The battle for sustainable cities

Although occupying only 2% of the Earth’s land surface, cities account for more than 60% of global energy consumption and 75% of carbon emissions. Over 3.5bn people are city dwellers today, and by 2050 that number is projected to almost double. With figures like these, it’s not a stretch to say that our battle for a sustainable future will be won or lost in our cities.

So how do we win that battle? Early in 2012 we started exploring this very question in Citystates: How Cities are Vital to the Future of Sustainability, and last week I had the opportunity to chair a panel on the subject at Convergence Paris. Joining me were two people with a lot of experience in this area: Peter Madden from Catapult Future Cities, and Sterling Hughes from Silver Spring Networks.

What emerged from our discussion is that there are two big barriers to transforming our cities. Firstly, city governments are generally not structured in a way that enables joined-up decision making, so it’s hard for companies to sell city-wide solutions. Secondly, there is often not enough hard evidence concerning the cost/benefit of particular solutions, so it’s hard for city governments to build a compelling business case for investing in them.

My fellow panelists described how their organisations are taking different but complementary approaches to overcoming these barriers.

Peter Madden reported that Catapult Future Cities has been set up to offer a ‘neutral space’ for UK companies, city governments and academics to devise and pilot new initiatives together. The aim is to foster the innovation and relationships necessary to get ideas off the ground, with all constituents invested in developing a business case through experimentation.

Sterling Hughes described how Silver Spring Networks has built a city-wide wireless network technology, to serve as a communications platform upon which multiple ‘smart services’ can be deployed. What makes this compelling is the business case: 40% of a city’s energy bill is spent on street lighting, and Silver Spring’s intelligent lighting control system can reduce that by at least a third. Such savings quickly pay for the core platform to be deployed, and then additional smart services, such as electric vehicle charging, become much more viable.

As I reflected on our discussion, and the many compelling but isolated success stories reported by other speakers, I was reminded of a William Gibson line: “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” If we can solve that distribution challenge – by finding ways to scale isolated but proven solutions rapidly across the world’s cities – we may yet win our battle for a sustainable future.

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