Q&A: Sustainable cities – a modern legend (Part 2)

“Our societies will never be great until our cities are great. There is the decay of the centre and despoiling of the suburbs. There is not enough housing for our people, nor enough transportation for our traffic. Open lands are vanishing and landmarks are being violated… A few years ago we were concerned about the ugly country… Today we must act to prevent an ugly city.”

Lyndon B. Johnson President, USA, 1964.

In Part 1 of our Q&A on sustainable cities, we answered the following questions:

  • What is a sustainable city?
  • How should the public sector, private sector, NGOs and citizenry engage around this?
  • Most often where does the driving force for change come from?
  • What cities have made the most progress?
  • What are the key lessons they have learned?
  • Any particular success stories that highlight this?

TH: How should schools and universities get involved?

JO: Schools:

Schools mark the beginning of making an impression and learning about not only what the world is, but also what it can be. The process of imagination and play that characterizes the early stage of school is a perfect time to introduce the concepts of sustainability and responsibility for one’s surroundings.

Further down the educational journey, a more detailed application of the sustainability principles and choices can be made possible with an eventual aim for preparing students for the movement towards further education or in many cases apprenticeships and straight to work.

View this case study.


Education is key for fostering behavioral change. At the school level, sustainability must run through the entire curriculum syllabus so to reflect the interdisciplinary factors of sustainability, i.e. it is not scientific matter alone, so it would not be taught only in science. At the university level, fostering leadership in sustainability projects would be vital to consolidate their accrued knowledge into action.

It is also a key to identify and support those that are passionate about these areas in all courses, connect them, empower them and harness this using the platform of universities as a safe, secure and trusted place to launch new initiatives from.

TH: Where are the quick wins (low hanging fruits)?

JO: In just one word: efficiency. The quickest wins of a city’s sustainability strategy would be felt by the private sector, as a move to reduce waste, water and energy consumption would involve considerable financial savings. This is partly because the private sector can move faster to implement changes without bureaucracy and when there are clear financial benefits.

Nonetheless, the idea of quick wins can only be taken in the context of a long term commitment and plan, because otherwise any gains will be short lived.

People are obsessed with instant or quick gratification but making a city sustainable can only ever be part of a gradual process. It is important to recognize and evaluate what’s been achieved through the use of reporting, and this is most valuable over a minimum of around a year, which highlights the importance of balancing the immediate with the continuous.

Local authorities would benefit from these long-term savings, particularly in public buildings and through this reduction of costs, there is the potential for stronger investment to the community, another potential virtuous cycle.

TH: Where is there the most resistance from certain stakeholders?

JO: It is usually from those that don’t understand the implications of either acting or not acting sustainability. Adversity in this case is usually born from ignorance or misunderstanding. Sustainability may be used as a political tool but it is also apolitical.

As the Stern report pointed out, not combating climate change will cost far more in the long run than taking steps towards it’s mitigation. This is the same for a city; if you don’t look and prepare ahead then you will be caught unaware when you can’t provide the viable transport, waste management, community housing or jobs for the growth that is inevitably happening.

One of the strongest taboos is that of worldwide unsustainable population growth. Cities are placed at the sharp end of this and will have to plan for situations far beyond current expectations for resources whilst combining an expectation of increased standards of living. In many ways an overpopulation issue is also an unmanaged urbanization matter as well.

In certain respects, those stakeholders that have manifested the greatest resistance have been those that relate sustainability to an anti-corporate and radical discourse.

This is a divisive attitude and breeds conflict with the effect of slowing the process, introducing hyperbole and putting peoples backs up, when all they need do, is concentrate on how sustainability and business can be integrated.

Exponential growth that is the premise of capitalism is fundamentally not sustainable, so there is an objective case to be looked at as to how a city can create a long-term future whilst providing the private sector with incentives to operate.

Basically, sustainability is a logical, desirable and long-term strategy that does not choose political ideologies but seeks practical alternatives and solutions.

TH: In a developing country context, how does one address relative lack of technology?

JO: With the emergence of the BRICS countries and the proliferation of mega cities in developing countries particularly in India and China, there is a huge need and demand for even simple technologies that we take for granted.

However, there is also a massive opportunity for these cities to adopt sustainable and low impact technologies to provide the services and standard of living that is required.

It is worthy to recognize the importance of digital and technological inclusion if sustainability is to be an objective for all. Certainly, there are means to address this and it is vital that we champion those who seek to achieve these initiatives.

Three factors that are of interest to me are: keeping low prices to the procurement of technology as well as the acknowledgement of local needs, micro-finance to explicitly fund technology like EnergyinCommon.org, and the establishment of research centers in these developing contexts to foster knowledge-exchange.

Technology comes in many forms and has thousands of applications, from transport to food supply. The key is to understand the local skills, materials and easily available, low-cost alternatives available rather than importing western or highly engineered solutions (especially when there might not be the skills to repair or maintain the technology).

In many cases, people appropriate and use the technology in ways that were never intended, like 12 car batteries powering an iron lung life support system. Ingenuity is rife in these localities, and it is vital that we take this bottom-up up perspective.

Price points can also be a major obstacle but when things are designed to be low-cost and to satisfy demand, like in the case of the $100 laptop, this is where spectacular change becomes possible.

In terms of knowledge-exchange, knowledge transfer needs to be encouraged and promoted. I am always reminded of the story of Volvo, whose team invented the seatbelt without retaining ownership in order to encourage other car manufacturers to adopt it for free.

In doing so, this has probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives across the world. When a technology is open-sourced, it sidesteps many of the usual barriers to deployment that technology embodies.

An example of this that I’ve been following has been Access:Wind, an organization that aims to provide open-source renewable energy to places in developing regions that are off grid or where conventional fuel is very expensive. They have developed a wind turbine that doesn’t require any imports and designed using in-situ materials.

Conventional turbines need magnets and resins that are expensive and manufactured outside of Africa. In this case, the turbine build needs simple tools and can be built by anyone once they are taught. Access Wind’s mandate is to train people to build these power sources and empower the local community to create and sustain their own energy needs.

The same approach could be applied to inner cities where decentralised and sustainable energy can be a solution to the obstacles of large investment and skills needed to build effective power grids for large amounts of the burgeoning population.

Just like the trend of inner city vegetable growing, the local community could also create and distribute small amounts of energy to combat blackouts and provide new appliances with the necessary energy.  Inevitably as the population grows and the demand surpasses the government’s budget for investment, this would be a solution to affordably raise the standard of living whilst reducing the burden on the municipality service delivery: a win-win situation.