Cities have a unique role in sustainability where leadership requires a combination of business, policy, civil society, and citizenry, all working towards goals that benefit all stakeholders. Leadership in cities must benefit all, and the first step to cultivate leadership and working towards common goals is transparency and creating a dialogue. But are these enough to promote change in the world's cities?
There have been several pioneering cities that have adopted transparency through sustainability reporting in recent years. Several have produced sustainability reports over the past few years, such as Amsterdam, Atlanta, Chicago, Dublin, Melbourne, Warsaw, and many others around the world. While reporting on sustainability is important, getting access to an adequate amount and quality of information has been extremely difficult. Much like sustainable value chains, it has been challenging for cities to leverage company-level sustainability information to help drive policy, and their city sustainability reports often reflect a future-oriented commitment based on policies and guidelines, rather than hard data from companies.
This has been due to three primary barriers. First, reporting and disclosure is often not leveraged by companies (especially smaller ones), and even when the disclosure is available, it's available in static reports where the data cannot be easily extracted. So cities have been left to build their own assessments based on more generalized data, questionnaires, surveys, and algorithms. Lastly, cities (much like companies) have treated company-level sustainability disclosures as an accounting problem rather than a data problem, leading to a complicated and expensive exercise that looks to the past and inhibits innovation rather than enabling it.
In addition to getting access to the right data, promoting dialogue is equally important. There are several active networks such as ICLEI, C40, and others that create forums where cities to learn and share best practices, trends in sustainanabilty, and galvanize efforts that require cities to act as a group. So we are off to a very good start, but more must be done. Cities are like nodes in a network, where activities within the cities are amplified throughout the larger network. So leadership is the currency of sustainable innovation in the world's cities. If the role of a city is to lead, then we must start with a different kind of leadership in disclosure - using a data-driven, bottom-up approach, rather than a top-down policy-led approach. Start with ensuring disclosure, then focus on the data.
Ron Conway, the renowned (and somewhat controversial) investor and philanthropist once said "Technology does more than delight, entertain, and make our lives more convenient; it's also an agent for social good." I couldn't agree more, and cities should learn leverage the economies of scale that shared sustainability frameworks and standards provide. These are useful because they standardize the data being produced, so solutions can be built on top of them to collect, integrate, and learn from this data. Technology is the indispensable tool that is required to make all of this work.
Rather than reporting on a city or program level, cities should lead by promoting disclosure at the company level, and leveraging technology to aggregate the information to make it available to the public. While it's important to choose the right standard, it's much more important that all companies are using the same reporting standards to ensure comparability so the data can be aggregated and analyzed. Once you have the information, you need to be able to manage it - to aggregate and analyze the information in a coherent, shareable way. This doesn't mean using spreadsheets - this means utilizing data-driven solutions that requires technology to provide insight beyond the sustainability practitioner. Otherwise, you are only "preaching to the choir" and the learning from your city's data will not be transferred to your city's leadership, let alone to your citizenry or to other cities. And without learning, there is no progress.
Embrace the bottom-up, data-driven approach to sustainability to build more prosperous, innovative cities. Rather than creating new sustainability programs, focus on using sustainability data - derived from tried-and-true standards and global frameworks - to develop new programs informed by trusted sustainability data. Don't strive to be a "sustainable city", be a successful city because you incorporate sustainability information into all your policies, lead by promoting disclosure in your stakeholders, and instill innovation by your approach to shared information. This shouldn't be about chasing yet another sustainability label or award, it should be about creating a better city based on shared values, and shared value.
So let's stop trying to build "sustainable cities" and start building successful cities instead, by using sustainability data just like any other information we use to develop policy, inspire constituents, or address stakeholder concerns. Treating sustainability like a special case, silo'd away from the mainstream, will only keep us preaching to ourselves rather than helping our cities - and others - from building a better society and world.
Michael is the former CEO of the Global Reporting Initiative, Carbonetworks, and other sustainability organizations. He has been an advisor and CEO in sustainability for almost 20 years, and writes about technology, sustainability, and social innovation.