Over the Hump: Getting the Green City Movement to a Tipping Point

This blog by Steve Nicholas is part of a series I convened and edited for Global Communities called Accelerating Innovation in the Internet of Cities which discusses how cities can learn, adopt and transfer innovations between each other in order to solve local issues of global significance.

By Steve Nicholas, Vice President. Institute for Sustainable Communities

biking across bridgeSteve NicholasGuide to Greening Cities

When I became director of the City of Seattle’s newly formed Office of Sustainability and Environment in 2000, there were just a handful of such positions in the US – all in places you’d expect: Portland, Oregon; Berkeley, California; Burlington, Vermont; and the like. Today, well over 1,000 communities have sustainability directors and programs in place, including many “unusual suspect” cities where the political waters are far less warm and inviting: Houston, Texas; Fayetteville, Arkansas; Dubuque, Iowa; and many others.

As my co-authors and I showcase in The Guide to Greening Cities, a fast-growing array of urban leaders are realizing that they hold a key, if not the key, to meeting the urgent global challenges of climate disruption and unsustainable human development. With more than 50 percent of the world’s population already living in urban areas – a slice that’s projected to grow to about 70 percent (some 6.4 billion people) by 2050 – it’s clear that cities no longer can gobble up three-quarters of the global energy supply, the vast majority of it derived from climate-disrupting fossil fuels. They must transform themselves – from being a big part of the problems to becoming laboratories and leaders ofsolutions.

The good news is that many cities – here in the U.S. and abroad – are rising to that challenge, reinventing everything from how they design, construct and manage buildings to the way they manage energy and water supplies and think about regional food systems. This “green city movement” is growing fast and inspiring lots of hope along the way; but it is far from the tipping point. Only a small percentage of the 30,000 municipalities in the US have people and/or plans truly dedicated to sustainability. And there is lots of variability in the quality of the efforts even among the early adopters. Relatively few have sufficiently robust and systematic approaches – a “triple bottom line” scope integrated across economic development, environmental protection and social welfare goals; effective multi-stakeholder engagement; and a sustainability-oriented performance management system driving the development and continuous improvement of the city’s policies and practices.

What is holding this movement back? What might accelerate its progress toward that much-needed tipping point? At the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) we believe that one of the best ways to help urban leaders is to provide them with efficient, affordable access to good information, expertise, and – most importantly – each other. A tremendous amount of experimentation and innovation is going on across the country. But these reinventions don’t spread widely, in large part because the innovators are hunkered down, focused on achieving and sustaining their own successes and managing their own complex suite of fiscal and political challenges. It’s not that they are stingy; on the contrary, most early adopter-types love to share their stories and help their counterparts learn and copy from them. But they have neither the mandate nor the resources to do it.

Peer learning and network development are among the fastest and most effective ways to build capacity for urban solutions. When well-designed and executed, they provide practitioners with efficient access to the information (success stories and lessons learned) and the people (their peers in other cities who are toiling away in similar trenches) who can help them the most. ISC leads or supports a number of peer-learning and networking efforts in the US and Asia. For example, in the US we lead the National Sustainable Communities Learning Network, serving about 200 communities across the country that are receiving grants through the federal government’s ground-breaking Partnership for Sustainable Communities to better integrate actions and investments related to land use, housing, transportation, economic development and social justice. And we support the Western Adaptation Alliance (a learning community of 13 cities and counties in the Intermountain West focused on climate adaptation and resilience) and the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact (a collaboration of four counties in this climate-vulnerable part of the country representing one-third of the state’s population and economy).

We’re learning a lot from these experiences – sometimes the hard way – about the fine art of peer-learning and network-building. Among those lessons learned are these:

  • Create value from the start, and sustain it throughout, in particular by letting the network’s customers (members) drive the development and governance of the network (including decisions about which products and services to prioritize);
  • Start small and simple, and take it from there. The bigger the network, the harder it will be to get it off the ground. Start with a relatively small group that already enjoys a high degree of commonality and camaraderie. And focus first on “the little things” first (trust-building and efficient information sharing) before taking on heavier lifts (such as joint policy statements or purchasing agreements).
  • Provide sustained “backbone support” with a servant-leader orientation. While the best networks tend to be those that are the most deeply “owned and operated” by their members, none can rely solely on that. There must be a person(s) and/or organization(s) playing the critical hub-of-the-wheel role.

“If you build it, they will come,” is a famous line from the 1989 American movie “Field of Dreams.” But when it comes to peer networks, it just doesn’t apply. How the network is designed, initiated and facilitated very much determines its success (or lack thereof). Without engaged participation and ownership by its members, the network is unlikely to either net or work.

Steve Nicholas is the Vice President for US Programs at the Institute for Sustainable Communities, former director of the Seattle Office of Sustainability & Environment and co-author of “The Guide to Greening Cities.”

Innovating at the Intersections of Cities

This blog coauthored by Brian English and Janice Perlman is part of a series I convened and edited for Global Communities called Accelerating Innovation in the Internet of Cities which discusses how cities can learn, adopt and transfer innovations between each other in order to solve local issues of global significance.

Why we need to cross borders, disciplines, and other boundaries to create solutions

By Dr. Janice Perlman, Founder, The Mega-Cities Project, March 26th, 2014

Brazil Oct 20131

If we stand tall it is because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors. – Yoruba Proverb

We Cannot Wait Another Generation
It is widely accepted today that cities are a positive force in global development and that the future of the planet depends on the future of its cities. But experience shows that there is often a 20-25 year time lag between new ideas and their incorporation into public policy. For example, in many countries it has taken decades for policy makers to stop looking at slum neighborhoods as problems, and instead see them as solutions developed by families seeking a better life for themselves and contributing to economic growth through the cities’ informal economy. Only then have appropriate policy responses followed, where policy makers focus on providing land-tenure instead of bulldozers. But not every city is at this same juncture, and many individuals and institutions throughout these cities are hungry to learn how they can advance their own solutions.

With the mounting challenges facing cities today – climate change, violence, job creation, democracy building, and inequality – we cannot afford to wait generations for new policies to be developed. Now more than ever, we need to turn our attention to how we can speed up this process and facilitate greater participation by all city residents and institutions.

Let’s be clear. Cities do not learn, only people learn. City governments can budget for and structure learning activities, build networks, and organize exposure trips, but ultimately learning and capacity building cannot just be a city hall endeavor, it must be a citywide and multi-stakeholder endeavor. Cities have short institutional memories and uncertain continuity. They also suffer from the “not-created-here” syndrome. To build continuity, cities need independent NGOs, research centers, academic consortia and other institutions with life spans beyond the electoral cycle or quarterly earnings statements.

Generation 1.0: The Mega Cities Project
I founded the Mega Cities Project in 1987 to “shorten the time lag between urban innovations and their implementation and diffusion”. To do this, we created a global network among 21 mega cities anchored by project coordinators and multiple-sector committees in each city. Together, we operated through a “dual strategy for deliberate social change”  that drew knowledge and know-how from empirical research and community wisdom.

We used a rigorous five-part methodology to search for innovative solutions that were socially just, ecologically sustainable, politically participatory and economically viable. We also sought to gain a deeper understanding of the process of innovation and the consequences for deliberate social changes in cities. We looked at: 1) Where do innovative ideas come from? 2) What are the conditions for successful implementation? and 3) How does innovation transfer work?

We found that the most fertile ground for urban innovation was – and still is – at the local level and at the nexus of poverty, environment, and inclusion.  It is at such intersections where people must cross disciplines, sectors and silos to experiment, learn, and collaborate.

Over our 25-year history of action research it has become clear:

1) There can be no urban environmental solution without alleviating poverty. The urban poor tend to occupy the most ecologically fragile areas of our cities, such as steep hillsides, low-lying swamplands, or areas adjacent to hazardous industries.  In addition, their lack of resources often prohibits them from having adequate water, sewage, or solid waste management systems. Without alternative locations and income for basic needs, their survival will be pitted against environmental needs.

2) There can be no lasting solutions to poverty or environmental degradation without building on bottom-up, community-based innovations. Since creativity was not distributed along lines of race, class, or gender, experts and policymakers are not always the best source of system-transforming innovations. The most creative and resource-efficient solutions to urban problems tend to emerge at the grassroots level, closest to the problems being solved. And, without local participation in implementation, even the best ideas are doomed to fail.

3) There can be no impact of scale without “sharing what works” across communities and cities and scaling up into public policy. While small may be beautiful, it’s still small – and the problems are enormous. In order to have meaningful impact, micro-initiatives need to be replicated through peer-to-peer learning or incorporated into public policy frameworks.

4) There can be no urban transformation without changing the old incentive systems and “rules of the game.” Since every sector of urban society holds a de facto veto on the others, local innovations can never achieve scale without cross-sector partnerships involving government, business, NGOs, academia, media, and grassroots groups. We need to create a climate conducive to experimentation, mutual learning, and collaboration.

Generation 2.0: Mega Cities x Mega Change (MC2)
Members of the Mega Cities Project founding network are now coming together to support the creation of the next generation of a global network that will foster urban change, the diffusion of urban innovations, and the development of new urban leaders. At the EcoCity conference in Montreal in 2011, it was named Mega-Cities/Mega-Change or MC2 (i.e. pure energy). MCengages the emerging young leaders in every sector and draws upon evolving information and communications technologies that enable us to reimagine elements of our network, from peer-to-peer learning to crowd-sourced funding of local projects.

Our original Coordinators and participants in our research-action teams have become leaders in their countries, regions and internationally. Today they are respected “elders” holding senior positions and have agreed to become mentors for those who share their passion. This fulfills a second mission: “to shorten the lag time between the next generation of urban leaders and their ability to make a difference.” MC2 is the fusion of the accumulated wisdom, credibility and trust of our founding network with the creativity, passion and technological sophistication of the next generation of urban change-makers.

Smartness in Three Flavors

By Tim Campbell, PhD Global Fellow, Urban Sustainability Laboratory, The Wilson Center
Tim CampbellBeyond smart Cities
This blog is part of a series I edited for Global Communities on Accelerating Innovation in the Internet of Cities which discusses how cities can learn, adopt and transfer innovations between each other in order to solve local issues of global significance.

Several years ago in Beyond Smart Cities*, I wrote about cities on the prowl. By the thousands, cities from around the globe are flying every which way, searching like so many hunters and gatherers to learn and share information. By one estimate, the 1,000 cities on the planet that have more than half a million people are engaged in many thousands of exchanges every year. Why so much prowling? It’s much cheaper and less risky to pick up the secrets of success by examining innovations at close range in other cities, where new practices have been tried out, than to reinvent the wheel back home. Nothing has slowed that pace, but some of the consequences of so much international inter-city exchange is smartness that is now appearing in three flavors.

First, cities are learning how to learn. This week, C-40 reported that cities are learning how to design and implement home-grown climate change reforms by picking clues and patterns from each other. In C-40, as with ICLEI and dozens of other special purpose NGOs, new attention is being paid to the learning process. A cottage industry of city-related web-sites, magazines, conferences, and blogs has shot up over the past decade. Atlantic Cities, Cities Today, CitiScope, New City, Sustainable Cities and many more aggregators specialize in pumping out lessons, spotting connections and focusing information on issues, policies and practices. The same is true of city-based membership organizations like CityNet, Global Cities Indicators, ICMA, Metropolis and UCLG. These organizations have always traded in information and knowledge, but the focus and sophistication are on the rise. These make it easier for cities to access and absorb new information.

A second flavor is that cities are learning how to be smart cities. One of the most ubiquitous, if not most popular topics of exchange concerns the high-tech and usually web-based applications that are at the core of smart cities. The prospects can be dazzling. Most involve sensors and feedback, in public spaces, parking spaces, car lanes, water systems, power grids, public lighting, neighborhoods and much more.

Consider autonomous vehicles as a publicly-owned utility. A recent traffic model at the University of Texas showed that autonomous vehicles numbering only a fraction of a city’s total fleet could reduce by an order of magnitude the number of vehicles on the road at any given time. That reduction could also clear the way for amenities in expanded open space and lead to dramatic reductions in accidents and fatalities. In the case of electric utilities, power management ranges from the individual household feeding the grid to smart grids at the regional scale feeding each other and each benefiting from reciprocal flows depending on grid requirements.

All these and other examples to some extent depend on centralized and decentralized elements reading and reacting to each other. We are told that the actions of thousands upon thousands of individuals can be rendered into patterns that can be made sense of, helping both centralized elements of the city—utilities, managers of vehicle fleets and buildings, first responders—to make more informed decisions just as individuals themselves can benefit by making more informed choices, for instance, to avoid congestion, find parking, adjust heating and lighting, or book a car. Most of these examples are already out there, and cities are quickly spreading this second flavor of smartness.

Third, and most important, cities are taking on a new awareness about themselves, a new and potentially transformative smartness: the collective identity of cities on the global scene. One of the by-products of so much city intercourse is the growing awareness among cities that they as individual actors have a vast greenfield of common ground. This terrain is rich in possibilities for cooperative action on many issues of national and global significance. National actions on global issues have proven to be sluggish and disappointing. Meanwhile, cities have made steady progress on a dozen fronts, some modest, others promising. Hundreds of cities have taken comprehensive action on climate change. Many have found novel ways to handle immigration, to set up first lines of defense to prevention of epidemic diseases, to strengthen resilience, and to a lesser extent, to fight poverty and preserve cultural assets. Sooner or later these small bricks will pile up to a more significant edifice of change. In all these flavors of smartness, private industry has shown an eagerness to enter these arenas bringing a fresh sense of possibilities and partnerships in cities that are simply not possible at the national level.

Cities have entered a transformative period of smartness in many flavors. They have shown us that city-to-city learning is alive with possibilities. City-to-city exchange leads to improved learning as well as to smart technologies that can revolutionize the relationships between center and periphery at every scale. Perhaps most intriguing, a new dawning has arrived as cities become cognizant of the benefits of cooperation with each other on problems of global goods.
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*Beyond Smart Cities:  How Cities Network, Learn and Innovate.  London:  Routledge/Earthscan, 2012