Connecting the Dots – Cities and Sustainability

My last post referred to the workshop I attended at Verge DC to discuss the recent Citystates paper from SustainAbility and GreenBiz.

Environment once meant something we went to visit on a weekend hike to a national park. But that type of thinking is counterproductive.  It separates the daily actions of the majority of people, who live in urban environments, from the environment.    This interview with Harvard economist Edward Glaeser addresses why urbanization could be a solution to many intractable sustainability problems:

It is somewhat counterintuitive but all that is leafy is not necessarily green – living around trees and living in low density areas may end being actually quite harmful for the environment, whereas living in high-rise buildings and urban core may end up being quite kind to the environment.”

Citystates captures this tension neatly with the statement “sustainability needs cities as much as cities need sustainability”.   The paper takes a broad look at the city from political, social and operational perspectives and how cities are vital to the future of sustainability.     The report posits seven characteristics or citystates.

Of course my attention jumped to the first of these citystates, the connected city. The combination of networks, sensors and applications creates a host of opportunities for improved environmental efficiency.  But, as the paper points out, it also creates the possibility of social separation if technology replaces too much human interaction.

The November 2011 paper Information MarketPlaces: The New Economics of Cities by The Climate Group takes a deep dive into the many possible solutions that information communications technology can bring to the sustainable city. The Smart cities of this paper are smart in a connected technology sense, but also in the sense that they are driven by the need to tackle long term challenges.

BT offers technical solutions for cities and communities that meet the needs of commercial and government customers and of consumers.   Our sustainability partnership with LOCOG  for the summer Olympics and Paralympic Games has been on the scale of a small city. This case study highlights some of the components of the sustainability angle of our partnership with London 2012.

The foundation is broadband, and super-fast broadband even more so. This report,  just produced for BT shows that the financial benefit alone is hard to resist. For the city of Sunderland, superfast broadband plans already announced could create £296 million in Gross Value Add (GVA) for the city’s economy over 15 years. For London the figure is  £19.8 billion in GVA over the next 15 years.

The world’s cities are not homogenous though, as we show in this BT report Mega-cities that looks at Sao Paulo, Guangzhou, Jakarta and Mumbai. The opportunities and challenges vary widely.

But in all cases, sustainable city based communities, supported by connected technology have the scale and the potential to address some of our greatest sustainability challenges. We just need to find ways to work together with a long term perspective across business, government and citizens.

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