

Owners and managers of assets in cities – from transport providers and water companies to banks – need to ensure they are paying adequate attention to the risks to their investments and operations. The private sector is also part of the solution: companies can create the innovations required to help cities respond to long term risks such as water and food scarcity. In doing so, this can not only help the global community deal with the challenges we face, but it can also help to improve the bottom-line.

For a full copy of the Future Proofing Cities report go to

Nick Godfrey is Principal Economist in Atkins futures team and lead author of Future Proofing Cities. Nick’s colleague Elspeth Finch will be appearing on a panel with SustainAbility’s Geoff Kendall at the Net Impact event, Retrofitting the Sustainable City. Click here for more information.

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