With massive urbanization, how do we accelerate the transition to inclusive and post-carbon cities?

July 19th, 2017
Alliances for Cities in Transition - ©Arton6714 - JPierre Frapolli

The cities of today face unprecedented challenges. Rural exodus and urbanization, coupled with environmental issues such as climate change, are highlighting air quality, congestion, failing infrastructure, general wellbeing, loss of social relationship and poverty as the greatest challenges for the 21st century. To achieve carbon neutrality while ensuring the inclusion and empowerment of all citizens, new cities models are to be found.

Building the sustainable, inclusive and resilient cities of tomorrow is no easy task. Firstly, there is a multiplicity of stakeholders. “Transitioning to new city models will not be achieved without the mobilization of all the actors: the civil society, the citizens, the public and the private sector, investors, researchers…” Benedicte Faivre-Tavignot (H.88), Executive Director of the HEC Society and Organization Center, explains. The convergence of all these different actors implies new collaborations, new business and governance models. Secondly, “when it comes to cities, everything is deeply interconnected: health, employment, transportation, food, environment… hence the need to develop a holistic approach to the subject,” Lise Penillard (H.09) Executive Director of the MSc in Sustainability and Social Innovation at HEC Paris, adds.

Building Smart Cities

Masdar City - Cities in Transition article

As Bertrand Moingeon, Professor at HEC Paris and Executive Director of HEC Indian Ocean, Eastern & Southern Africa Office, points, some so-called “smart cities”, such as the new city of Masdar in Abu-Dhabi are, practically, more technologic showrooms (with a few prototype personal rapid transit systems, a photovoltaïc farm project, etc.) than real places to live. A “true” smart city (see box) should, in contrast, contribute to improving its citizens’ lives.

That is the case, for instance, for Barcelona, which has launched many useful initiatives for its inhabitants, or Fort d’Issy, a pilot project in France for energy optimization at the neighborhood level at Issy-les-Moulineaux, with an overall scope of 2,000 apartments, 5,000 residents, 10,000 employees and 1.7 million square meters of office space. A customer satisfaction survey showed that 95% of its inhabitants are happy to live in an eco-neighborhood, 67% consider that integrated domotic systems simplify their everyday life, and 70% have realized savings compared to their former housing. “Developing these kind of cities – brand new or retrofitted - requires teamwork across industries and areas of expertise at a level rarely seen in the history of business, government, or real estate development. Figuring out how to create a sensor-laden, data-driven, sustainable development requires big-thinking experts from multiple sectors to work together to break new ground – literally, as well as figuratively. City innovation starts with the imagination and drive to envision radical new possibilities, which must take shape in a complex social context – overcoming countless technical, social, and political hurdles,” Bertrand Moingeon explains.  One important question, though: what or who will give the necessary impulsion to lay the basis of these cities of tomorrow? Should it come from the citizens, the governments, the corporate world?

The Transition Movement in Action

The Transition Movement, founded by Rob Hopkins, has taken the bottom-up approach: initiatives come from the communities. “We believe that they have the power to reimagine and rebuild things. Governments can do a lot but not everything. There are some things we can do faster with more impact if we work at a local scale. One of the big shifts from previous approaches is that we give communities a lot of tools and resources to shift their thinking to create a new economy that really works for everybody,” he explains. “We started Transition eleven years ago in the small town of Totnes – and it has now spread to fifty countries and thousands of places in the world. Our approach is to imagine a new economic story at the local scale, enabling the communities to own their sites – land, building, etc. – so that they invest in their development. In Totnes we have a community energy company, two community projects for housing, food projects, incubated new businesses, and an interesting web of businesses that support together.” Do big businesses have a role to play in this model? “Some of them, such as Exxon, have obviously no place in Transition. Some others launch interesting initiatives to change their model to meet COP 21 objectives on climate change. But most of them do not consider how to embed their activities in the place they operate. For instance, they have corporate responsibility programs that allow them to build schools in Kenya – this is fantastic, but what about putting more effort in the local?

In Paris, big corporations such as collective catering could have the power to change a lot of things – imagine they began to source their food locally... Or if their brilliant experts and marketing people were working on topics like local currencies. If big companies were able to change, their staff would certainly be more engaged and pleased to work for them. Google allows its employees to spend 20% of their time developing their own project – what if they devoted it to support local communities?” Rob asks. “Transition has a lot of potential. Actually, here in the UK, community energy projects and companies have already raised 23 million pounds of investment from their local communities and we count 2.5 million pounds of local currencies,” he underlines.

The Third Industrial Revolution in Luxembourg 

The impulsion can also come from the top and spread to the bottom. Inspired by Jeremy Rifkin’s Third Industrial Revolution, Luxembourg thus works to move toward a post-carbon, connected and sustainable economic model, under the initiative of its ministry of economy, its Chamber of Commerce, and IMS Luxembourg, a network of organizations committed to Corporate Social Responsibility. Last November, Luxembourg Government Council issued a strategic diagnosis and adopted nine measures designed to accelerate the transformation. They follow the traditional pillars of Third Industrial Revolution (energy, mobility, building) but also include Luxembourg specificities: a roadmap for sustainable food production, a sustainable development finance platform, and more. “We have a collaborative systemic approach. All stakeholders (end users, companies, etc.) were invited to participate in the work groups we organized on each pillar.

For instance, on the mobility subject, we discussed with architects, town-planners, and citizens to define our proposals,” Marie Sauvignon (H.00), Sustainability Practice Leader, IMS Luxembourg, explains. At this point, it is too soon to see the results of this experience, but it appears especially interesting to all observers because Luxembourg has the size of a big city but is a country, and thus controls a whole legislative arsenal, with a full capacity of action: “Luxembourg is the first country to make a national action plan,” she explains. Because, in the end, cities in transition should not remain isolated – on the contrary, they should be open and linked together, to create a coherent network, as Bertrand Moingeon, who studied the case of smart cities in Mauritius, notes. “If not the case, there is a risk that these cities increase the gaps and reinforce inequalities within a territory. So cities in transition is also a real challenge at a national level” he concludes.