Issue 1: December 2011


By Nathan Goode, Partner, Grant Thornton

Suddenly we are all futurologists. Visions of cities of the future abound and all of the UK's major cities are developing strategies to deliver a long term vision for a sustainable city of the future. We don’t all have the same view of what sustainability means, or what a sustainable city looks like, but we think we will know one when we see it.

What policy-makers are wrestling with at the moment is the trade-off between 'internal' and 'external' sustainability. Internal sustainability is about a city's ability to thrive over the long term; external sustainability is about its footprint or its impact on its immediate environment and on the global ecosystem. Or, to put it another way, balancing adaptation (eg targeting low carbon jobs) against mitigation (eg targeting reduction of CO2 emissions by implementing new energy sources). The challenge is that the benefits to citizens of addressing adaptation can be much easier to sell than the benefits of mitigation even if, in the long term, without mitigation we are all doomed.

In a time of economic difficulty, the 'what's in it for me' question is coming to the fore. The policy balance may be shifting towards adaptation (perhaps to the frustration of the climate change scientists) as cities and nations focus more on optimising their own competitive positions than on the collective need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But adaptation is tactical and mitigation is strategic – and any business leader will tell you that you need both.

But the debate around jobs is coming to the fore - programmes and projects need to be seen to be economically meaningful within a recognisable timeframe to be worth pursuing.

This creates challenges for projects aimed at changing the physical attributes of a sustainable city - the infrastructure, the transport systems, the buildings. We know that transforming the city as a place will be a slow process; paybacks are long, investment horizons are short, planning systems are self-protecting, whilst governance and decision making processes are fragmented and multi-layered. Physical change is disruptive, potentially unpopular and takes a long time to translate into economic outcomes.

Digital technology (conceptually, this is being described by policy-makers as 'connectivity') is the joker in the pack. It is volatile, unpredictable and beyond the control of policy-makers. In our Sustainable Cities report, we said that intelligent data and communications networks are "sustainability agnostic" – neither inherently a force for good or evil, but dependent on how we make use of them and how the delivery agenda is controlled.

Digital technology (conceptually, this is being described by policy-makers as "connectivity") is the joker in the pack. It is volatile, unpredictable and beyond the control of policy-makers.

Technology replacement cycles are accelerating. Greater pressure is being placed on energy use and primary materials, including rare elements. At the same time both the quality and quantity of information available open up possibilities that would have been inconceivable a decade ago. Technological change in the fields of data and communications is happening at a rate that makes a mockery of our ponderous and carefully structured decision-making processes. It will continue to transform the lives of citizens, regardless of whether it is orientated towards delivering sustainable outcomes. The only question is whether this technological change can or should be managed in a way that orientates it towards supporting long term sustainability – both 'internal' and 'external'. Used effectively, digital technology can be the invisible thread that ties these two elements together.

What could all this look like? There are some really exciting themes where digital technology can really make a difference to the low carbon agenda. Here are a few thoughts:

Transport – genuinely integrated multi-modal provision and ticketing. A 'smart card' for every available form of transport in the city, for example, including bikes, taxis, buses etc. Project delivery – 'open source' provision of goods and services to deliver energy efficiency measures to citizens. Business growth services – a platform of digital tools and services to support clusters of growth companies. Communities – engagement is a critical element of successful implementation; give communities the tools to build their own projects and programmes.

The big challenge for government at all levels is that this is not a centrally planned, centrally managed model. It is open-source, unpredictable and self-regulating. It requires facilitators and leaders, not directors and managers. Is the public sector up for the challenge?

By Nathan Goode, Partner, Grant Thornton

Issue 1: December 2011


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