Cities and Sustainability: Our Urban Future

Cities are ground zero for the collision of economic, environmental and social imperatives that define sustainability and as such provide a compelling frame through which to understand and drive sustainable development. As models for connectivity, adaptability, decisiveness and experimentation they provide numerous lessons, especially to business, on how to advance the sustainability agenda both within and beyond the city. A new report by SustainAbility and GreenBiz identifies seven characteristics that enable us to explore the current and potential nexus between cities and sustainability and what risks and opportunities cities might hold:

  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?

Read more: sustainable city report. You can also download the report (pdf) or watch the video briefing on Vimeo.

‘Eco’-cities are booming all around the globe. Be it in the Arabian desert, or the Chinese hinterland: Ambitious city planners are trying to realize their visions of sustainable, green, eco-cities. China in particular is experiencing a veritable explosion of urban growth, difficult to imagine in the Western world.

Clearly, combating pollution and energy inefficiency is no eco-dream any longer: it has become a necessity for the functioning of society and urban survival. Having said that, merely pressing for environmental and green is not enough to encourage truly sustainable urban development. Without a lived culture of honesty, integrity and transparency, even the most ambitious and well-intended eco-city plan will ultimately be dwarfed by corruption, mismanagement and failure. Jonathon Watts’ book When a Billion Chinese Jump (Amazon) provides telling examples for how close and manifold the links between best intentions and worst results.

‘Real’ sustainable cities will only function if society – people – adjust their attitudes and behavior to 21st century’s environmental and natural resource realities.

More on urban sustainability


6 thoughts on “Cities and Sustainability: Our Urban Future

  1. If you don’t mind, I have a question…
    You say that people need to keep up with “technological change”, what do you mean? Which techonological change (changes?) are you refering to?

    • Thanks for asking! The point I tried to make is that providing technology is not enough to make a city more environmentally friendly or sustainable. People’s behavior and attitudes are equally important (take for example energy use, litter, recycling, private car vs. public transport etc.).

      • I see. I just finished a paper looking at the energy policy of the Republic of Mauritius (small group of islands in the Indian Ocean, east of Africa. 1,3 million people, so, in a way, similar to a large city). They have a very “all of the above” plan to reduce their dependance on fossil fuels, which are all imported. They plan to adress “people’s behavior and attitudes” through education (in schools and through public education campaigns) as well as through legislation. Things like a feed-in tariff for the production of renewable energy, incentives for the use of public transit, congestion charges, setting efficiency standards for vehicles and appliances, standards for new buildings, including minimum use of renewable energy. Plus they will invest in the infrastructure to make those changes happen (better public transit, improved power grid, etc.)

        To me, this seems like a good way to go about changing those behaviors and attitudes. What do you think?

  2. Pingback: Rise of Sustainable cities – Linking Sustainability

  3. Pingback: China: sustainability lifestyle trumps Western consumption « Sustainability Leaders

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