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Our Insights 8 Apr 2013

Why Cities Will Lead

By Chris Guenther

Image: OiMax (Flickr)

We are reminded constantly that humanity faces unprecedented challenges: climate change, resource constraints, economic volatility, over and under nutrition, widening inequality, and political conflicts that are increasingly aggravated by these issues. Yet, even as awareness of the causes and potential solutions to these challenges has never been higher, overall progress remains frustratingly slow or non- existent. Understandably, many of us have looked to national and international leaders, multinational companies, universities and other large scale institutions to provide leadership but, while their efforts have been earnest and sometimes substantial, they have so far failed to make very much difference.

It is not hard to see why this is the case. We know that to achieve global environmental, social and economic sustainability, ie to begin to permanently address or adapt to the fundamental challenges of this century, will require novel approaches to and combinations of technology, public policy and financing, and major shifts in both individual and organisational behaviour, all playing out on a global scale. But, the larger the system, the harder it is to consciously bring this about. No matter how well we understand the problems and their likely solutions, we are simply overwhelmed with too much complexity, too little feedback and not enough shared vision and trust to enable big changes to take hold.

This is one reason why we now see, and will continue to see, so much leadership and innovation emerging at smaller scales: from activists and entrepreneurs, from schools, hospitals and community organisations and, crucially, from the cities and towns they are a part of. At the city level, the challenges play out in more specific ways, solutions are more rapidly tested and refined, and communities are better able to unite to support and adopt new ways of doing things. And what takes hold in one city often becomes a model for what is possible in others.

In early 2012, SustainAbility published Citystates, in which we argued not only that cities represent smaller systems within which to enact change but that, by their nature, they offer the best means for us to rapidly develop, test and replicate sustainability solutions around the world. We also explored the role and opportunity for businesses, which are increasingly expected to drive meaningful progress on sustainability, to create shared value in the context of cities.

At its core, Citystates posits the following seven characteristics that underpin the positive role that cities both large and small might play in advancing sustainability more widely:


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. As we further harness the value of such physical, digital and social connections, there is potential to enable dramatically more sustainable systems and lifestyles.


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. It is no wonder then that the most ambitious pragmatic efforts to address climate change, energy consumption and resource depletion are emerging from cities, rather than at the national or global level. 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.


Adaptiveness – or its now popular cousin, resiliency – will be essential to navigating a future defined by growing environmental, social and economic risks. There is something instructive then in how cities inherently grow and adapt organically over time. Certainly their evolution is the product of so many intentional actions as well, and though their adaptiveness may be inherent, there is not always enough of it to ensure prosperity or indeed survival. But, 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.

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. This essential, dynamic tension between collaboration and competition has the potential to catalyse and rapidly spread sustainable innovation around the world.


Cities invite and inspire more rapid, effective responses to sustainability challenges, in part because their challenges 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 see and 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.


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 on those values.


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 the context of 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 originally appeared in Issue 32 – Spring 2013 of Green Alliance’s Inside Track magazine.

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